Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014 World Series preview

By Rick Morris

[NOTE: 4-4 record through the playoffs.]

So now the 2014 postseason has come down to Team Bret Saberhagen vs. Bret Saberhagen’s old team.  Like the hero of the 1985 postseason, San Francisco has this every-other-year deal down pat, seeking their third world championship since 2010.  In their way: the Kansas City Royals, making their first appearance in the postseason since their 1985 world championship!

While the national media is never going to be in a hurry to accord dynasty status to a team other than the Yankees or Red Sox, the Giants certainly qualify at this point, the first slam-dunk candidate since the turn-of-the-century Yankees.  As such, it’s fitting that in the year that Derek Jeter retires, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey each are making a claim for the torch to be passed to them – with both having helped to put the Giants over the top for the first time in this run as rookies in 2010.  Past FDH Lounge guest Jayson Stark makes a good case for Posey here, but he also noted that in a postseason that has been unkind to legitimate aces, Bumgarner has stood alone.  John Schlegel of notes that the two are in rare company in any event.

These two, along with Bruce Bochy – who is staking a claim as one of the game’s greatest managers ever – exemplify this San Francisco team that, like the Yankees of about 15 years ago, is built every bit as much on cohesion as eye-popping talent, if not more so.  The team has yet to make a deep run in a year when they were a legitimate big October favorite.  Recall how the likes of the Angels, Tigers, Nationals and Dodgers were dominating attention coming into this postseason and none of them even made it as far as the League Championship Series.

In fact, the Giants’ perceived vulnerability – with 88 regular season wins, they actually notched one less than the Royals (in a very weak division, no less), meaning that for the first time since 2006 the world champion will have won less than 90 before the postseason – undermines the theme of Dynasty vs. Destiny that so many media hacks are going to try to force on this series (David Schoenfield of ESPN even goes so far as to argue that this is a historically below-par matchup in terms of regular-season accomplishments).  This entire playoff run seems destined to go down as an anomaly, since baseball instituted the wild-card game in 2012 to disincentive making the postseason without winning a division and instead, for the only time ever except 2002 (which also included the Giants, then with the Angels), the World Series matches two wild card clubs.  Given that Garrett Richards’ season-ending injury further depleted an unusually thin AL playoff roster in terms of legitimate aces and that many NL aces weren’t as effective as hoped in October (looking your way, Dodgers and Cardinals!), having teams with lesser records slip through even with the burden of the extra winner-take-all game before the LDS round is more understandable – especially since, as noted above, Bumgarner has been the one real ace who has meant anything at all in this month.

This is also an instance of two teams having faced off in the regular season, which is not an every-year occurrence by any stretch of the imagination.  The Royals swept the Giants in Kansas City from August 8-10, most notably overcoming one of Bumgarner’s four complete-game efforts this season.  As they are now, the Royals were hot then; the Giants, not so much, so the games may not have much to tell us.

San Francisco was by far a pitching-first team in 2010 and 2012, and while we’ve previously noted that this year’s staff is not as good as its predecessors, but the hitting punch is superior, it’s still jarring to see that Kansas City (facing the DH all year, keep in mind), was almost equal to the Giants in ERA, 3.51, to 3.50.  There are few other pitching numbers that indicate a break one way or another, but San Francisco’s edge in KO/9, 7.5-7.2, reflects what you would think, that the Royals have more pitch-to-contact hurlers.

Of course, this does not include the back end of the bullpen, one of the greatest 1-2-3 combos in the history of the game.  Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are arguably the three best Royals and they form an incredible wall of defense – to match the actual, possibly-best-in-the-game-defense – of late-inning leads.  San Francisco’s bullpen is nothing to sneeze at, but it does not inspire nearly the same amount of trepidation.

Kansas City’s defense is fueled mostly by speed (with the rest due to positioning resulting from an incredible application of hit-location metrics), which invariably leads to talk about their MLB-leading 153 stolen bases being the flip side of being a squad of slappies that brought up the rear in baseball with 95 home runs.  But Jonah Keri’s excellent piece at Grantland was right on the money; Point #2 of this column cites baseball guru Ron Shandler’s saying “Once you display a skill, you own it.”  A lineup that should have Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler at its core (the phrase “should have” is used deliberately, since Ned Yost has been known to scatter them through the lineup as though they were shot out of a glitter cannon)  should not be worse than the lower part of the MLB bell curve in power, regardless of how many slappies surround them.  Had anyone told you three or four years ago that the Royals would be in the World Series, you’d have assumed that most or all of them would have become MVP candidates and only Gordon is even close right now.  The Royals were last in baseball in home runs because their power sources collectively underachieved horrifically and, given the opportunity to play more than 162 games, they have progressed to the mean.  Their continued success depends on the continuation of this trend.

After facing Detroit in 2012 and Texas in 2010 in the World Series, the Giants (who mashed 132 taters in the regular season) are in the unusual position of ranking as outsluggers instead of outsluggees.  A good chunk of the power came from massive Mike Morse in the first half of the season, but regression and injury have not been kind to him since.  And not that any two players can serve as a complete microcosm for purposes of team comparison, but it’s safe to say that Brandon Crawford’s 10 home runs represent San Francisco’s overachievement just as much as Billy Butler’s paltry nine home runs represent Kansas City’s underachievement. 

Both ballparks emphasize pitching and defense, indicating that there will be less difference than usual between AL-hosted and NL-hosted games this year.  However, as is generally the case, the Royals will be hurt by the lack of DH in San Francisco (either Hosmer or Butler must sit, further depressing the potential power supply available) more than the Giants benefit from tossing in one of their bench players as designated hitter in Kansas City.  Fortunately for KC, they have home field advantage, however, which lessens their plight somewhat.

In terms of less measurable aspects of the game, the consensus is that the Giants possess a great edge in the dugout with Bochy over Yost and that makes great sense.  However, as strange as many of his moves have seemed, Yost has had the golden touch this postseason and certainly deserves much credit for his role in Kansas City’s defensive alignments.  And seeing Yost add Bochy’s pelt to the wall would seem much less strange as the culmination of a crazy-hot run that previously saw Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter victimized.

Not to be underestimated is the frustration factor that the Royals bring to the fore, a major reason that we picked them to get past Baltimore after deploying it on the Angels.  They are a very irritating squad to oppose, with so many hits that should fall in against them but don’t and so many extra bases obtained in ways that most teams cannot.  But, like the Yankees to which they were compared above, these Giants do not wilt mentally in ways that the Royals can exploit.  They have already beaten a much better team on paper (Washington) and a postseason-hardened team of comparable skill and tough-mindedness (St. Louis).  Compared to the recent postseason pedigree of the teams that Kansas City has beaten in the playoffs already, San Francisco does not seem vulnerable to letting the Royals get in their heads, even though the regular-season experience was pretty brutal.

Because of the number of strange factors brought to the World Series by these two unlikely participants, this feels like one of the hardest ones to forecast in many years.  The Giants dropped a game to both Washington and St. Louis, while the Royals have been perfect all the way through.  Facing the likes of Madison Bumgarner in Game 1 (and likely Game 5) will present them with a challenge the likes of which they haven’t seen this October, and whenever they do lose a game (which seems incredibly likely to happen at least once), unlike the Giants, they’ll have to confront how they deal with it for the first time.  Additionally, with Kansas City’s style pretty much unprecedented among World Series winners unless you go way back (probably to the 1980s?), there is a question in terms of sample size.  They have played only eight games this October and you have to think that the more they play, the more that their style will be exposed as beatable.  The prime question there is whether an additional 4-7 games will expand the sample size sufficiently for the Royals to regress to the mean in time.  The sense is that it very well may.  While you’d have to like Kansas City’s odds against almost any other team in the game right now, the grizzled, been-there, seen-that Giants may be immune to Royal Fever.  With questions remaining about the shoulder of ace-in-the-making Yordano Ventura and potentially some heroics from Tim Hudson (making his World Series debut at long last), look for the Giants to avoid the Royals’ late-inning trap enough times to become the first National League team in 68 years (the Cardinals were world champions in 1942, 1944 and 1946) to win their third World Series in five years.  Pick: San Francisco in 6.

No comments: