The World Series begins Tuesday night. It’s the first and only series of MLB’s 2014 Postseason that airs on free television, but unlike the Super Bowl or the Olympics, the World Series is not often a source of many new fans for baseball. Studies have shown, and your own experience probably reflects, that baseball is a sport enjoyed mostly in a very provincial way. There are 10 Twins fans for every real, honest, will-watch-no-matter-who-plays baseball fan in the state of Minnesota, and 10 Padres fans to every one of that ilk in San Diego.
The Series used to draw the attention of the nation, taking over TV at a time when there were few alternative entertainment options, capturing the national imagination, creating heroes we remembered for decades and distracting students in schools across the country.
That’s a real picture of the way things were, but also a farce. It’s like telling your grandkids how you walked to school in the snow every day. Sure you did. They hadn’t invented cars yet. Things change, time marches on. Football is the most popular sport in the United States now, and even so, it isn’t half as ubiquitous as baseball was 60 years ago. Nothing is. That said, this year’s Series has the potential to grab people. I hope that it will. There are a lot of people who might normally tune out by this time of year, or who barely maintain an interest at all, who seem to connect to the story of the Kansas City Royals, and I hope this Series will not only keep their attention, but foster it.
To that end, I offer this primer, a rundown of everything you need to know about these two teams (the San Francisco Giants, by the way, are the Royals’ opponents) and the context of the Series, in order to enjoy it as much as you can. Dig in.
How They Got Here/Backstory
Kansas City Royals
Before this season, the Royals hadn’t reached the playoffs at all since 1985. To put that in perspective:
- The second-longest playoff drought in the league—the longest, now—belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, who made it in 1993. My parents weren’t yet married when Kansas City last won anything. They got married, waited two years, then had me and my little sister before the Jays’ drought began.
- Only one organization reached the playoffs fewer than two times during that stretch: the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, who would have made it twice themselves but for the 1994 strike.
- Four teams came into being after the start of the Royals’ drought. They have combined for 14 playoff appearances and three World Series championships already.
- The playoffs have expanded twice during the drought. Only four teams reached the Postseason each year the last time Kansas City got in. This year, it was 10.
- Six of the Royals’ nine positional regulars weren’t born when the Royals last played in the playoffs. The same goes for two of their five most important starting pitchers, and for all three of their dominant relief pitchers.
- None of the 1985 Royals’ five main starting pitchers were older than 28 that year, meaning they all at least doubled in age while waiting to see the next Royals playoff team.
When last they did make it, though, they won the World Series in seven games, over the St. Louis Cardinals. Therefore, if you’re looking for a moment of ultimate catharsis for the city and its fans, you’ve missed it. That came when they won the Wild Card Game over the Oakland Athletics. The demons have already been exorcised. Strangely, while this is a new team to the scene in a sense, that’s not what makes the Royals most compelling. Let’s back up. After the 1985 championship, how did things go so wrong, for so long? Like everything in life, it’s complicated. There were at least four factors:
- In mid-1986, Royals manager Dick Howser developed a brain tumor. He stepped down mid-season, and was dead within a year. While a manager doesn’t win or lose all that many games on his own, the suddenness and tragedy of Howser’s loss (at age 51) did set the Royals back.
- Excellent and vital executive personnel left the team. John Schuerholz, the architect and general manager of the 1985 team, left for Atlanta after the 1990 season. Owner Ewing Kauffman, who was deeply invested (financially, personally and emotionally) in the team, developed cancer and died in 1993, after four or five seasons of fruitless efforts on the part of the Royals brass to hurriedly assemble a winner before he was gone. These patchwork operations set the long-term planning of the team back.
- Money and market size became a stronger indicator of team success as the 1990s wore on, spelling trouble for the small-time Royals.
- Poor management strategies and ignorance of the leaguewide progress in evaluating players left the team scrambling to make up deficits that never needed to develop.
So, when did things begin to change? Coincidentally, it was when the Royals poached a member of the Braves front office, just as the Braves had done to them 15 years earlier. Dayton Moore took over as GM of the Royals on May 31, 2006. A week later, he oversaw his first draft, although to be sure, most of the crucial decisions about players had been made by the time he took over. With their last pick of that draft, in the 50th round, Moore selected an outfielder from a Mississippi junior college named Jarrod Dyson. Moore would then set about an aggressive, if undersold, rebuilding of the franchise.
||Notable Players Drafted
||Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland
||Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery
||Aaron Crow, Wil Myers
He increased the organization’s level of investment in Latin America, which included signing Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura in 2006 and 2008, respectively. By late 2010, the Royals had what many considered the best farm system in baseball—and one of the best ever—but no Major League success on which to hang their hats.
Arguably, Moore took his first real step toward turning the Royals permanently around in December 2010. By then, the Royals had finished a fourth full season under Moore. They had averaged 69 wins. Although ownership voiced support for Moore both in private and in public, it would have been understandable if Moore had acted in self-interest—self-preservation, really—and moved to win immediately. Instead, Moore made the gutsiest move of his career, trading Zack Greinke—a season removed from winning the Cy Young Award, the Royals’ closest facsimile of a superstar—to the Milwaukee Brewers. Specifically, the trade looked like this:
|Zack Greinke – ace-caliber starting pitcher with two years left on his contract. 2009 AL Cy Young.
||Alcides Escobar – glove-first shortstop, 12th-ranked prospect in baseball prior to 2010, coming off tough rookie season
|Jake Odorizzi – starting pitching prospect, ranked 69th in baseball prior to 2011
|Yuniesky Betancourt – slugging but impatient, slow and stone-handed shortstop. A warm body to fill a position for Milwaukee.
||Lorenzo Cain – hit .306 in 158 PA as a rookie in 2010; 24 years old
|Jeremy Jeffress – relief pitching prospect, major fastball, ranked 76th-best prospect in baseball prior to 2011
Not only did Moore trade his ace, but he did it without getting some of the prospects whose names had caused more ripples when thrown out earlier in the offseason. He was out on a limb, and the fact that he promised prompt progress toward contention only heightened the stakes.
In 2011, the Royals took a baby step forward. They won 71 games under new manager Ned Yost, but were outscored by only 32 runs—implying that their true talent level was that of a 78-win team. Former first-round picks Hosmer and Moustakas took their places in the Major Leagues. Escobar settled in as the regular shortstop. Alex Gordon, whom Moore had inherited as the crown jewel of the farm system but whose development had gone off the rails midway through 2009, broke out in a wonderful way. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur, a pair of low-risk free-agent signees whose former teams had declined to offer them contracts over the winter, had outstanding seasons, so much so that the three players held Cain down in Triple-A practically all season, surprising everyone.
The aforementioned Perez, a catcher who began the season having never played above Class A, shot to the Majors and hit .331 in over 150 at-bats, earning a long-term, dirt-cheap contract extension. Holland, that 2007 10th-round pick out of Western Carolina University, established himself as a slightly erratic but nigh unhittable reliever. Everything was coming up Royals, and Moore’s job was in no danger. A homegrown dynasty seemed imminent.
If all that sounds too good to be true, well, it turned out to be. In 2012, the team won one more game, but still lost 90, and they were outscored by 70 runs—more than twice the deficit they’d had in 2011. Moore traded Cabrera to San Francisco in order to make room for Cain. Cabrera won the National League batting title (though he vacated it; we’ll get to that when it’s the Giants’ turn). Jonathan Sanchez, the left-handed starting pitcher for whom Moore traded Cabrera, walked more than he struck out in half a miserable season. Moore dumped him on the Colorado Rockies, in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie, who had posted similarly execrable numbers in the thin air of Coors Field.
Cain, meanwhile, missed the entire first half with a groin strain. He’d suffered the same injury in each of the two previous Aprils, but this was by far more severe. Meanwhile, wanting to hold onto some of the excellent outfield production from 2011, Moore had extended Francoeur for two seasons at an eight-figure salary. Francoeur promptly busted, badly. Danny Duffy, the only one of the club’s vaunted left-handed starter prospects who had been pitching well, underwent Tommy John surgery. Joakim Soria, the team’s stellar closer, a diamond Moore had pulled from the rough of the Rule 5 Draft in December 2006, had the same procedure, his second. Hosmer and Moustakas had dreadful numbers in their sophomore seasons. The foregone conclusion of a return to the playoffs had become a dream endangered.
Maybe Moore now felt pressure from above. Maybe he simply felt confident in his core assemblage of talent, felt sure that they would rebound, and thought he had pinpointed the thing they were missing. I’m not Dayton Moore. But here’s what Moore did:
||Tampa Bay Rays Get
|James Shields – workhorse starter, coming off six straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched; two years remaining on contract
||Wil Myers – Reigning Baseball America Minor League Players of the Year, among top five prospects in baseball; slugging right fielder
|Jake Odorizzi – still a starting pitching prospect, now ranked 92nd in baseball
|Wade Davis – former pitching prospect of note, had struggled modestly in rotation but took off after move to bullpen in 2012
||Mike Montgomery – Formerly one of the Royals’ stable of left-handed starters-to-be, a reclamation project at best after a 2012 season in which he simply fell apart.
|Elliot Johnson – middle infielder, fringe prospect who, as it turned out, could not hit
||Patrick Leonard – A 2011 fifth-round pick who showed impressive offensive potential in the rookie-level Appalachian League.
He announced, too, that Kansas City would attempt to salvage the starting version of Davis, making this a go-for-broke deal aimed, with clear intent, at ending the playoff drought immediately. Moore had tossed his career onto the table with this move. Myers was widely considered too much to give up, especially because Shields (despite consistently excellent strikeout and walk rates) had rarely produced true star-level numbers. His ERA tended to rest higher than one would expect, given his pure skills. He was no Zack Greinke, the pundits agreed. Still, 2013 was a big step back in the right direction.
The offense remained flat, but at least Hosmer’s bat bounced back, particularly in the second half. A miserable losing jag in late May and June cost them any hope of the playoffs, but with Shields and cheaply-acquired Ervin Santana leading a much stronger rotation, and with excellent defense from Escobar, Cain, Gordon, Perez and 27-year-old rookie David Lough in right field, the Royals managed to win 86 games, a record in line with their run differential, for once. The campaign offered cause for hope.
On the other hand, Davis was abysmal in the rotation. His stuff simply flattened when he was asked to sustain his performance for longer stretches, and the limitations on his repertoire became painfully apparent. When he played, Francoeur killed the team. Wil Myers won the Rookie of the Year award for Tampa Bay, who won 92 games and reached the Division Series. The lack of progress—or even maintenance of their previous ability—from the offense cost one hitting coach his job, and left the position up in the air. If 2012 put the possibility of failure in the backs of Royals’ fans’ minds, 2013 attached a beacon and a flag to it. Suddenly, the Royals were a year away from losing Shields, not having Myers to save the dreadful offense, having to decline an option on Davis’s contract and missing their window to compete.
If that had been how 2014 ended, surely, Moore would have been gone. The forward motion had generated some revenue, though, and it also seemed to invite some new confidence from ownership. With his bosses’ blessing, Moore signed Omar Infante and Jason Vargas to four-year deals over the winter, in an attempt to shore up the most obvious deficiencies on the roster: second base, and starting pitching depth. He also made a few small (but ultimately important) trades, one that sent Lough to Baltimore, another that (in exchange for a lefty swingman of uncertain value) replaced Lough with Norichika Aoki, a very cheap right fielder with a diverse skill set and a low strikeout rate.
That was it. The tumblers fell into place. Duffy had shown the team enough in his return from Tommy John, late in 2013, to earn one of the open rotation spots. Yordano Ventura won the other. The two young guns fell into line between Shields (who had one of his better seasons for them in 2013, and arguably his best in 2014) and the innings eaters Vargas and Guthrie. Davis moved back to the bullpen, where his presence helped offset the loss of dominant 2013 set-up man Luke Hochevar, who went under the knife during Spring Training.
The resulting team looked almost exactly like the one you’ll see on Tuesday night:
C – Salvador Perez
1B – Eric Hosmer
2B – Omar Infante
SS – Alcides Escobar
3B – Mike Moustakas
LF – Alex Gordon
CF – Lorenzo Cain
RF – Norichika Aoki
DH – Billy Butler
SP1 – James Shields
SP2 – Yordano Ventura
SP3 – Danny Duffy
SP4 – Jason Vargas
SP5 – Jeremy Guthrie
RP1 – Greg Holland
RP2 – Wade Davis
RP3 – Kelvin Herrera
RP4 – Tim Collins
RP5 – Aaron Crow
There was no heavy mid-season makeover in store for this team. The only things that have changed among the players listed are that Duffy is now more or less buried, with fatigue having derailed him a bit at the end of the year, and that Moore added Jason Frasor to the bullpen in July. The bench also got a bit of a facelift, with the additions of Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez, and with Danny Valencia dealt to Toronto for backup catcher Erik Kratz.
These are very small changes. The Royals didn’t have the wherewithal to make big moves if they needed to, and thankfully, then, they never needed to. All nine regulars listed above had at least 500 plate appearances this season. The five starters combined to make all but a handful of their starts. Aside from Hochevar, no important bullpen pieces got hurt, not even a three-week calf strain kind of thing. Part of the story of the 2014 Royals is that they lived a charmed life, health-wise.
Even so, this team was 48-50 just after the All-Star break. Part of the reason (though by no means the whole reason) that Moore didn’t do more at the deadline was that it wasn’t yet clear how valuable any additions could actually be. It became clear over the next month, though, as the team reeled off 24 wins in 30 games. That was without Hosmer in the lineup, too. They simply got hot, as teams who do the things they do can sometimes do, and tore through the league for five weeks. It was on the strength of that stretch that they reached the playoffs at all.
They’re now on a similarly scalding streak, having won six of eight to finish the season, then eight in a row with extra patches on their sleeves. Even a seven-game victory would mean 16 wins in 21 contests, but after all, they’ve done it before. We’ll get into how, and who, in a while. For now, that’s the story of the 2014 Royals. It’s a story, depending upon whom you ask, of either master architecture or house-of-cards architecture, of brilliant long-term planning or dumb luck. The 2014 Royals had a worse run differential than the 2013 team, but won three more games. They snuck into the playoffs, but have certainly played like they belong since they got here.
While it’s a flawed construction and Moore has had to catch himself after several bad moves, it’s hard not to look at this roster as the culmination of Moore’s near-decade of work. This is what he’s been building all along, from Jarrod Dyson in the 50th round in 2006 to Brandon Finnegan in the first round in 2014, from Billy Butler’s contract extension to Salvador Perez’s, from The Greinke Trade to The Shields Trade.
San Francisco Giants
Don’t worry, this story is shorter. Much shorter. Twenty-seven years shorter. The Giants won the World Series in 2012, and they won it in 2010. There’s an oversimplified version of the story, even, that focuses only on a fortuitous string of great first-round picks the Giants made several years ago, grabbing Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner in consecutive drafts. It’s true that those three, plus Pablo Sandoval and Matt Cain, have been at the heart of the team’s success, but there’s more to it than that.
It would be correct, although grossly misleading, to note that the Royals haven’t lost a playoff series since 1984. It would also be correct, and much less misleading (though, still misleading), to note that the Giants haven’t lost one since 2003. The team has only been back to the playoffs twice since then; they’ve just come home with the trophy each time. It’s fluky, but they’ve done it, and another Series title would make them a very peculiar type of dynasty. GM Brian Sabean hasn’t been planning this run for his entire tenure. It would be strange and counterproductive if he had; Sabean has been the Giants’ head baseball man since Monica Lewinsky was unknown to the world. Sabean is more of a quick-hit artist anyway, though. He never takes a year off, let alone embracing a rebuild.
When the Giants draft from a valuable position, they hardly ever miss, and that has huge value:
|Season (Overall pick)
||Tim Lincecum – two-time Cy Young Award winner; key to 2010 WS champion as its ace, 2012 as dominant relief weapon
||Madison Bumgarner – two-time All-Star, two shutout outings in two World Series starts, 2014 NLCS MVP, one of five best left-handed starters in baseball
||Buster Posey – catcher, superstar. 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 2012 NL MVP, crucial to both WS winners
||Zach Wheeler – had strong rookie season with New York Mets. Live-armed pitcher, was traded for Carlos Beltran, who batted .323/.369/.551 in two months for 2011 Giants.
||Gary Brown – An athletic center fielder, future uncertain but had three hits in 7 AB in cup of coffee this September.
||Joe Panik – One of the saviors of 2014 season, batted .305 in 73 games as second-base stopgap, had two-run homer in deciding Game 5, NLCS.
In addition to the big-ticket guys, Sabean has had some subtle but critical hits over the past five years. Brandon Crawford was a fourth-round pick in 2008; he was the starting shortstop for the 2012 champions. Brandon Belt was the first baseman, just three years after being a fifth-round pick, and Tommy Joseph, picked in the second round in 2009, was one of the key pieces of the trade that brought over Pence. In addition to Panik, 2011 netted San Francisco Andrew Susac, the strong backup catcher for this year’s team, and Kyle Crick, the team’s top pitching prospect.
Around that core of drafted talent, though, there aren’t tradeable assets, contracts they’re looking to unload or plans to build for the future. It’s not that Sabean is totally myopic; it’s just that he refuses to miss an opportunity to win immediately. Every player he adds to his roster is placed there because Sabean believes they can help the Giants win games that season. The Giants are a fun team to follow each summer, because they’re likely to be in on whichever pieces of trade bait suit their needs, no matter how tough a fit it might seem in terms of trade partners or prospect capital. Sabean added Beltran in 2011 (that one didn’t turn out, as the Giants finished a distant second in the NL West and missed the playoffs; Wheeler is a symbol of the risk associated with Sabean’s style), Hunter Pence in 2012 and Jake Peavy in July. He supports any roster that even resembles a winner, and that’s been the case for several seasons.
You know who the Giants are like? They’re like the Yankees. (Wait, please, don’t run away!) It’s true. They’re like the Yankees, only they’re living in the Yankees’ past and their future at the same time, instead of matching up with them in the present.
Like the Yankees have begun to over the last two seasons, the Giants went through a period of paying the high price of loyalty to a franchise icon. They lost a lot of games from 2005-07 as they strained their resources to field a semi-competent team around Barry Bonds. In 2006, for instance, eight different position players ages 34 or older played at least 98 games. Drop the minimum games played to 64, and three more 34-and-older names join the list.
During that stretch of losing seasons, Sabean offloaded exactly one veteran of even modest trade value—Matt Morris, under the pinch of the deadline in 2007, for Rajai Davis. San Francisco lost Davis on a waiver claim the following April. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera sank the Yankees, not by being bad or taking up too much budgetary space, but by simply hanging around, making the team feel obligated to surround them with increasingly ancient, limited players, until the roster creaked and the playoffs became a fuzzy spot out on the horizon. These seasons in New York have been unproductive frustration, and that’s what 2005-08 was like for the Giants, too. They lost, and that losing didn’t really advance them toward anything, other than by allowing them to do so very well in the first round of the draft for several years.
On the other hand, like the Yankees at the other end of Jeter’s and Rivera’s careers, the Giants somehow can’t lose in October. It should be somewhat self-evident, even if you’re not familiar with the math and the logic, that playoff success is basically random. No one has found a type of team, or even a particular player, who magically thrives under the pressure of the playoffs. Derek Jeter’s Yankees were 97-61 in the playoffs, but that breaks down to:
- From start of career through 2000 World Series: 46-15
- From 2001 through end of career: 51-46
That streak of 12 wins in 13 postseason series to open Jeter’s career proved totally unsustainable. It’s just how things broke. It speaks to focus, determination, talent and poise, but it also speaks in large part to chance. We mostly edit out that last part when we start building legends, and then statues.
The Giants came out of their Barry Bonds haze in 2009, winning 88 games. They fielded their youngest set of position players, on average, since 1996, and the upside of a Tim Lincecum-Matt Cain tandem at the top of the starting rotation came clearly into focus. Lincecum won his second straight Cy Young Award.
Then, 2010 happened. That’s about as clearly as I can explain it. As Sabean will often do, Sabean let the winter play itself out. He didn’t make a single truly splashy addition, just little things at the fringes. He re-signed Juan Uribe and Bengie Molina. He added Aubrey Huff, whose career had all but crashed to the ground the previous year, as insurance against the unsteady performance of a young player named Travis Ishikawa. He scooped up a free-agent reliever named Santiago Casilla, from Oakland, just a spare arm.
In late May, the Giants were hanging around. Three games separated the four contending teams in the NL West. Sabean added Pat Burrell, who had absolutely flamed out in a brief sojourn with the Tampa Bay Rays, for the Major League minimum salary. Sabean added another pair of relievers at the trade deadline, Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez. Then, in August, he grabbed Cody Ross on waivers to boost the outfield, girding it against the nagging injuries with which several players were dealing. Here’s how all that cobbling together worked out:
- Aubrey Huff hit 26 home runs, leading the team, and was 42 percent better than average at bat, overall.
- Juan Uribe hit 24 home runs, second on the club, as the starting shortstop.
- Santiago Casilla posted a 1.95 ERA in the regular season. Ramon Ramirez had a 0.67 ERA in 27 innings for the Giants. Javier Lopez had a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings. Lopez and Casilla combined for 10.1 innings and two runs allowed, with 11 strikeouts agaist two walks, in the postseason.
- Pat Burrell cracked 18 home runs with the Giants, becoming the second- or third-most dangerous hitter in the San Francisco lineup.
- Cody Ross won the NLCS MVP and hit five total homers during the playoffs.
Of course, the sterling performances by the aces (Lincecum and Cain) and the star rookies (Posey and Bumgarner) made as much impact as those players, but that list is illustrative of how things seem to work out for Sabean when he rolls the dice on veterans, whether it be by grabbing them when no one else wants them or by holding onto them for dear life and using them like they’re still good. In 2012, a similar series of strange performances coincided to push the team to a title. Barry Zito had two excellent starts, Joaquin Arias helped push them through the NLDS, Marco Scutaro had 14 hits in the NLCS and Ryan Theriot—after starting at DH!—scored the winning run in the final game of the World Series.
The 2014 team seems to be a product of a bit more forethought than its predecessors. Some of the guys Sabean brought in prior to and during 2012—Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro—were counted on as key pieces heading into the season. Over the winter, Sabean did a little more heavy lifting than is his wont, signing Tim Hudson and Michael Morse. While the free-spending Dodgers still had to be the favorites, this team looked like one that could make a run to the World Series, maybe more than either the 2010 or the 2012 teams did on the eve of those seasons. Indeed, they were the best team in baseball at one point:
San Francisco Giants, 2014 Season Split
|Through June 8
|June 9 through end of season
By August, though, that didn’t look true at all. Matt Cain got hurt. Tim Lincecum continued his slide into obsolescence. Scutaro and Pagan provided practically nothing, due to injuries. Sabean started throwing familiar switches, bringing in Travis Ishikawa on a minor-league deal in April, bringing in Dan Uggla in essentially the exact same situation Pat Burrell had been in, in June. There were no familiar results, though, at least in the short term. Giving up on Uggla quickly allowed the team to turn to Joe Panik, who came through brilliantly. Ishikawa paid his dividends once Morse went down with an oblique injury.
It was Sabean’s big July move that paid off this year, though. He traded two solid pitching prospects (unspectacular, but solid) to the Boston Red Sox for Jake Peavy, even though Peavy had a 4.72 ERA on the season, and even though the Sox had lost Peavy’s last nine starts leading up to the trade. Peavy felt immediately at home, though, reacquainting himself with the National League by dominating it. He would post a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts for the Giants, and the team won his last six starts.
Jake Peavy, Final Six Starts, 2014 (August 30 through end of season)
Because of the second Wild Card, the Giants hardly needed the boost. They were five games clear of the closest team to them in the hunt, the Milwaukee Brewers. Still, Peavy’s starts were the rare points of light in a miserable second half for the Giants. This team went 45-53 after June 8 (an arbitrary endpoint, I admit), but still made the playoffs. Once there, it was as if they’d remembered who that dominant team from the early going was. Madison Bumgarner pitched like a playoff ace to get them by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The offense found ways to do just enough against the Washington Nationals, and the bullpen helped them survive. The St. Louis Cardinals put up a fight, but the Giants fielded the ball better, pitched slightly better in relief, had fewer lapses and won the series. How do the Giants do it? There’s really no secret sauce, but they do have the three things that lend a team small advantages in October (or at least, that make a team likely to outperform its regular-season self in the Postseason):
- An excellent catcher. Buster Posey never having to take a day off or move to first eases pressure on the rest of the Giants offense.
- An excellent bullpen. One can concentrate high-leverage innings in the hands of one’s best firemen thanks to the looser October schedule. The Giants have clear bullpen hierarchies, and can follow them more easily with the loose October schedule.
- A shallow starting rotation. Having an iffy fourth or fifth starter matters much more during the long season, when those players are full-time members of the rotation. In October, the Giants are always one rainout from being able to turn Bumgarner, Peavy and Hudson around on a team uninterrupted.
Always hurriedly constructed but never wobbly in the spotlight, the Giants come into this Series as soundly constructed, perhaps, as ever. They just didn’t win many regular-season games. The Narratives You’ll Hear, and Which Ones to Care About I touched on the Royals’ long playoff drought above, and it will be a story throughout the Series. Just try to keep in mind that 11 teams have waited longer for a World Series champion than Kansas City:
- Baltimore (last won 1983)
- Chicago Cubs (last won 1908)
- Cleveland (last won 1948)
- Detroit (last won 1984)
- Houston (have never won, founded 1962)
- Milwaukee (have never won, founded 1969)
- Pittsburgh (last won 1979)
- San Diego (have never won, founded 1969)
- Seattle (have never won, founded 1977)
- Texas (have never won, founded 1961)
- Washington (have never won, founded 1969)
You may, of course, root for the Royals, and I might even recommend it. (Might.) But don’t do so because of this drought narrative. It’s facile. It ignores an obvious and necessary distinction. The drought is over. Kansas City’s fans have been washed in the water again. Don’t give them your pity vote. The Giants’ experience will be a narrative. Pundits and commentators will talk both about whether that experience will help the Giants beat the Royals, and about what legacy the Giants teams cloak themselves in if they win. The questions should be held separate, but I present them side-by-side because you’ll hear them concurrently. Does the Giants’ experience make them more likely to beat the Royals? Let me offer the sabermetrically controversial, maybe even heretical answer: Yes, I think it does. Not directly, mind you. In fact, that’s probably even the wrong way to state it. What I think, precisely, is less that the experience the team has gleaned will inform them in some mystical way than that they got that experience because they had an unusually well-tempered set of personalities in the first place. The core players on this team, especially Posey, Bumgarner, Pence and Sandoval, bring a very controlled sense of urgency to every at-bat, every pitch. That shows even during the regular season. I foresee that that makeup will serve them well at some crucial point in the Series. As for their legacy, I may, many words back, have attached the word ‘dynasty’ to this team. (Control-F says yes, I did. Happily, I preceded it with ‘peculiar.’) That’s a tricky characterization, though. These Giants’ three championship teams, if indeed this becomes the third, would have averaged 91 regular-season wins. The 1972-74 Oakland A’s won three straight titles with just three more regular-season wins, but those titles were consecutive. That makes it feel different. The only analogue I can find for these Giants, really, is the 1987 and 1991 Twins—teams sharing common pillars, but with multiple seasons of crash and burn between them, neither club truly dominant. I don’t think we’d call the Twins a dynasty, in retrospect. I’m not even sure another eked-out title would do it. Maybe it would. There’s one thing: the 2010 Giants beat the two-time defending pennant-winning Phillies, then ousted the Texas Rangers in five games. (The Rangers reached the Series again the next year.) Both of the Giants’ last two NLCS wins have come over the St. Louis Cardinals, who have won the two pennants the Giants haven’t won in the meantime. And they swept the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 Series. Maybe that starts to become an additive dynasty, slowly accumulating the things needed to legitimize it all. I think that’s probably right. If the Giants do win this Series, and especially if they do so relatively convincingly (finally getting to celebrate on their home field would carry an iota of weight for me), I think this can safely be called a dynasty. It already has the star power, personality and grit it needs. I think they just need these four more wins. Names, Numbers, Faces This is where I try to give you a crash course on a bunch of baseball players, their backgrounds, their skills, what make them valuable, but mostly, what makes them worth your while. Let’s go back to breaking out the teams. Kansas City Royals
- Ned Yost, Manager – I wrote at some length about Yost just the other day, so if you have a little time, go read that. The short version is: Yost is a bad tactical manager. He always has been. He responds to game situations well, but his limitations of imagination sometimes get the better of him. He occasionally wastes pinch-runners by using them when their run would little impact the game, or when he has no intention of leveraging their speed by having them run. He frequently sticks with his starting pitchers for too long. He has, in the past, been too reticent to go to his elite relief pitchers early and in big situations.On the other hand, he’s a baseball lifer, and he speaks the language of his charges perfectly. They respond well to him. He gets the best out of them because they trust him. Sometimes a manager is just a manager, not a head coach or a master strategist. That’s Yost.
- Alcides Escobar, Shortstop: An extremely aggressive hitter, Escobar drew just 23 walks in 620 trips to the plate this season. He’s a strange choice for a leadoff hitter, then, but that’s the role he plays for Yost lately. He does make a ton of contact for a modern player, though, and runs very well. He stole 31 bases in 37 tries this year.The key to getting Escobar out is to elevate fastballs. He gets tons of hits on fastballs and sinkers low in the zone, but he’s very willing to chase hard stuff up at the letters and above, and he can’t handle it at all, especially from the middle of the plate in. Obviously, no pitcher likes to throw to that area too much, lest a fastball up and in end up being just in, but look for Bumgarner, especially, to throw his cutter and heat right over Escobar’s hands a few times.
- Norichika Aoki, Right Field – Aoki is a lefty batter, but actually hit lefties better than righties this season:
Reverse platoon splits are very rarely real; they usually arise as statistical oddities, nothing more. When you watch Aoki hit, though, you can see why he’s better against southpaws. His game is to punch the ball to left field. Left-handers instinctively pitch lefties away, away, away, and Aoki can take advantage of that. Aoki is the opposite of Escobar in many ways, not least that a pitcher should hardly ever throw him a fastball. He’s not a power hitter, but fastballs turn into singles whenever they get near Aoki. Pounding him with secondary stuff, especially good changeups, is the way to attack him. Sergio Romo will be the best matchup Bruce Bochy can look for late in games, if indeed Aoki is around by then.
- Lorenzo Cain, Center Field: Aoki and Escobar put plenty of pressure on a defense. Batting Cain right after them is almost unfair. The three hitters at the top of the Royals’ order combined for 89 infield hits this season, with Cain’s 31 leading the way. Cain also steals bases often, and efficiently, and if he’s not enough fun on the field, there’s his well-loved origin story to win you over.He’s aggressive, like Escobar. He won’t draw walks. He can barrel the ball up and split the gap, though, and even when he doesn’t, he’s a solid singles hitter. Only seven righty batters who put at least 50 balls in play the other way this season had higher batting averages on those balls than did Cain. He kills fastballs, even hits them for power, but good offspeed stuff gives him trouble. Against righties, Cain chases low and away on soft stuff, and does nothing with it.I’m burying the lede, though. Cain’s chief asset is his defense, and especially, his athleticism in center field. Cain might well be the best defensive outfielder in baseball right now, or at least the best one who hits well enough to play regularly. He evokes Devon White. Look at some of those green dots! Cain’s range is outstanding. He steals doubles regularly. In the large center fields boasted by both home parks, Cain’s defense will play a role during this Series.
- Eric Hosmer, First Base: Hosmer was out with an injury for most of the 30-game hot streak that brought the Royals to the playoffs. He went just 1-for-12 when he did appear during that stretch, one that saw Kansas City go 24-6.He’s spent the playoffs making up for lost time. Two of the three best single-game playoff performances in Royals history, in terms of what they added to the chances of victory in that game, belong to Hosmer. He was the most hyped of those so-hyped Royals prospects, and this month, he’s doing his best to earn that.Hosmer hasn’t shown opposite-field power in 2014, though he nearly took a ball out to left-center field during the Wild Card Game against Oakland. That would have been his first homer to the left of true center all season:He struggles against good breaking stuff, so Bumgarner will handle him easily if his curve is working. If not, things get trickier. Hosmer is good at guessing when a pitcher is going to pound the outside corner, waiting for that pitch to creep up to about the belt, then lacing the ball.
- Billy Butler, Designated Hitter: Butler is a good, disciplined hitter, not a huge drawer of walks but one willing to take a pitch or to hit it as the pitch itself invites. He remains that, and that’s good, because the power seems all but gone. Unless Butler can cheat on a fastball and get his bat started early, he’s not going to drive the ball with the same authority he has over the last several years.
||Isolated Power (ISO) v. Hard Stuff (Fastballs, Sinkers, Cutters)
Butler is often lifted for a pinch-runner if he reaches base in the seventh inning or later. It’ll nearly always be Terrance Gore who runs for him, because they can then pinch-hit for Gore without losing the DH. Butler should be a bench-only option during the San Francisco leg of the Series.
- Alex Gordon, Left Field: Gordon is a patient hitter, unafraid to swing and miss, though not overwhelmingly given to it. He’s a dead-red hitter, hoping to find a fastball and ambush it. He mostly keyholes the center of the zone, but he has fine plate coverage. There are ways to get him out, but he’s the hardest out in the Kansas City batting order. He swung and missed just 25 times on over 260 swings when pitchers came into the zone with two strikes this year. You have to get him to go fishing to whiff him.Gordon is also the best defensive left fielder in baseball, getting great jumps, charging ground balls and would-be gappers aggressively, chasing down everything and using the best arm ever wasted on left field to keep runners right where they are in the process. He’s as much fun to watch as Cain, just in a different way.
- Salvador Perez, Catcher: In the first half of 2014, Salvador Perez hit really well:
Here’s a graphic showing how often he swung at pitches in given locations during that period: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/plot_h_profile.php?s_type=13&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=month&player=521692&startDate=01/01/2014&endDate=07/13/2014&minmax=ci&var=swing&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1Obviously, this is an aggressive hitter, but just as clearly, it works. This is Perez in his element, his comfort zone. In the second half, he fell way out of that zone. http://www.brooksbaseball.net/plot_h_profile.php?s_type=13&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=month&player=521692&startDate=07/14/2014&endDate=12/31/2014&minmax=ci&var=swing&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1 That’s ugly. And the batting line it produced was even uglier:
Perez plays too much. The Royals had him start 150 games this season. He’s a poor pitch-framer, a poor blocker of balls in the dirt and a lost cause at the plate, at least right now. The Royals take great pride in Perez. They see him as a great asset. For the purposes of this Series, I think they’re wrong. I think he’s a liability.
- Omar Infante, Second Base: For a guy who got $40 million over four years this winter, Infante was brutal. He still avoided striking out about as well as anyone, but he also still didn’t walk much, and the power hiccup he had in 2012 has never really repeated itself. He flashes it when he’s sitting on something and gets it, but don’t expect to see that during this Series.In the field, Infante is competent, a nice piece of a great overall defensive puzzle, not a star but never a problem.
- Mike Moustakas, Third Base: Moustakas is a rare animal in today’s game. At a time when offense is shrinking due to the pitchers dominating the strike zone, and when strikeout rates are through the roof for many of the league’s best power hitters, Moustakas is one player who is struggling not because of his walk rate (acceptable) or his whiff rate (better than most!), but because he simply makes too much weak contact.The problem is that good fastballs on the inner third of the plate eat Moustakas up. He seems good at getting his pitch, and he doesn’t miss it altogether, but he just can’t seem to avoid getting tied up by that pitch. Maybe a mechanical adjustment can unlock his potential someday. For now, he has some power and some patience, but not enough of either to overcome all the groundouts and lazy fly balls. Like the rest of the Royals, though, he makes sure not to take his struggles at the plate with him into the field. He’s a solidly above-average third baseman.
San Francisco Giants
- Bruce Bochy, Manager: Bochy is widely considered a future Hall of Famer in the dugout, and perhaps the smartest skipper in the National League. That’s a bit like being the classiest Hawaiian shirt in the Southwest ticketing line, but it’s probably true. He doesn’t allow his charges to feel left out to dry, nor left in the dark about their place on the team. He’s an above-average tactician, although he still lays down too many bunts and he’ll have to adjust his old strategy of letting his starters go deep in playoff games now that Cain and Lincecum are gone from the rotation. If this Series comes down to the skippers, the Giants will win.
- Gregor Blanco, Center Field: Blanco is an instructive example of what I mentioned earlier, in connection with Aoki. I said that Aoki was an exception to the rule that reverse platoon splits are nearly always mirages. Blanco is one who showed a reverse split this year, but definitely does not have a reverse split skill. Check out the surface-level numbers:
(Blanco bats left-handed.) Now, though, check out the numbers that really isolate his skills:
BABIP fluctuates wildly. Players have much more control over their walks, strikeouts and power than over whether balls fall for singles or get caught on the run by an outfielder. Anyway, Blanco just illustrates that point nicely. He’s a good hitter, plenty of patience, gets the ball in play, but he utterly lacks power. His .107 overall ISO this season was a career high, though it still fell 30-odd points shy of the league average. Angel Pagan being hurt hurts the Giants offense and their defense. Blanco is a stellar left fielder, on range alone. He’s not awful in center field, but he is stretched there.
- Joe Panik, Second Base: Joe Panik is just a red-blooded American rookie, hoping to hit your fastball. The only good way to pitch him with anything hard is to get it in over his hands, forcing him to either pop it up or yank it foul. He’s hit over .300 this year because people struggle to do that consistently. A better strategy might be to force-feed him soft stuff low and away, but locating their isn’t always as easily said as it is done, especially for right-handed pitchers. Panik has really impressed me with his whole offensive package, in a small sample. Unsurprisingly, as a college shortstop, Panik easily handles second base with the glove.
- Buster Posey, Catcher: Posey can hit anything, really, except the things no one can hit, like sliders out of the zone low and away. His swing is so perfect, he can fluidly drive the ball from foul line to foul line. He makes impressive adjustments when he recognizes secondary stuff, sometimes in the middle of launching his swing, and still gets the barrel of the bat to the ball. His one hole really is sliders low and away from righties. He’ll chase those. Wade Davis is going to have to win a major confrontation or two with Posey in order for the Royals to win this Series.Posey could be the Series MVP, though, even if he’s held relatively in check offensively. This Giants pitching staff offers all kinds of challenges past ones haven’t, like increased risk of wild pitches, some trouble holding on runners and some stubborn Southern confidence in diminished raw stuff. Handling that staff will be Posey’s second-biggest job. Hitting will be his third-biggest. The biggest will be containing those running Royals. Bumgarner is very good in this regard; we might not see Kansas City try anything until Game Two. Whenever they do start running, though, Posey has to be able to stop them, or it will spell trouble.
- Pablo Sandoval, Third Baseman: It could be that, by the end of this Series, Sandoval will have the fourth-longest streak of games reaching base in the Postseason, ever. He really finds another gear in October. He changes his approach, becomes more patient, because he knows pitchers will pitch more to the scouting report in October, and the scouting report on Sandoval says, ‘Don’t throw a strike.’Really, there’s no good prescription for getting out Sandoval. He can swing with force and precision at pitches just about anywhere in his area code. The best thing to do is to throw your best pitch with conviction, read his swing and try to catch him off-balance. Good luck. A big Series could make Sandoval huge bucks in free agency.
- Hunter Pence, Right Field: Pence is San Francisco’s answer to Gordon, consistent, the heart of the team, and death to misplaced fastballs. He takes a long stride into his swing, comically long with his legs, and the bat flashes to the ball easily once that momentum starts. He’s interesting in terms of splits, too, maintaining a near-zero platoon differential but hitting very differently based on the handedness of his opposing pitcher. He hits for much more power against righties, but better control of the zone against lefties balances things out.
- Michael Morse, Designated Hitter: Just guessing at where Morse will slot into the batting order, but that matters less than what he does there, anyway. Morse should have some rust to shake in terms of taking full games of at-bats, something he hasn’t done since early September. Still, he’s a dangerous hitter, and the common thread among the Royals’ starters is that their greatest vulnerability is home-run proclivity. The trio in the bullpen never gives up the long ball, so Morse needs to have his impact early in games. (There’s more on Morse, the Giants and AT&T Park here.)
- Brandon Belt, First Base: Belt had what felt like it would be the Giants’ most memorable home run of the Postseason, until the eighth inning of Game Five of the NLCS, when he went deep to give the Giants a 2-1 lead in the 18th inning of Game Two during the NLDS. It came on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, too. Belt has always had a flare for the dramatic. Interestingly, Belt missed three months after having thumb surgery early in the season, but has shown few ill effects from it. He seems a bit more tentative about swinging to drive the ball the other way, but hard stuff inside—the thing you would think a tender thumb would most balk at—hasn’t fazed Belt since his return. In fact, he’s sort of killed that stuff.
- Travis Ishikawa, Left Field: As cool as the Ishikawa story is, the presence of Morse in the lineup almost nullifies the need for him. The reason Ishikawa’s career was endangered in the first place was that good fastballs—simple four-seam heat, really anything a pitcher could keep above the belt—beat him consistently. He has holes in his swing inside, and on the outer third of the plate. Unless he can sit on a fastball and get started early, he’s not going to hurt you. He owns a .595 career OPS against lefties, largely because he isn’t able to stay short to the ball on pitches low and away. Obviously, Ishikawa is also a far worse defensive left fielder than, say, Juan Perez would be.
- Brandon Crawford, Shortstop: When Crawford hit the grand slam that would turn out to be more than the Giants needed in the Wild Card Game, John Kruk mentioned how well, how steadily Crawford’s top hand controlled his bat through the hitting zone. He quoted Barry Bonds: “If I can get my top hand to the ball, I’ll beat you every time.” It’s a clumsy expression, probably not Bonds’s exact words, but it did bring something to my mind: Crawford worked a lot with Bonds during the week the Hall of Fame-caliber slugger spent with the team during Spring Training. He specifically mentioned training his top hand when discussing the sessions with reporters afterward. It’s nothing anyone will confuse with Bonds’s best work, but Crawford did proceed to have the best season of his career, by far. Taking heed of Bonds’s mantras about getting one’s pitch, Crawford pushed his walk rate over 10 percent. He racked up 40 extra-base hits, easily a career high and a strong number for a shortstop at the bottom of an order. He still jumps at the ball sometimes, especially when he feels like he has the hurler figured out and guesses fastball (wrongly), but he’s become an offensive asset, in addition to a smooth glove at short. Bonds deserves some credit for that. Crawford deserves more, for his work ethic, and for being open to Bonds’s instruction. The Royals may spend much more time focusing on the Giants’ other threats, only to have Crawford cause big trouble.
Running Through the Pitchers and Bench Players I’m out of time to keep writing here, and pitchers are unpredictable and fluky anyway. Let’s just do some one-line analysis of the other players who’ll play a role in the Series: Kansas City Royals
- James Shields will start Game One. His nickname is Big Game James, but he actually sucks in the playoffs. He’s been serviceable this month, though, and he does have the changeup to combat some of the lefties for the Giants who struggle most with soft stuff away. Best Matchup: Joe Panik Worst Matchup: Pablo Sandoval
- Yordano Ventura is on tap for Game Two. His loose command of the fastball up in the zone is going to get him in trouble, but the raw stuff should keep him competitive. Best Matchup: Gregor Blanco Worst Matchup: Hunter Pence
- Jeremy Guthrie should get a start sometime in the Series, there being no claustrophobic concerns about all the fly balls he allows. He just needs to keep throwing strikes and trust his defense, because he doesn’t have the stuff to throw the ball past the Giants hitters. Best Matchup: Michael Morse Worst Matchup: Travis Ishikawa
- Jason Vargas has an unusually important role in this Series, with the bottom half of the Giants order so chock-full of lefty bats who can hurt a right-hander. He just has to dance around Posey, pence and Morse without getting shelled… Best Matchup: Brandon Belt Worst Matchup: Buster Posey
- Greg Holland has the power breaking ball to get Posey expanding his zone and the fastball to keep all the other Giants from getting good wood on the ball. Best Matchup: Pablo Sandoval Worst Matchup: Hunter Pence
- Wade Davis stretched comfortably against the trigger-happy Orioles, using their aggressiveness against them. The Giants grind out at-bats better, so it’ll be harder for Yost to milk Davis. Best Matchup: Gregor Blanco Worst Matchup: Brandon Belt
- Kelvin Herrera hasn’t given up a home run in some 15 months. Stylistically, the Giants are the team to change that, but a few teams could have been, and none have been yet. Best Matchup: Pablo Sandoval Worst Matchup: Brandon Crawford
San Francisco Giants
- Madison Bumgarner, literally a man of Bumtown, is impossible not to love, just as an archetype. He does all sorts of things well, including hitting, holding runners on and fielding his spot. He’s also a 25-year-old absolute ace. Best Matchup: Alex Gordon Worst Matchup: Norichika Aoki
- Jake Peavy has really come around since joining the Giants, but the tough lefties in the Kansas City lineup pose a serious problem for him. Best Matchup: Alcides Escobar Worst Matchup: Eric Hosmer
- Tim Hudson didn’t have great stuff in Game Four of the NLCS, but he’ll have had plenty of time to rest up by the time Game Three comes. I still suspect that the Royals will have some success against him. Soft stuff is soft stuff. Best Matchup: Salvador Perez Worst Matchup: Billy Butler
- Ryan Vogelsong shouldn’t be getting a start in this Series. Yusmeiro Petit is simply better. Vogelsong will pitch, though, and the Giants will just have to hope the good Vogelsong shows up, as he has previously during October. Best Matchup: Billy Butler Worst Matchup: Alex Gordon
- Hunter Strickland had better find some way to reintroduce movement on his fastball, or prepare to see more lefties go deep against him. At this point, Bruce Bochy may bury him in the bullpen anyway, and only call on him in lower-leverage situations. Best Matchup: Billy Butler Worst Matchup: Mike Moustakas
- Javier Lopez should stay busy all Series, coming in by the seventh inning to face one of Gordon or Hosmer. If he faces the guy between them, Bochy has failed. Best Matchup: Alex Gordon Worst Matchup: Billy Butler
- Jeremy Affeldt can more safely face lefties, but shouldn’t need to do so unless one of the starters blows up. If I’m Bochy, I might consider bringing in both Lopez and Strickland for one batter apiece in some sixth inning, getting Hosmer and Butler, then letting Affeldt cut through the bottom of the order, beginning with Gordon. Best Matchup: Eric Hosmer Worst Matchup: Lorenzo Cain
- Sergio Romo should be able to carve up these Royals, sliders to righties, changeups to lefties. Being a three-pitch reliever sure has its perks. Best Matchup: Norichika Aoki Worst Matchup: Mike Moustakas
- Santiago Casilla will just get stuck in the ninth inning, which is why I prefer Romo as the closer over him. Casilla will have a tougher time getting lefties out than Romo will. Best Matchup: Lorenzo Cain Worst Matchup: Eric Hosmer
Kansas City Royals
The Royals’ bench, as you know, is all about speed. Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore will each appear in the majority of games in the Series, even if they don’t have big chances to make big impacts. It’s nice from their perspective, though, to also have a bat or two that can replace them. Josh Willingham provides pop. Christian Colon is a flexible positional replacement.
San Francisco Giants
Their bench is less sexy, but Morse is the only big pinch-hit bullet they should need during the AT&T portion of the Series, and it’s nice to have both a pair of legs for Morse—Juan Perez can take his place and move right into any fielding position Morse might otherwise occupy—and an extra pinch-running possibility, in Matt Duffy. Like Kansas City’s Erik Kratz, Andrew Susac is a stout backup backstop, if needed.
Finally, I get here, fewer than six hours before the first pitch of Game One. No one’s going to read this now, pressure’s off, so… I’ll go with the Giants, in five games. I strongly prefer their lineup, especially when they get to add Morse to the middle of it and chop the pitcher’s spot off the bottom. I may be talking myself into Panik and Crawford too well, but the whole team can hit a little, or so it seems. Bumgarner is the best pitcher in the Series, and it isn’t close. The Royals have the better bullpen and defense, but it is close. I’m just rooting for good games, and lots of them. Apparently, I can’t bring myself to predict that, even so.