At this time last year, I was alternating between performances of a show at Second City (I was one of six co-writers in the Advanced Writing program) and running to the nearby Old Town Social or catching the Clark bus to walk to Murphy’s Bleachers to catch the tail ends of a thrilling postseason. It was a fantastic time to be writing, and a splendid time to write about baseball – and like many other Americans, I fell in love with the Royals. Which made the climax of the World Series that much harder, as they were stifled by the heroics of Madison Bumgarner (still the best postseason pitching performance I’d seen since probably Josh Beckett in ’03 and ’07.
I didn’t think the Royals could come back. Too many things worked against them. Their success was a fluke, a combination of momentum and luck that couldn’t be equaled.
And then they climbed back against Houston. And then they never really looked out of sorts against Toronto. And then there was that mad dash by Lorenzo Cain, which caused me to wake up my friend’s wife as I watched from their living room. (Sorry, Becky) And here we are again.
They’re facing the Mets, who are this year’s Royals, a team coming into its own with a combination of momentum (three young power pitchers you might have heard about recently) and luck (holy pants Daniel Murphy). Neither team has won a World Series since the 1980’s, so this will be a first in my years on this earth. (The Mets were the most recent in 1986 – I joined this world five months later.)
It’s a compelling match-up that doesn’t lack for star power, thanks to the presence of the New York media market and the return of so many KC players who earned their status as stars on the postseason stage last year. On the surface, it’s a fairly even pairing that will be decided by _______ specific match-ups. For kicks, they’re named after 80’s songs, because why not.
The Power of (Pitching) Love
The Mets’ right handed trio of Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard (along with rookie lefty Steven Matz) have absolutely feasted upon the top hitters of the National League in this postseason. Between the three of them, they’ve struck out 63 hitters in 45.2 IP across seven games, limiting opponents to a measly three home runs. That’s in no small part thanks to their average fastball coming in at 97 MPH, along with a willingness to go crafty. (Did you see the junk they threw Chicago’s hitters? Dear God.)
One might think that their success is a harbinger of things to come – and it may be, except that the Royals run counter to the Mets overall plans. The Mets were able to play against the free-swinging Dodgers and Cubs, and those teams’ eagerness to swing for the fences probably contributed to their demise. Meanwhile, the Royals offense has averaged a .271/.328/.449 slash line as a collective team. Their tendency to grind out at-bats and play for contact has been relatively historic this season, and their willingness to put the ball in play could spell trouble for the young pitchers of New York.
(G)love is a Battlefield
…New York’s infield defense is spotty, to say the least. Murphy has worked wonders with his bat, and Wilmer Flores has filled in admirably for the injured Ruben Tejada. David Wright is a stalwart at third base, and I suppose Lucas Duda can catch the ball with the best of them. But this is no Gold Glove infield. If the Royals start chopping the ball on the ground, look out.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Kansas City’s other lineup focus has been on defense. There’s only a few average defenders on the field at times (ignore that Alex Rios shaped hole in right field for the moment), and Gold Glove defenders can be found at first, short, third, catcher, center, and left field. Gold Gloves might be a spotty indication of quality defense (remember how many Derek Jeter won?), but in this case, they’re earned. Mets hitters sport a lot of power bat, but they’re fly ball prone, with a rate in the mid-30’s. With a deep outfield and excellent defenders at every position, that will definitely mean trouble.
KC Pitchers Will Stop the Game and Melt(down) with You
…the pitchers of the Royals are prone to, shall we say, erratic implosions. Yordano Ventura has the talent of a young Pedro Martinez coupled with the emotional stability of the broken love child of Carlos Zambrano and a Tazmanian Devil. This can make for moments like his seven-inning shutout of the Giants in last year’s series or his semi-implosion in Game Six against Toronto. All it takes is one wayward strike call and the hits will start peppering the outfield. And that’s their ace. Meanwhile, Edinson Volquez has been good this season, but if you’re going to put your trust in Volquez to continue to not turn into a pumpkin at some point, well, then I have this bridge to sell you.
And then there’s Johnny Cueto, upon whose shimmying shoulders this whole series could turn. If he’s the 20 game winner of the past few years, then he can easily win two games – he seems to perform best at the spacious environs of Kaufmann Stadium, so the Royals are making sure he will only pitch Games Two and Six. If he’s the pitcher who imploded for eight earned runs in two innings in Toronto, then it’s going to be a short series for Kansas City. The Royals traded away a good portion of their future for this guy, and now they need him to pony up or it’ll be a while before Cueto will be able to feast on KC barbecue.
Of course, if KCs starters can turn a lead over to the bullpen, then it’s lights out. Meanwhile, the Mets do in fact have some relief pitchers- Jeurys Familia has been a particular stand-out this postseason. On the other hand, the Mets also may have to give several innings to this fellow…
Don’t Dream It’s Over
The case of legacies in this Series is interesting. The Mets have achieved a great deal before they were expected to, contending this year instead of several on down the line. There’s a chance that they’ll be back, in other words, though a win here would help to start a nice cap to the twilight of David Wright’s career as Mets captain.
Meanwhile, the Royals are possibly here for the last time. Soon, that core will become very expensive – Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both employ Scott Boras as their agent, which will translate to big dollars from somebody – and Cueto and Ben Zobrist are free agents at the season’s end. With a stingy payroll, it may be a while before KC makes it back here.
Coupling an all-or-nothing approach to this season with the Royals advantages at the bat and in the outfield, it seems easy to take Kansas City. Of course, anything can – and usually does – happen in the postseason. But having said that…
Prediction: Royals in Six
Last Round: 1-1 (Sorry, Cubs fans)
Prediction Record: 5-3