October Royals: SF to meet kings of AL
Ten things to know about Kansas City, which enters World Series 8-0 this postseason
To the Giants and their fans, we offer both a heartfelt congratulations on ascending to the World Series for the third time in five seasons and a few words of warning:
Beware the Royals.
Granted, not many people were saying that going into October. And come to think of it, not many people were saying that about the Giants, either. These are two Wild Card clubs that have greatly exceeded postseason expectations, and they should make for a great Fall Classic pairing.
But because the San Francisco faithful have been preoccupied with other matters the last few weeks, we thought it might be beneficial to provide a refresher on the Royals and how they got to this stage for the first time since 1985.
Here are 10 things to know about your upcoming opponent:
1. They've forgotten how to lose
Well, this is the most obvious one. Eight straight victories to open this postseason. No team has ever done that. So much of baseball, when it comes to in-game execution and mental acuity, ultimately comes down to confidence. And while the Giants are certainly riding high right about now, the Royals' current confidence level is awfully difficult to match.
"We're playing like nothing else matters," said fourth outfielder, pinch-runner and resident quote machine Jarrod Dyson. "Everybody was doubting us. If somebody doubted you to do something, you're going to try to prove them wrong, right? And you hope they keep doubting you."
So there's the first lesson: Don't doubt them.
2. They don't beat themselves
Hey, remember when Cardinals reliever Randy Choate's wild throw brought home the winning run in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series? Or when first baseman Matt Adams made those two terrible throws in Game 4? Good times for the Giants, right?
Well, hope you enjoyed them for all they were worth, because it's doubtful the Royals are going to commit such debilitating gaffes.
It has become an increasingly popular opinion to state that the Royals have the best defense in baseball. ("Plus defenders all over the field," an NL scout said.) And the work outfield coach Rusty Kuntz and infield coach Mike Jirschele put into properly positioning these guys for each specific situation has drawn raves. The single biggest separator in the American League Championship Series sweep of the O's was the massive highlight reel of great plays they made, from Lorenzo Cain sprinting and diving around the outfield grass to Alex Gordon crashing against the wall to Mike Moustakas making that amazing over-the-rail grab of an Adam Jones popup.
Moustakas, in fact, illustrates the organizational emphasis on "D" better than anybody. He was billed as a middle-of-the-pack defensive project, at best, when the Royals drafted him in 2007, but the work he put in with Jirschele (then a Minor League manager) in Triple-A has made him a reliable glove in a lineup loaded with them.
The underrated guy in all of this might be second baseman Omar Infante, who is playing with a bum shoulder but continues to make great plays up the middle.
"He made three or four plays in the LCS that most guys don't make," the scout said.
3. Speed, man. Speed
Nobody has it quite like these Royals have it. You know a team has a lot of speed if it can routinely pinch-run for Nori Aoki, a guy who has stolen 67 bases over the last three seasons.
Say this for the O's in that LCS sweep: They at least limited the Royals' runners to a single stolen base in three attempts (Dyson was thrown out twice). The emphasis Buck Showalter placed all year on his pitchers holding runners and being quick to the plate paid off, as did the unique positioning of first baseman Steve Pearce, who would actually stray off the bag (sometimes impacting the runner's view of the mound) during the "holding" process.
"People have a tendency to deride Buck and his strategy and extreme decisions," the scout said, "but that was a tactic that seemed to work."
The O's were one of the better teams in the AL at limiting steals, while the Giants were more middle of the pack in the NL (their 107 steals allowed ranked seventh), so we'll see how this dynamic ultimately affects the Series. But the Royals will definitely be looking to run.
4. If they've got a lead going into the seventh, say your prayers
Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland have rightfully been called a "nine-out closer." Between the regular and postseason, they have combined for a ridiculous 1.25 ERA with a .176 average against in 230 innings pitched. (Davis, famously, has yet to allow a home run this year). And even though all three are right-handed, they all match up well against both sides.
"You can put nine lefties in a row in the seventh, eighth and ninth," the scout said, "and they're still going to roll those guys at you."
So, you know, good luck with that.
5. They put the ball in play, plain and simple
They did so in 74 percent of their plate appearances in the regular season, the highest such percentage in baseball (the Giants, for the record, were in a six-way tie for fourth, at 69 percent).
What we saw in the LCS was the value of that trait on the postseason stage, as it not only put the Royals in better position to utilize their speed on the basepaths, but it also tested the opposition's defense and turned some bloops and dribblers into big innings. They scored their only two runs of Game 4 in the first inning, without hitting a single ball out of the infield. The Royals don't walk much (their walk rate was the worst in baseball), but, like the Giants, they haven't struck out much this postseason, either. In fact, the Royals led all of baseball by striking out once every 6.15 plate appearances in the regular season.
"We'd love to have everybody with a .360-plus on-base percentage and big-time power, but that's not how we're built," general manager Dayton Moore said. "You've got to know your approach and the importance of making contact in those important situations."
This could -- maybe even should -- have an impact on how Giants pitchers approach them.
"You've got to find a way to beat these guys out of the zone," the scout said. "You can't get ahead of them by throwing fastballs down the middle. Even the corners might not be enough. You might have to pitch them off the edges to see if they'll chase."
And the other reason you have to be careful in the zone with the Royals right now is...
6. They are suddenly very homer-happy
For further evidence that October is a season unto itself, consider this: The Royals went, on average, 58.4 at-bats between homers, by far the worst mark in the Majors. But in the postseason, they've gone deep once every 35.3 at-bats (the Giants, by comparison, have hit one out every 72.2 at-bats).
So forget the regular-season stats, and for that matter, forget that both of the ballparks in this World Series have a tendency to suppress power. The Royals are a legitimate long-ball threat at the moment, because Moustakas (four homers) and Eric Hosmer (two homers) have found their power strokes at just the right time. Heck, even Alcides Escobar hit one out in the ALCS.
7. They're unselfish
The Royals and Giants have both showed a bent toward bunting this postseason, with seven sacrifices apiece. For the Royals, the approach is not specific to any particular part of the batting order.
In Game 3 against the O's, for instance, Moustakas, their biggest power threat, put one down to advance what turned out to be the winning run. In the first inning of Game 4, Lorenzo Cain, their No. 3 hitter, did the same. So you see the unselfishness offensively, and you see it defensively when a guy like Gordon risks his body by crashing into the outfield wall in pursuit of a fly ball.
"This is a team on a mission," the scout said. "This is a team that's playing for things bigger than their next contract or name on the back of their jersey."
8. Their greatest source of vulnerability right now might actually be the rotation
Solid starting pitching has been a strength for the Royals this season, but staff ace James Shields (5.63 ERA) has struggled in the postseason, No. 2 man Yordano Ventura showed diminished velocity and left his ALCS start with shoulder tightness, and the Royals have had to be careful enough with Danny Duffy's innings that he has been kept out of the rotation altogether this October.
That's put a lot more onus on veterans Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie. They've both been excellent so far this postseason, though neither has pitched past the sixth inning (and with that bullpen, they haven't needed to).
9. It's quite possible we've sold their manager short
The Giants have Bruce Bochy, who might be punching his ticket to Cooperstown with the NL dynasty he's helped put together in San Francisco. Royals manager Ned Yost, on the other hand, is a heavy target for criticism, even by the usual managerial standards. Because he got fired from a Brewers club 12 games from the finish line and in the thick of the playoff chase in 2008, there is a sort of stigma attached to his name. And his in-game moves with his bullpen and bunting are often scrutinized.
But you can't argue with the results this October, nor can you dismiss the respect these young players have for him for sticking with them and for putting them in position to get the best out of their abilities. And if it's possible for a manager to get on a strategic "hot streak," Yost is absolutely in the zone right now.
10. They'll have a long layoff before the Series
And of course, so will the Giants. But if you think the particularly lengthy 145-hour rest period between actual, in-game action will matter for the Royals, history insists otherwise. Five of the eight clubs who had a five-day break going into the World Series nevertheless went on to win it, including four of the most recent five.
The Giants can be heartened by the fact that, of those recent five, the only club to lose was the 2012 Tigers -- against the Giants. But again, for a Royals team that relies so heavily on the back end of the bullpen, this little rest from the rigors of regular work might be a blessing.