You know your team is bound for great things when they exceed even your own lofty expectations. My beloved Baltimore Orioles have done that twice this year, far surpassing my preseason expectation of 83 wins, and then improving upon my prediction of a four-game ALDS win in their clash with the Detroit Tigers by sweeping them in three straight. Like I predicted, the series hinged on the Tigers’ pitchers versus the Orioles’ hitters, and Baltimore’s clutch hitting against Detroit’s bullpen turned the series in their favor. The O’s will head into their ALCS bout with the Kansas City Royals well-rested, with four days off in between series. Both teams will be trying to end long championship droughts. The Royals haven’t sniffed the playoffs since 1985, the year of their only World Series title. The O’s, meanwhile, haven’t won a World Series since I was negative-four years old, though they have had a few playoff trips since then. One can imagine that both teams will leave it all on the field in pursuit of a long-awaited championship.
My breakdown is going to focus largely on Kansas City, as I broke down the Orioles fairly comprehensively in my ALDS preview. Kansas City’s offense is notoriously inconsistent, but when they heat up, they can really carry the team. Kansas City’s two biggest winning streaks of the year coincided with stretches in which the offense caught fire. This all adds up to pedestrian stats for a playoff team (they rank no higher than 14th in MLB in runs, on-base, or slugging, and despite ranking 4th in MLB in batting average, don’t have a single regular batting close to .300), but it would be wrong to take the Royals lightly. Their best hitter is leftfielder Alex Gordon, who leads the team in home runs (19) and on-base (.351). He also leads the team in offensive wins over replacement (WAR) with 3.4, but the Orioles have three players better than him in that stat (Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, and Steve Pearce all have offensive WAR ratings above 4). Catcher Salvador Perez and third baseman Mike Moustakas have also shown some power (17 and 15 homers, respectively) and Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar are the Royals’ biggest threats on the basepaths (36 and 31 stolen bases, respectively). Kansas City will probably have to play small ball in order to beat Baltimore, though that formula worked well against the Angels, as they won two close extra-inning games.
The Royals’ pitching stats tell a similar story to the Orioles’. KC has a competent pitching staff that won’t overpower you, but can get the job done in a pinch. Their two best starters are James Shields and Yordano Ventura, who have very similar stat lines. Both have 14 wins and ERA and WAR stats that differ by just a tenth of a point (3.20/3.21 and 3.2/3.3). Their fourth starter, Jeremy Guthrie, couldn’t even manage to convince a putrid 2009 Orioles team that he was worth a roster spot. While he’s improved a little since joining Baltimore, he’s no world-beater. Danny Duffy is the wild card among the starters. He hasn’t pitched as many innings as the rest, but has the lowest ERA (2.53). It’ll be interesting to see if they give him a shot.
Kansas City, like Baltimore, has a solid bullpen. Closer Greg Holland notched 46 saves and a tiny 1.44 ERA. Setup man Wade Davis’s ERA was even lower at 1.00 and he had 33 holds. Let’s not forget about Kelvin Herrera either, with his 20 holds and 1.41 ERA. Between these two bullpens, late-inning runs will be at a premium.
While the Orioles are a proven defensive team, Kansas City is no slouch either, at least in the outfield. Their three outfielders all have Ultimate Zone Ratings higher than the Orioles’ best player by that metric. But as is the case frequently in this matchup, the Orioles are much deeper. KC has a steep drop-off after the outfielders, and I think the O’s probably have a better overall team defense.
Royals manager Ned Yost has steered the Royals to their first playoff spot since the Reagan Administration, and pulled off a similar feat with the Milwaukee Brewers. However, he has a knack for making questionable decisions in key moments that enrage the fanbase. To wit: he lifted starter James Shields with a 3-2 lead in the sixth in a win-or-go-home wild card game, and inexplicably brought in Yordano Ventura, who had all of one career relief appearance. Ventura proceeded to give up a three-run homer to put the A’s ahead. Only a dramatic rally saved Yost from being chased out of town Grady Little-style. I’ll take the steady, consistent hand of Buck Showalter over unpredictability any day of the week.
The Royals just swept the team with the best record in the American League in the Division Series. This team is for real and hungry for a title. But the Orioles are too, and on paper, they definitely look like the better team. If the Orioles go out there and play their game, they will win this series. As long as their pitchers aren’t rusty from the extended rest, and keep the Royals’ bats from catching fire, their hitters will get more than enough hits to win this thing. I like the Orioles to take it in five games and advance to the World Series. I think, once there, they will face the Cardinals. I’d rather face the Giants, because the Cards have that annoying “pull a dramatic finish out of nowhere” knack that scares me a little.