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Before we begin our American League Championship preview, let’s do a quick exercise. The following is the hitting lineup of two mysterious teams. No players will be mentioned and only their on-base percentages (OBP) will be disclosed. You, the reader, will have to decide which batting lineup is better. Again, this is simply based on OBP:
Right off the bat, you will notice that TEAM B has three players posting OBPs below .300 and five total players with an OBP below .320. TEAM A has only one player with an OBP below .320 and he’s currently batting eighth. TEAM A’s leadoff hitter has a higher OBP, while their best hitter is batting second. For some ungodly reason, TEAM B’s best hitter is batting sixth, but that’s okay. Actually, no it’s not because following batter number six are three guys that have poor on-base skills. Not much protection for TEAM B’s best hitter.
It’s safe to say that you, the loyal reader, would probably select TEAM A over TEAM B, simply based on a simple stat like OBP. You will even go as far as saying that TEAM A has a much better lineup than TEAM B.
Well, based on actual events, you, the reader, the avid, know-it-all, hardcore baseball fan, would be wrong. Completely wrong! At this point, we all know by now that TEAM B is the much superior team.
TEAM B is the Kansas City Royals. TEAM A is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. TEAM A’s number two hitter is Mike Trout. TEAM B’s number six hitter is Alex Gordon. Strangely inexplicable. And let’s not begin to bother comparing the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation with the Baltimore Orioles’ staff.
That’s how zany these Major League Baseball playoffs have been. The teams with the most talent are not playing for a shot to advance to the World Series. The remaining teams don’t have the most skill. They don’t sport the best stats. They don’t have any MVP or Cy Young candidates. They just simply go out there and play. They are a product of a new baseball where scoring is down and pitching and defense is more important than ever. Both of these teams are especially loaded in the fielding department.
Both the Orioles and Royals are also taking full advantage of a baseball universe where parity is slowly but surely matching the unpredictability of the National Football League. How many of us predicted these two teams would still be playing for a chance at a title this season back in March? For those that raised your hands, put them back down because you are all lying. You are liars.
It’s been a weird, confusing, but thrilling ride for both clubs. Alas, only one team will be able to continue their unlikely journey towards the World Series. But who will it be?
AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Kansas City Royals vs Baltimore Orioles (Game 1 8:00PM ET, on TBS)
The last time the Royals won a title, it was way back in 1985. The last time the Orioles won a title was back in 1983. It’s not a championship drought that Chicago Cubs’ fans are used to seeing, but it is a drought, nonetheless. Taking it a step further, this is the Royals’ first, back-to-back winning seasons since the 1993-94 campaign, when Kevin Appier and David Cone were at the top of their rotation. For the Orioles, the last time they’ve had three consecutive winning seasons was in the early 1990s as well (’92-94), when they were led by ace pitcher, Mike Mussina. Coincidence? Highly probable.
Two very different clubs. The Royals depend on their speed, while the Orioles count on their power. Though the Royals depend on their run game (based on Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB–per fangraphs.com, this stat “estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team by stealing bases, as compared to the average player”)) to generate a lot of their runs (ranked first in wSB), they are not a very good base running team (based on Ultimate Base Running (UBR–a stat used to determine a player’s value as it relates to base running, based on different base running events (i.e. the ability to advance an extra base on a base-hit)). They finished dead last in UBR. Though many will point out that it’s the Royals’ speed that has helped them advance this far into the playoffs, they are not necessarily unstoppable with runners on base.
Furthermore, the Royals’ poor approach at the plate is no guarantee they will drive in runs once runners are in scoring position after stolen bases. For example, Game 1 of the ALDS between the Angels, Terrance Gore steals second in the top of the 10th. He would be stranded there. The next game, Gore steals second base in the ninth, only to be forced out at third base. Alex Gordon stole two bases in that game and only scored once. In Game 3, Billy Butler steals second base in the third inning; would be stranded at third base. Four stolen bases, only one run scored.
So the adulation that Kansas City has been receiving with their aggressiveness on the base paths has been based off the wild card game against the Athletics. One game does not tell the entire story. Does speed on the base paths give the Royals some psychological advantage? Maybe. Does it help them score lots of runs? Not really. Are a large percentage of their runs coming from stolen bases? Yes. The Orioles, on the other hand, can make up their counterparts’ small ball play with one swing from Nelson Cruz, Steve Pearce, and even Adam Jones.
The Royals are a ground ball team, with the ability to drive the ball to the gaps, which helps them maintain a good batting average and takes advantage of their speed. Unfortunately, the Royals also pop up a lot. The Orioles, just like the Oakland Athletics, are a fly ball team that highly depends on home runs. Because of the high volume of fly balls, the O’s also pop up a lot.
Both teams rate as highly aggressive teams at the plate, ranking in the top 10 in Swing Percentages. As mentioned in previous previews, the Royals don’t strike out a lot and make a lot of contact. The O’s do swing-and-miss a lot and have a very low contact rate.
Both rotations don’t really catch anybody’s attention. They won’t wow anybody with their low strikeout rates and their advanced ERAs (FIP and SIERA) are laughable at best. However, the Royals’ ability to control walks compared to their opponents might give them the edge.
Both rotations have survived by posting low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP–per fangraphs.com“measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit”). They are able to keep that stat in check because both clubs force a lot of fly balls. Both teams also induce plenty of pop ups. However, both teams also are susceptible to high rates of line drives. Plus the Orioles are more vulnerable to the long ball.
No one is getting fooled by the O’s stuff as they were at the bottom of the Swing Percentages in terms of outside the strike zone and inducing swinging strikes from batters. This allowed opponents to aid the Orioles in a dubious stat this season: highest Contact Rate against in baseball. The Royals do a much better job at inducing swings, but as mentioned, they do not strike out a lot of hitters and also have a high Contact Rate.
Royals do a much better job at racking up strikeouts, but the Orioles’ relievers do a much better job limiting walks. The Royals finished in the top 10 in Field Independent Pitching (FIP-rates pitchers based on strikeouts and limiting walks and home runs), while the O’s finished top five in WHIP.
Just like the rotation, the O’s bullpen does a good job at keeping their BABIP in check, but instead of doing it with fly balls, the Orioles’ bullpen does it with high rates of grounders. Backed by one of the better defenses in the league, this bullpen definitely plays to their strengths. The O’s, however, are vulnerable to the long ball. The Royals also force a lot of grounders, but not at the same rate as the Orioles. Plus they are prone to giving up a lot of line drives.
Surprisingly, the Orioles do a better job at inducing swings and despite the Royals being the better strikeout team, they ranked low in Swinging Strike Percentage. The Orioles are a pitch-to-contact ‘pen as their high swing rates allow for plenty of contact from opposing hitters, which as mentioned before, plays to their strengths.
The Orioles do a much better job at controlling opposing base runners than the A’s or Angels. However, they’re only middle of the pack in this category so the Royals should be able to continue their running ways. The Royals rank high in controlling their opponents’ run game thanks to Salvador Perez. But the Orioles are not a running team and they definitely won’t be testing Perez’s arm behind the plate.
As mentioned before, the Orioles might just have the best double-play duo in J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop and have a huge edge over the Royals in this department. But both teams are highly ranked on defense, and are at the very top in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR–advanced defensive metric) with the Royals in first, but the Orioles not too far behind in second. Both teams have great range. Both teams have great arms in the outfield thanks to Alex Gordon for the Royals, and Adam Jones and Nick Markakis for Baltimore. But the efficiency to turn two against a really fast team might prove to be the difference in this series.
- Buck Showalter is a much superior manager than Ned Yost. Whereas the Royals are winning in spite of Yost, the Orioles’ players believe in Showalter and have bought into his tactics and style of play.
- The Orioles play the role of veteran ball club with many of their players having seen postseason action in 2012. Plus Nelson Cruz brings the playoff experience factor to another level for Baltimore.
- The Royals have been dubbed the more charismatic team of the two. Their “too young to worry,” “why not us?” “YOLO” attitude are the reasons most pundits will cite when talking about this team.
- Kansas City has “Big Game” James Shields pitching multiple times in this series.
- The Royals are said to have all the momentum in the world, but what is the exact momentum of the Orioles?
- If the home run ball is there for the taking at Camden Yards, will the Royals continue to bunt at all times?
Speed vs Power. Two very different teams that are simultaneously too similar. Both clubs were not supposed to make it this far. Both teams have proven to have a flair for the dramatics. The Royals might have the consensus, preferred style of play for the postseason, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Kansas City’s small ball strategies can be counter-balanced by one swing from one of the Orioles’ sluggers. Baltimore should be able to win in six.
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