Here we go! The two teams who entered the ALDS as underdogs are set to face one another in the ALCS after sweeping a pair of teams who, on paper, seemed much stronger. Both the Royals and Orioles showcased their respective strengths in the ALDS, and it will be fascinating to see how both teams perform against one another, beginning Friday. In the case of Kansas City speed, defense, and the bullpen ruled the day, while the Orioles counter with a solid bullpen and some pretty powerful bats. Regardless who comes out of the Championship Series as victors, one thing is certain: the upcoming matchup, between two teams promises to be exciting.
Going into the ALDS, the Orioles’ starting rotation had baseball’s eighth-lowest regular-season strikeout rate, sixth-highest walk rate, second-lowest ground ball rate, and sixth-highest home run rate, which translated into a 4.18 FIP — the worst of any playoff team since the 2006 Cardinals. Baltimore’s starters were able to outperform the lag in peripherals by avoiding hits with runners on base and in scoring position. That is, they were able to make the big pitch when it mattered. The question begs, is that a sustainable game plan going into the ALCS?
One particularly interesting facet of the Orioles approach is the ability to slow down the running game. Chris Tillman is among the best in the majors in allowing the fewest steals over 100+ innings, giving up only two stolen bags in 13 attempts this season. On the other hand, Bud Norris has been one of the most frequent stolen-base victims, allowing 31 swipes in 45 attempts from 2013 to 2014. Overall, Baltimore has allowed the 10th-fewest attempts and eighth-fewest steals this season, limiting their opponents, as Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh notes, to -7.7 base-running runs — the AL’s second-lowest total. How this plays out for the leagues top stealing team fails to be seen at the moment.
As was the case against the Athletics and Angels, the Royals will try to shut down the Orioles offense by suppressing home runs, thus leveling the playing field for their brand of small ball. Kansas City has the edge in games started by James Shields and Yordano Ventura. Both front end starters posted a 30.8 FB% in September and October, which plays in Kansas City’s favor since they are slated to start games one, two, five and six, with the bulk of their innings taking place in the historically homer-friendly Oriole Park. The more prolific fly-ball pitchers (Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Danny Duffy) will likely see the bulk of their work at Kauffman Stadium — a facility that has the reputation for being a pitchers park.
When it comes to pitching, Kansas City has a fairly effective formula for success: a starter throws for at least six innings then is followed by Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland for an inning apiece. Brandon Finnegan, Jason Frasor, and Duffy should not be overlooked; all are good options in relief if the back end starters can’t make it past the sixth.
Baltimore has a pretty damn good ‘pen as well. Kevin Gausman is currently the long reliever, while Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton are almost as fearsome as Herrera, Davis, and Holland. They have show the ability to suppress hits and runs in key situations, and it should be assumed they’ll see action if and/or when the Orioles hold a lead (or want to keep the game close) late.
Lindbergh said it best, “these are offenses on opposite ends of the run-scoring spectrum.” While the Orioles led the league in homers, they ranked last in stolen bases. The Royals, on the other hand, led the league in steals yet ranked last in home runs. Power tends to trump speed and contact in the long run, and because of it there will be little to no wiggle room for the Royals pitching staff in their attempt to level to playing field.
The Royals looked impressive in both the Wildcard game and ALDS game-three clincher, scoring nine and eight runs respectively — topping seven runs for the first time since August 17. Although their seven steals in the Wildcard game made the Royals’ speed one of the main story lines of the postseason, Kansas City was surprisingly patient at the plate, not to mention powerful. The Royals hit four home runs in the ALDS and walked 12 times (nearly double their regular-season rate of 2.3 BB/9). A caveat; it fails to be seen whether that influx of power and patience is a fluke.
Whatever the case, Mike Moustakas and Erik Hosmer seem to be on the cusp of a breakout, and none too soon. Moustakas snapped a streak of 113 homeless plate appearances, crushing a walk-off shot in the first game of the ALDS, and hitting another in the third. Hosmer also hit a pair of homers in the ALDS, all this after slashing .321 BA/.379 OBP/.509 SLG since the start of July.
If we’ve learned anything from Rays broadcaster Brian Anderson, it’s the effect aggressive base running has on the psyche of a pitcher. It can be assumed that Kansas City’s speedy base runners will apply the pressure as a means to scratch out runs.
Led by Nelson Cruz, the Orioles also hit four homers in the ALDS… Though that’s fairly rigmarole. Cruz contributed two, giving him 16 postseason homers (extending back five years). He is the only player to have more than nine playoff homers over that span.
Yet, while the top of the order is strong, the bottom three batters can be beaten. It will then be incumbent upon Shields and company to keep any extraneous base runners off the bags — especially those who precede the top of the order. If you subscribe to the idea that the Orioles cannot be stopped from hitting home runs, then KC’s pitchers will have to do their best to limit the damage to solo shots.
Chris Tillman: Norichika Aoki (1-4, 2B), Alcides Escobar (4-11, 2B), Omar Infante (1-2, 2B, RBI), Mike Moustakas (3-8, HR, 2 RBI, BB).
Wei-Yin Chen: Norichika Aoki (2-7), Billy Butler (8-18, 2 2B, 3B, 2 HR, 4 RBI, BB), Lorenzo Cain (4-12), Alcides Escobar (5-17, 2B, RBI), Alex Gordon (5-16, HR, RBI), Eric Hosmer (7-17, 2B, 2 HR, 5 RBI, BB), Mike Moustakas (2-6, 2B, RBI).
Bud Norris: Norichika Aoki (2-8), Billy Butler (2-6, RBI), Alex Gordon (3-6).
Miguel Gonzalez: Norichika Aoki (1-3), Jarrod Dyson (5-6), Salvador Perez (4-9, HR, 2 RBI).
James Shields: JJ Hardy (5-18, 2 2B, 3 BB), Adam Jones (14-46, 5 2B, 3B, HR, 6 RBI, BB), Nick Markakis (21-71, 5 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 11 BB).
Yordano Ventura: Ryan Flaherty (2-6), JJ Hardy (4-6, 2B, BB), Nick Markakis (4-6, BB).
Jason Vargas: Nelson Cruz (10-30, 2 2B, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 7 BB), Ryan Flaherty (2-4), JJ Hardy (4-16, 2B, BB), Delmon Young (7-18, RBI, BB).
Jeremy Guthrie: Nelson Crus (6-24, 2B, 6 RBI, 3 BB), Ryan Flaherty (2-8, BB), Nick Hundley (2-5, 2B, 2 RBI), Nick Markakis (3-12, RBI, BB), Jonathan Schoop (1-3).