Since 2000, only one AL team has won fewer games than the Baltimore Orioles. Think you can guess who that team is? Answer at the bottom of th– nah, just kidding, you know who it is. So here they are in the ALCS, and one will go to the World Series. No team in this century plays like the Royals do, so any matchup will be an odd pairing, but this one in particular pits two teams with different philosophies, different strategies, different offensive approaches, different men at the helm. Except neither team draws any walks. Admit it: That's not the worst thing in the world at a time of the season when games start pushing four hours for no good reason at all. Here's how the showdown shapes up:
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
RF-L Nick Markakis (.276/.342/.386/.271, 2.3)
LF-L Alejandro De Aza (.252/.314/.386/.255, 1.2)
CF-R Adam Jones (.281/.331/.469/.290, 4.0)
DH-R Nelson Cruz (.271/.333/.525/.312, 4.2)
1B-R Steve Pearce (.293/.373/.556/.344, 4.8)
SS-R J.J. Hardy (.268/.309/.372/.255, 2.2)
3B-L Ryan Flaherty (.221/.288/.356/.241, 0.6)
C-R Caleb Joseph (.207/.264/.354/.231, 0.8)
2B-R Jonathan Schoop (.209/.244/.354/.220, -0.6)
SS-R Alcides Escobar (.285/.317/.377/.255, 2.5)
RF-L Norichika Aoki .285/.349/.360/.267, 1.0)
CF-R Lorenzo Cain (.301/.339/.412/.269, 2.9)
1B-L Eric Hosmer (.270/.318/.398/.262, 1.4)
DH-R Billy Butler (.271/.323/.379/.256, 0.0)
LF-L Alex Gordon (.266/.351/.432/.286, 5.5)
C-R Salvador Perez (.260/.289/.403/.251, 1.4)
2B-R Omar Infante (.252/.295/.337/.234, -1.2)
3B-L Mike Moustakas (.212/.271/.361/.233, 1.2)
We wrote before the ALDS that one could claim the Royals, despite finishing near the middle of the pack in runs scored, had the worst offense in the American League, finishing last in the circuit in OPS+ and True Average. One could also argue the opposite: The Royals fare better on the wOBA leaderboards, they add more runs than any other team with their baserunning, and their extreme contact abilities are suited for a team that runs well, stays out of double plays, goes first-to-third, etc. They score more than we'd expect based on their raw stats, but what one analyst might call clusterluck, another might hypothesize is, at least in part, a function of style and skill set. Regardless: It's not a great lineup, and it won't get any boost by platoon switches, as the Royals haven't used any lineup other than the one you see above since mid-September.
So how did that poor offense beat a very heavy Angels lineup? There are two answers there. One is that the Royals' hitters were merely along for the ride; they hit .198/.275/.349 against one of the worst postseason rotations in recent memory. Granted, that slash line also features extended exposure to a very good Angels bullpen, but the point holds: The Royals didn't outslug anybody. Very little slugging occurred.
The other answer is that the Royals did what they couldn't do in the regular season: Hit a few home runs. Not a ton, but four, in three games, compared to about four a week in the regular months. More importantly, those home runs came at ridiculously important times, carrying an average win probability added of 24 percent; in the regular season, the average Royals longball spiked their win chances by about 15 percent. So the Royals did something they weren't generally good at doing in a sample 50 times larger; and they did it at the most fortuitous times possible. All to say, for the talk we'll hear about Moustakas and Hosmer finally blooming, the Royals offense remains unlikely to win any ESPYs this year.
The Orioles rank near the top of the league's offenses, even adjusted for their favorable home ballpark. It's a slug-heavy lineup with a below-average on-base percentage–the Orioles hit more home runs with the bases empty than the Royals hit home runs–and three regulars missing: Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters. To be sure, the Orioles would rather have those three in the lineup, and the soft, squishy bottom of the order reflects their absence. But Wieters went down in mid-May, Machado in mid-August, and Davis in mid-September; the Orioles nonetheless were about as good in September as they were in any other month, and about as good in the second half as any other AL team.
The Royals' staff in particular might fear this lineup. Baltimore was a middle-of-the-pack offense against power pitchers, defined (by Baseball-Reference) as pitchers who collect the most strikeouts and walks, but at the top of the AL against "finesse" pitchers. Unless Danny Duffy is back in the rotation for this series, the Royals will throw at least two of the latter, in Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie.
One other aspect of the offensive contrast: The gap in basestealing is hysterical. The Orioles' team leader this year stole eight. The Royals nearly matched that in the Wild Card game. Counting the postseason, seven Royals have stolen nine or more this year.
DH-R Delmon Young (.302/.337/.442/.287, 1.0)
C-R Nick Hundley (.243/.273/.358/.243, 0.4)
OF-L Quintin Berry (.000/.000/.000/-.006, 0.0)
OF-L David Lough (.247/.309/.385/.264, 1.4)
INF-L Kelly Johnson (.215/.296/.362/.249, -0.1)
UT-R Christian Colon (.333/.375/.489/.317)
OF-R Josh Willingham (.215/.346/.397/.275)
OF-L Jarrod Dyson (.269/.324/.327/.242)
PR-R Terrance Gore (Runs/Really/Friggin/Fast)
C-R Erik Kratz (.218/.243/.391/.219)
Gore, who hit .218/.284/.258 at High-A this year, appeared in all three games of the LDS and stole a base each time, as he did in the Wild Card game; it seems almost inconceivable that he could ever be caught, as he goes early in the count (first pitch twice, second pitch twice) and beats the throws by plenty. His existence allows the Royals to use Jarrod Dyson as a defensive replacement before a pinch-runner is needed. For the sake of a thought experiment, let's take B-Ref's measures at face value, unregressed. A Gordon/Dyson/Cain outfield is more than 40 runs better than a Gordon/Cain/Aoki alignment over the course of 135 games. If Dyson comes in at the seventh inning and the game doesn't go extras, the Royals' run prevention improves by about a tenth of a run per game. That's about as far as Yost trusts his bench: Willingham batted once, Colon never appeared, and Sal Perez stayed in the game after taking a bat to the head midway through Game Two. It's a Royals lineup that is almost never subbed for other than for speed and defense purposes; with 51 pinch-hit appearances, they were dead last in the majors, by a whopping 26 fewer than the 29th team. The Orioles will use lefty relievers in the eighth and ninth, though, so Willingham is likely to get a high-leverage hack or two.
The Orioles used every benchmember in the ALDS except Berry, their designated speedman—still a perfect 30-for-30 on big-league SB attempts! [Update: As noted below, infielder Jimmy Paredes, not Berry, was on the LDS roster and didn't play. We'll see if the Orioles stick to that.] Young and Hundley each started games in the LDS. Young, as is becoming a pattern–he has as many postseason home runs as Barry Bonds did, in far fewer plate appearances–hit the ball hard, drove in some runs, and almost certainly earned himself starts against the lefty Jason Vargas, at least. He started four games in the outfield in September, so it won't automatically be as a DH. Buck Showalter says he doesn't believe in personal catchers, but don't tell Caleb Joseph that; he almost never catches Chris Tillman anymore. Overall, though, Hundley gets about 40 percent of the starts, and doesn't have the throwing arm to earn more against those punk Royals basethieves. Johnson hits just enough to bat for a catcher late in the game. Lough will play two or three innings of defense anytime Young starts, and could come off the bench against Wade Davis, who held righties to a .112/.170/.128 line this year. The Orioles don't have the bench deficiencies that the Angels did, but they'll be at a small disadvantage to the more utile Royals in late innings.
The Royals move from three-man walking dead of the Angels rotation to the Orioles staff, which R.J. Anderson wrote this summer is one of the worst four-man crews in recent postseason history. That's based on their 2014 numbers, which you can see above, but what does PECOTA think their true talent levels are?
- Tillman: 4.17 ERA
- Chen: 3.96 ERA
- Gonzalez: 4.02 ERA
- Norris: 4.54 ERA
Not helpful! If there's any promise here, it's that the Orioles allow a lot of home runs (but the Royals don't hit them) and they walk a lot of batters (but the Royals don't draw them) and they allow a lot of balls in play, which is the Royals' game–but which is also the Orioles' game, having converted the third-best ratio of balls in play into outs. But that's more something for the defense section below.
The Royals get to reset their rotation and put James Shields back at the top. Shields has allowed three homers in his two starts, and of the three true outcomes that has traditionally been his weakness, so even if he's pitching well the Royals will hold breath a bit against this Baltimore lineup in that Baltimore park. The fatigue watch will continue with Ventura, who is now coming up on 40 innings more than his career high. As far as concerns go, this one's a stretch; he threw a pitch 103 mph against the Angels, went seven innings, and walked only one batter, after struggling with wildness a bit in the second half. Reasons to be wary of Guthrie and Vargas were already noted in the hitting section, but what are you gonna do? Danny Duffy's role is still to be determined, and without really understanding why he's been bumped from the rotation in the first place (fatigue? tenderness? or just a radical tactical move?) it's hard to say what the right move is there. At the very least, it appears likely that Ventura, not Vargas, will start Game Two in Baltimore, in part because he's the least likely of the group to allow a long fly ball.
Relief Pitchers (ERA, Innings, FIP)
LHP Zach Britton (1.65, 76, 3.16)
RHP Darren O'Day (1.70, 69, 3.35)
LHP Andrew Miller (2.02, 62,1.54)
RHP Tommy Hunter (2.97, 61, 3.18)
LHP Brian Matusz (3.48, 52, 4.03)
RHP Brad Brach (3.18, 62, 3.93)
RHP Kevin Gausman (3.57, 113, 3.44)
RHP Greg Holland (1.44, 62, 1.86)
RHP Wade Davis (1.00, 72, 1.22)
RHP Kelvin Herrera (1.41, 70, 2.72)
RHP Jason Frasor (2.66, 47, 3.31)
LHP Brandon Finnegan (1.29, 7, 0.73)
LHP Tim Collins (3.86, 21, 4.80)
LHP Danny Duffy (2.53, 149, 3.83)
The Orioles had the third-best bullpen ERA in the AL, the Royals the fifth, but in innings seven through nine it's hard to find any teams that have had better trios than these. As you've surely, heard, the Royals' top three–intimidating nickname to be determined–are the first teammates in modern history to post sub-1.5 ERAs. It's not just ERAs, either: If you're interested in contending that Holland has been the AL's best reliever in the past few years, and Davis the league's best in 2014, the FIPs will bolster your case. They combined to go 7 1/3 with one run allowed in the division series, though only Holland (with six Ks in three perfect innings) really looked like his role. Davis was overpowering but regularly missed location, particularly up; dude might've just been too amped. Herrera left Game One with a mild injury but was back for Game Three. Yost seemed to grow more confident with the softer parts of his staff, partly out of necessity (no Herrera, extra innings, can't use closer in a tie game!) and partly because they rewarded him for it. Tim Collins, a lefty with no platoon split who was left off the Wild Card game roster, got to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game. Jason Frasor pitched in the ninth in both of the first two games, and Finnegan worked the seventh in one game and the 10th in another. Together, they and Duffy gave Yost 4 2/3 scoreless innings to complement the work of The Nickname TBD Boys.
Britton's fine and good, but the true shutdown moment in any Orioles game is when Andrew Miller comes in. He'll throw a nearly even split of fastballs and sliders, and neither pitch shows any platoon weakness. Here's a fun one:
Greg Holland, vs RHH: .160/.231/.213
Andrew Miller, vs RHH: .145/.245/.202
Ubaldo Jimenez was on the ALDS roster but didn't pitch; he or Matusz could claim the final spot in the LCS. Neither team is likely to carry an eighth (or even ninth) reliever, as other teams have, so in the case of an extra-innings game, there will be a bit more attention paid to making sure they last until the last out. An 18-inning game with Gausman and Duffy trading zeroes for two hours would rank pretty high on an Octoberness leaderboard.
Both teams have excellent defenses, and I say that acknowledging that Delmon Young has a player's parking pass for this series. By UZR, they rank no. 1 (Royals) and 2. By DRS, they're no. 3 (Orioles) and 4. By defensive efficiency, the Orioles are fourth and the Royals are 10th. Both teams shift a fair amount, though neither has done so this year with much impact. The most crucial distinction between this opponent and the Royals' previous two: The Orioles have a catcher who can stop the run. Caleb Joseph led the American League in caught stealing percentage, and if some large part of that is to the pitchers' credit (Joseph's minor-league CS rate was a still-good but not-as-good 34 percent) then so much the better. Hundley has traditionally been around the league average, but this year his success rate collapsed, partly because of an 0-for-9 in San Diego but also because of a 5-for-27 in Baltimore. The good news there is that Tillman, the guy Hundley gets to catch, is borderline impossible to run on. Basestealers were 1-for-4 this year, and 1-for-9 last year. So: In two games, Tillman will stop the run. In the rest, Joseph should be a step up from the Derek Norrises and Chris Iannettas of the sport.
I'll quote R.J. Anderson's ALDS preview:
Though Showalter has a wealth of regular-season experience, this will mark just his third time managing in the postseason. From a managerial greed perspective, Showalter is as selfless as they come. He doesn't hit-and-run, nor will he call for a stolen-base attempt unless it's a special circumstance. He will bunt, and, like Ausmus, he did finish top-10 in the majors in pinch-runner usage. But, for the most part, Showalter stays out of his team's way and lets them do what they will.
As for Yost, does the hot hand theory apply to managing? He has been scolded for a number of moves in September and October, some one-off decisions (Shields/Ventura), some traditional and persistent (no closer in ties on the road), some reflecting his own personal views of the sport and his team (bunts, bunting, bunting bunts). But, to update my own ALDS preview, "they sacrifice bunt some, but not as much as the facepalming in your feed will suggest; they were just seventh in the AL in sacrifices, trailing the saber-cred regimes in Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Rather, they’ll take the stolen base when they can, stealing (109) more bases than the (Orioles)—while getting caught (just 16 more) times."
Any discussion about the Royals bumps up against their lousy third-order record; while, with the Orioles, we have the fact that a third of the starting lineup is unavailable, meaning the team we've been analyzing all year just doesn't exist anymore. PECOTA likes the Orioles as 52 percent favorites in the opener, which means they get slightly less favorage than home-field advantage alone would bestow. This is an extremely close matchup, and in an extremely close matchup you could say any number of details will tilt close games in the eighth: The superior lefty/righty balance in Baltimore's bullpen, or the Royals' outfield defensive net, or Buck Showalter's superiority over men born of woman, or Terrance Gore, or homers, or perhaps dingers. If forced, we'll take Showalter + Tactical Bullpen instead of Yost + Tactical Bench, and pick the Orioles.