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73. Royals/Angels Preview

Vol6, No. 73
October 2, 2014
The Rule: The least important words in a playoff preview are the last ones.
Those of you who've been around a while know that I've developed a theory on postseason play that seems to be holding true. Since 2009, when strikeout rates began their recent spike, teams with the better regular-season contact rate are 26-9 in postseason series. That includes a 4-3 mark last season, where the "3" was all the teams that lost to the eventual champion Red Sox. I'm still buying on this indicator. Strikeout rates are eating offenses alive, and when postseason pitching staffs are reduced to the three or four best starters and the three or four best relievers, they go through the roof. The ability to counter that seems -- seems -- to be an indication of potential postseason success. Five years of data, 35 series, isn't enough to be conclusive, but it's enough for me to consider it strongly in making postseason selections.
That brings us to the 2014 Royals, whose season continues, surprisingly, tonight in Anaheim. The Royals were down four runs with six outs to go against a very good starting pitcher backed up by a strong bullpen, but here we are, extending Rany Jazayerli's fever dream into a seventh month. The Royals, as a team, have two offensive skills: putting the ball in play and stealing bases. That's how they scored nine runs against the A's, including six in the final five innings. They were the best contact hitting team in baseball and therefore are the best of the eight teams left in these playoffs:
Contact Rates ((AB-K)/AB), 2014
Royals       82.2%
Cardinals    79.1%
Tigers       79.7%
Dodgers      77.6%
Angels       77.6%
Giants       77.5%
Orioles      77.0%   
Nationals    76.3%
A year ago, I made all of my series picks using this method. While my picks may match this chart this year -- actually, I already know they won't -- it won't be because I'm strictly using it. As you can see, the differences in contact rates among the playoff teams are very small, with four clustered between 77 and 78 percent. 
The Royals, however, are an outlier, and that makes them interesting. They are a team out of time, playing a brand of baseball not only unusual for their day and age, but having success in a manner no one has ever had success before. No team has ever finished last in its league in homers and walks and made the playoffs. As I wrote Monday, a whole lot of circumstances were in play in the 2014 American League that allowed this to happen, but none of that matters this afternoon. The Royals get to play a best-of-five against the Angels with their roster and their particular skill sets.
This is a fair matchup, not a great one, for the Royals. The Angels can catch the ball, with a defense that was top-five in the AL in Defensive Efficiency and the park-adjusted version of the stat. (Man, I miss reading James Click's stuff.) This isn't the 2012 World Series, in which the Giants just exploited the Tigers' terrible defense with batted balls. On the other hand, the Angels may be vulnerable to the Royals' speed. The Angels allowed the third-most stolen bases in the AL, 106, and gave them up at a league-average 73% success rate. That was while allowing just a .305 OBP -- they were putting fewer runners on who could steal. Neither Hank Conger nor Chris Iannetta is an asset against the running game, with Conger particularly vulnerable. This comes into play immediately, with Jered Weaver on the mound tonight. Baserunners were 25-for-30 stealing against Weaver, with his arms-and-legs motion and 90-mph fastball. I'd like to see Ned Yost pull back on the bunting in favor of basestealing, assuming a bit more risk of a negative outcome for the potential of a bigger inning.
Oh, yeah, Ned Yost. After Tuesday, it's tempting to just see him as an instrument of the gods. The key play in the game came when he put on an utterly ridiculous baserunning play with two outs and his best hitter at the plate. The move failed, but the injury Geovany Soto suffered tagging out Eric Hosmer changed the game. No one likes it when statheads talk about luck, but right now, Ned Yost is the luckiest man walking the planet.
The guy in the other dugout would probably change rosters with him. The current Royals are more a SciosciaBall team than any Angels team in recent memory. I do think Mike Scioscia, like Tony La Russa before him, deserves a lot of credit for winning with different rosters. I also think Scioscia would prefer, given his druthers, to have a low-strikeout team that can win relay races. Alas. The team he has is pretty good, but the injury to Garrett Richards was a huge blow. The Angels have no starting pitching depth, which means it's a crisis when rookie Matt Shoemaker hurts his left oblique. Josh Hamilton, who will be in the lineup tonight, is a physical shell who wasn't a very good player between missing most of April and May and then most of September with various injuries: .249/.312/.394, 99/21 K/UIBB, 33% K rate, 2/2 SB/CS. Like the Orioles, the team the Angels put on the field in the Division Series seems disconnected from its gaudy regular-season record.
The Angels are probably the better team here, even with their injuries. The matchup, though, has me favoring the underdog. The Royals are set up well for modern postseason success, not only with the contact rate, but with a shutdown bullpen that, hopefully, Yost will use more aggressively given the generous postseason schedule. They also match up well with the Angels because of the Angels' poor control of the running game. If the Angels were at full strength, especially with Richards, I doubt I would pick against them. As it stands…Royals in four.