The Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles will face off in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night, pitting two exciting teams and two tortured fanbases against each other in a matchup that should be quite fun to watch.
The Royals have had a postseason for the ages so far, battling back from a deficit to defeat the favored Oakland A’s in the AL Wild Card Game, then sweeping the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series. Kansas City’s success has come on the back of good starting pitching, outstanding defense, gutsy baserunning and well-timed power, and it is playing like a loose team with nothing to lose.
Yet in the Baltimore Orioles, it faces a unique threat. The O’s may lack for star power, Adam Jones aside, but they’re a very well-rounded club. They lack an ace but feature several solid starters. Their bullpen is unheralded but deadly, and their lineup is stacked with hitters who can take pitchers deep at any time.
If the Royals are to be successful and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1985, they’ll need to stay within their own strengths while mitigating Baltimore’s power. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three keys for the Royals in the ALCS.
1) Keep the Running Game Going
Owning the basepaths has been a huge part of the Royals’ postseason success so far in 2014, and it was a significant weapon for them during the regular season, too. They’re 12-for-13 in stolen base attempts in October, and they finished first in steals during the year.
The Royals feature many lineup mainstays who can run, such as Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Norichika Aoki and Alex Gordon. Plus, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore are truly terrifying as pinch runners.
Yet in the ALCS, Kansas City will face a bigger challenge when it comes to running than it did against the Athletics or the Angels. In total, Baltimore allowed the eighth-fewest stolen bases (84) in baseball during the regular season and the fourth fewest in the American League, per The Baltimore Sun’s Eduardo A. Encina. The team would’ve ranked even higher were it not for Ubaldo Jimenez (19 steals allowed), who doesn’t figure to see much time in the ALCS.
As ESPN Insider Buster Olney (subscription required) pointed out on Wednesday, the Orioles already have some pieces in place for shutting down the Royals on the basepaths.
Catcher Caleb Joseph has a strong arm and threw out 23 of 57 would-be base-stealers during the regular season, good for a 40.4 caught stealing percentage (CS%), according to ESPN.com.
Starters Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen are excellent when it comes to holding runners on, having given up just 11 stolen bases between the two of them over the past two seasons.
And manager Buck Showalter is keenly aware of the challenge that the O’s face in Kansas City’s running game, as Encina noted in his piece. It will be fascinating to see what steps he takes to mitigate the Royals’ running success, because manufacturing runs is a big part of how Kansas City wins games.
2) Don’t Count on Late-Inning Comebacks
Much has been made about the Royals’ vaunted bullpen, and with all of their explosive arms and regular-season success, it’s not hard to see why. The Royals finished with the 10th-best bullpen ERA (3.30) of any team in the regular season and tied for first in fWAR at 5.9, according to FanGraphs.
But the Orioles have an excellent group of relievers, too, finishing sixth in bullpen ERA at 3.10 and tied for fifth in fWAR at 4.6. They may feature fewer prominent names in the ‘pen, but the quartet of Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day, Andrew Miller and Zach Britton is daunting nonetheless.
Yet it’s not so much Hunter and O’Day that the Royals should fear as Miller and Britton, and the reasoning there is simple: Baltimore’s setup/closer duo is death to left-handed hitters.
Miller, acquired from the Boston Red Sox midseason, held left-handed hitters to a .163/.206/.261 line in 92 at-bats in 2014, striking out more than half (48) of the southpaws he faced. Britton kept lefties to a .170/.215/.170 line and struck out 22 of the 88 lefties he faced.
For a Kansas City lineup that features Aoki, Eric Hosmer, Gordon and Mike Moustakas most days, that means late-inning heroics should be hard to come by.
Sure, the Royals have some weapons. Josh Willingham is a decent right-handed bench bat, and Billy Butler, Sal Perez and Cain serve as right-handed threats. But if Showalter can let O’Day and Hunter neutralize them and leave the core of the Royals lineup to his Miller/Britton one-two punch, it’s going to be tough for the Royals to score late.
3) Lean on the Relievers
The Royals have a strong trio of starting pitchers to rely on in James Shields, Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas, and they could have a killer No. 4 starter in Danny Duffy as well. They very well could be capable of putting the Royals on their backs and carrying this team to an ALCS win.
But one of the great strengths of this Royals team is its bullpen, and manager Ned Yost can’t be gun-shy when it comes to using all of the weapons at his disposal.
The Orioles are a very good offensive team. They scored the eighth-most runs during the regular season at 705—54 more than the Royals—and finished first in the league in homers with 211. They feature some fearsome power hitters in the likes of Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones and have lots of secondary pieces who can take pitchers deep, such as Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy, Steve Pearce and Nick Markakis.
Yet just as the Royals may be hard-pressed to score against Baltimore’s bullpen lefties late in games, the Orioles could have a very difficult time facing Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Markakis, Alejandro De Aza and Ryan Flaherty are Baltimore’s only left-handed regulars, and that leaves them susceptible to the Royals’ three-headed right-handed relieving monster.
Herrera held right-handers to a .186/.276/.233 line in 147 plate appearances in 2014, giving up just 24 hits and no homers in that span. Davis kept righties down at .112/.170/.128, striking out 57 of the 135 right-handed PA he pitched. And Holland was similarly dominating, keeping right-handers to .160/.231/.213 in 104 PA with 47 strikeouts.
The Royals are well poised to eliminate Baltimore’s greatest threat, right-handed power, and can eliminate the O’s few left-handers with Brandon Finnegan, too.
Ned Yost got a lot of flack for lifting Shields in favor of Ventura in the Royals’ Wild Card Game against the Athletics, and it’s fair to say that Ventura was a questionable weapon to use at that moment. But Yost shouldn’t shy away from going to his excellent bullpen early and often in the ALCS, because the depleted Orioles lineup may very well be unable to counter.