ALCS Preview: Toronto Blue Jays vs Kansas City Royals

I thought this was going to be a fairly interesting series until I started looking at it a bit.

Meanwhile, I struggle with the Royals. They have an elite bullpen and defense, but everything else is just sort of there. There’s no doubting the results over the last season and a half, but I wonder if they’ve taken advantage of an American League that’s been very average the last two years more than KC being very good..

Meanwhile, you have the Blue Jays who under-performed the first few months of the year, partly to luck, partly to a poor pen, and then exploded since the end of July. This really does look like the best team in baseball on paper—the hint of an unstoppable force.

Let’s break it down. (Also check out Ben Lindberg’s preview here)

The Jays were clearly the best hitting team in baseball in 2015. You ready for this? The Jays lead the league in home runs, runs, ISO, on base percentage, slugging, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. Oh and they finished second in walk rate and batting average. And for good measure, they’re a pretty good base running team and don’t strike out.

I love this team. Gets on base, hits for power and doesn’t strike out? I love them.

2015 Offensive Z-Scores: Blue Jays and Royals
Blue Jays
The Jays offensive really is a sight to behold… three standard deviations above the mean in both runs and wOBA? Two standard deviations above in home runs, ISO, OBP, slugging, wRC+? And one standard deve under on strike outs? I mean, there’s so much to love here.

The Royals on the other hand, aren’t a bad offensive team, but other than having the lowest strikeout rate in the league, this isn’t exactly a compelling offense. They don’t walk, but hit enough to get on base at an okay rate (both the Jays and Royals have BABIPs around .300 (.298 and .301 respectively). The Royals don’t hit many home runs, but make up for that a bit by hitting lots of double (3rd in the majors behind, of course, the Jays). It’s a respectable, but fairly average offense.  

If the Jays have a fairly overwhelming advantage on offense, the Royals have as overwhelming of an advantage on defense. Simply put, no one in baseball can run down the baseball better. KC’s UZR of 50.9 was tops in the league by a pretty wide margin (2.2 standard deviations above the mean). Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon go get everything. Alex Rios(!) has had a nice season in right (probably due to Cain if I were to take a guess). And Escobar at short is pretty darn good too. Finally, Perez behind the plate is one of the best in the game… this team is strong up the middle and not bad at all in the corners. They create more outs with their gloves than anyone else in the baseball.

The Jays are fine. Picking up Tulo helped solidify the defense and probably makes it a tad better than what the numbers say. At third, Donaldson is a heck of a player and his glove is a major reason he may win the MVP (MIKE TROUT SKY POINT). Kevin Pillar has been great in center, but this season might be an outlier as he’s never shown anything like this defensively before. Meanwhile, Russell Martin has turned in another fantastic season behind the plate. All in all, the Jays, especially with Tulo, are better than you’d expect up the middle. However, after those four, it’s a number of guys who won’t kill you or aren’t that great with the glove.

Starting Pitching
Both teams added #1 arms to their rotation at the trade deadline which changed (and improved) both rotations. On top of that, the Jays also added Marcus Stroman who missed much of the season with an ACL injury. So if anyone’s numbers should be thrown out, it’s the Jays. That said, let’s take a look.

The Royals rotation is underwhelming: they don’t strike anyone out and they walk more guys than you’d like. They are good at getting inducing ground balls, so it’s a tad surprising the starters BABIP isn’t lower (.300) considering how good of a defensive team they are. And they’ve had some homer luck this season; the Royals starters have the second highest xFIP in the majors this year. All in all, this is not that great of a rotation.

2015 Starting Pitching Z-Scores: Blue Jays and Royals
Blue Jays
It’s a bit unfair to judge the Jays by their starter numbers, but it’s all we’ve got. Mark Buehrle, Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchinson started 71 games for the Jays this year: none are expected to make a start in the ALCS (and Buehrle probably won’t be on the 25 man roster). Nonetheless, the Jays had the second lowest K/9 in the majors this year (thanks Buehrle and Dickey!) AND the second lowest BABIP (partly explained by R.A. Dickey’s 214 innings, knuckleball pitchers tend to have lower BABIPs). Put it together and the Jays starters had the second lowest ERA-FIP spread in the majors (that means they got lucky) trailing only the Cardinals. But with Price, Stroman, and Estrada (plus R.A. Dickey), this is a much different rotation than the numbers you see here. But something to watch for, Estrada’s BABIP is .220 this year while Price’s HR/FB% was 5.8%. Both are unsustainable… doesn’t mean they regress in this series, but keep an eye on (though Price already may have had some market correction in the ALDS).

The Royals continue to have one of the best, if not the best, bullpen in the game. It’s sort of the same story as last year: if the Royals have the lead after 6 innings, they’re going to win (probably). Herrera hasn’t been as lights out as last year, but he’s still been very good. Wade Davis continues to be near unhittable (and it’s gone on for so long now, that it’s probably not a fluke). Ryan Madson has been excellent for them and Danny Duffy is around too.

Meanwhile, the Jays have remade their pen on the fly. And it’s not bad now, however, the injury to Brett Cecil shouldn’t be overlooked. Still: Osuna is good and Liam Hendricks has been excellent. The pen overall does appear to be a bit susceptible to the home run… unlike the Royals, the game ain’t over if the Jays are leading after six.

What Does It Mean?
The Royals success this season has been built on catching the ball and holding onto leads in the late innings. Unfortunately for them, they’re running into a Toronto team that isn’t a good match up. The Royals starters walked more guys than you’d like and face a Toronto team that was second in walk rate. Meanwhile, Houston, who trailed only the Jays in home runs this season, hit 9 homers while striking out 58 times against the Royals. You could see the Jays hitting about two home runs a game but striking out at a much lower rate. And there will probably be guys on base when the Jays do go yard. And while the KC defense can chase down most balls put in play, again, the Jays power negates the Royals defense a bit.

On the flip side, the Royals, put the ball in play and don’t strike out a ton; but Toronto’s pitching staff hasn’t relied on strikeouts this season, neglecting one of KC’s major advantages. Plus the Jays, especially with the addition of Tulo, can chase down the ball a bit. No, they aren’t the Royals when it comes to throwing the glove around, but this isn’t the 2015 White Sox either. While the Royals bullpen should hold down the fort for a game or two, I don’t think their starters are good enough to get to the bullpen with the lead the three or four times they need it to happen to win this series.

Prediction: Blue Jays in six.

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