5 matchups that could define World Series
Mets, Royals present contrasting styles in intriguing Fall Classic
KANSAS CITY -- This World Series, which begins Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. game time) presents a fascinating contrast of defining characteristics -- the Mets' power starting staff and power bats vs. a Royals team that relies heavily on high-contact rates, strong defense and a deep bullpen.
Within that comprehensive contrast are the many matchups that make up a ballgame. And though nobody's smart enough to identify where a game or a Series will be decided in advance, these are five matchups that look like they'll loom large in this Fall Classic.
1. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard vs. Eric Hosmer
Steven Matz will start Game 4, and the only other lefties on the Mets' roster are Jon Niese and Sean Gilmartin (who is more effective against right-handers than lefties). This obviously limits the matchup opportunities against a Royals lineup that, because of its balance (No. 9 hitter Alex Rios and leadoff man Alcides Escobar are the only same-side hitters who bat consecutively), is difficult to match up against, anyway.
So it will be incumbent upon those three power right-handed arms atop the Mets' rotation to take care of business against opposite-side hitters, especially. Hosmer is the focal point here because, while he did make big strides against southpaws this season (raising his OPS more than 50 points), he's still much more dangerous against righties than lefties. Hosmer had a .310/.384/.501 slash line against right-handers.
Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard each gave up double-digit home runs to left-handed batters this season. They can't afford to make a mistake to Hosmer.
2. Franklin Morales and/or Danny Duffy vs. Daniel Murphy
With the Royals running four right-handed starters out to the mound in this Series, it's pretty clear that the lone lefties on the club's staff could be counted on in some key moments.
"I will be shocked if they don't play a big part in this Series," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
And as we enter the best-of-seven set, no single player commands a more fixated focal point than Murphy. What's most striking about his sudden power surge is that three of Murphy's seven home runs this postseason have come off lefties. He had only hit seven off southpaws in the 2011 through 2015 seasons combined.
So when Duffy and Morales get summoned, they have to neutralize the current hottest hitter on the planet. That's a given. They'll also likely have to contain Curtis Granderson, who had a .558 OPS against lefties in the regular season but has a .733 mark against them this postseason.
3. The Mets vs. the Royals' running game
Though the Royals aren't quite as dynamic from a stolen-base standpoint as they were a year ago, they are still a threat -- especially late, with Jarrod Dyson available in a pinch. So Travis d'Arnaud, who has thrown out 29.8 percent of opposing runners (0-for-4 this postseason), will have to limit them, and the Mets' pitchers will have to do their part, too.
"We've got to do a much better job of changing speeds to the plate, changing our moves to first base, giving them a little something to think about," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "But the best way to do it is keep them off the bases, so that's going to be our biggest challenge."
Still, the Mets did a good job of controlling opposing teams' running games this season, in general, allowing only 75 stolen bases. In fact, the Mets have more steals (nine) than the Royals (seven) this postseason despite playing two fewer games.
But this isn't just about stolen bases.
As evidenced most memorably by Lorenzo Cain's first-to-home dash with the go-ahead run in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Royals can take the extra bag with the ball in play (and they put it in play better than anybody). And while the Royals' defense rates as exceptional in quelling the running game, the Mets are quite a bit more suspect in this department. Per Baseball Prospectus, they allowed the most Ground Advancement Runs (9.2) in the Majors this season and the seventh-most Baserunning Runs (7.2), thanks in large part to their infield play -- which, of course, is a focal point, in general, given the Royals' aforementioned penchant for putting the ball in play.
4. Johnny Cueto vs. himself
Cueto is as big an X-factor as exists in this Series, simply because of the way he's varied between two extremes (that he's done so just ahead of his free-agent eligibility makes his situation all the more fascinating). Thanks to a dip in velocity and a decline in weak contact and strikeouts, he's had incredible implosions (most recently Game 3 of the ALCS) that have offset moments of greatness as a Royal, and most of those moments of greatness have come in the comfort of Kauffman Stadium.
So it's no surprise that Cueto is getting the ball in Game 2, as opposed to Game 3 at Citi Field, and that means he's lined up for Game 6 at Kauffman Stadium, too. The bottom line is that, with the quality of the starting pitching they'll be facing, the Royals' ability to do what they set out to do from the moment they reported to Spring Training will be greatly compromised if the good version of Cueto, their prized midseason acquisition, doesn't show up.
"He needs to stay on the attack and command his fastball," Eiland said. "If he's commanding his fastball, his secondary pitches are going to fall into place. But he's got to be on the attack. A lot of times in the first inning, pitchers are out there feeling for themselves, especially in this atmosphere. It's not as easy as people think. You've got to get used to your surroundings, the mound, your adrenaline. So he's got to be under control, but he's also got to be in attack mode."
5. The Mets' power vs. the Royals' fly-ball tendencies
According to data on FanGraphs.com, the 36.2-percent fly-ball rate against Royals pitchers was the third highest in the big leagues this season (only Angels and Rays pitchers were more fly-ball prone). At the same time, the Mets were the second-most fly-ball prone offense in the NL (and fifth overall), at 36.1 percent. And that's a full season calculation, so obviously the number trended upward with Yoenis Cespedes aboard.
This, then, could be the most fascinating "matchup" of them all this Series. Will the fly balls induced by Royals pitching be of the popup variety, or will they square up Royals pitching and clear walls?
The Royals' outfield defense can cover a ton of ground, and the first two games of this Series will be in a spacious ballpark notorious for suppressing power. So the Mets have their work cut out for them. But if they can turn some of these fly balls into long balls, they're in good shape.