Just one week ago the Blue Jays dove into a series against the Texas Rangers with the innocence of a young child. The playoffs weren't that different from the regular season were they? Eight days later, we now know the answer is a definite yes. The team learned how it feels to get punched in the mouth, both figuratively and nearly literally, as well as the effort it takes to reverse the fortunes of a series in three straight elimination games. Toronto now flies into Kansas City, which is in Missouri by the way and not Kansas for anyone confused at home, for a seven-game tussle with the Royals.
The AL Central squad entered the year on the back of last season's magical run from a crazy Wild Card Game to the final contest of the World Series. Expected to be contend for the American League crown, Kansas City came out guns blazing and showed the league that last year was anything but a mirage. The squad remained relatively healthy throughout the season and locked up their first division title in 30 years by a wide margin. The team was also able to secure home field throughout the playoffs over the Jays by two games, which may or not play a factor in this series.
The team did experience a slide in September when their playoff status was all but locked up, although they did end the regular season with five straight wins to regain some momentum. The Royals are pretty dang well-rounded, with fairly solid ranks on both sides of the ball. That being said, their team is made up very differently than the last opponent of the Blue Jays in the Rangers. Where Texas, like Toronto, is built on scoring a bunch of runs and trying to win a slug fest, Kansas City manufactures runs and wins tight games based on solid relief pitching and fantastic defence. In terms of run differential the Royals sat fifth in the MLB with a total of +83, although every team in front of them other than the Blue Jays has since been eliminated from the playoffs.
As you can see, the squad from Missouri never faced much of a fight in their division and cruised their way to a playoff spot:
via pennant-race.com (this site is cool by the way)
It's hard to say a team like the Royals has dominant starting pitching because they don't. The team somehow managed to be worse than Toronto over the course of the year, despite featuring three strong starters in Yordano Ventura, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez. The big deadline deal to acquire Cueto worked out not as good as the team would have expected, with the former Reds ace pitching to a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts with the Royals. That being said, Cueto pitched a great ballgame against Houston on Wednesday night to help the team advance. It's pretty clear the staff lacked a real ace during the course of the season and it was an up and down affair in the ALDS with the Astros as well. In terms of matchups, every starter the Blue Jays will face this series is right-handed unless Danny Duffy is put into the fourth starter role. That's maybe not the best news in the world after what the team did to lefties Martin Perez and Derek Holland, but fortunately the 1-2 punch of the Royals is not quite as strong as what it was with the Rangers.
In the bullpen things get a lot more impressive for Kanas City, as they once again feature one of the best groups in the league. Although it is nowhere near as prolific as last season's dynamite 'pen, the 2015 version features some strong arms including the reanimated corpse of Ryan Madson. The big blow that came to the team near the end of the season was their star closer Greg Holland going down to a season-ending arm injury just as the playoffs came around. While it's an unfortunate injury for the Royals, the lack of Holland in the bullpen makes it even more susceptible to an implosion in the high-pressure environment of the ALCS which is a plus for the Jays. With the Royals starters not going very deep into games in the last series, the Blue Jays will be sure to try and replicate the Astros' success and get to the middle relievers early. Runs will be at a premium and Toronto will have to take them wherever they can.
When considering most of the pitchers on the team, you see that their ERAs are much lower than their FIPs. This is not a coincidence. The Royals are an elite defensive team. A large portion of Kansas City's fielding positions are manned by Gold Glove candidates, including Eric Hosmer at first and Salvador Perez behind the plate. It's likely that the team wouldn't be where they are right now without such tremendous glove play. In terms of defensive rankings, no one in the league came anywhere close to the Royals during the regular season and it's an often overlooked reason why the team doesn't have to score a bunch of runs to win ballgames.
The Royals offence isn't exactly a well-oiled slugging machine like a team such as the Astros or...Blue Jays? While they feature a good number of big names, mainly Kendrys Morales, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Mike Moustakas, and Alex Gordon, no one stands out as a real offensive star. Similar to their starting rotation, the Royals offence wins games by producing value from a variety of different solid contributors. No one on the team is a true offensive powerhouse, but the lineup has good players everywhere you look which helps them win tight ballgames. I don't think a lot of teams would trade their best offensive player for the Royals best offensive player, probably Lorenzo Cain, but a multitude of teams would certainly be willing to swap entire their lineup with the AL Central squad.
For a starting staff that is still shaky, the Blue Jays could have problems with this type of consistent approach from the Royals. Furthermore, the big guns in the lineup really do enjoy some right-handed pitching. Morales, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Gordon all hit from the left side (Morales is a switch-hitter who prefers RHP) and should have a good amount of success against the Toronto staff. With the absence of Brett Cecil in the bullpen and the questionable status of Aaron Loup, it's going to be a challenge for John Gibbons to navigate the Royals lineup on a daily basis. The only benefit being that David Price will be in a position of strength when he makes his start against a squad that went down easily to fellow lefty Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel in Game 3 of the ALDS. Of course the Blue Jays just got done beating another left-handed-heavy crew in the Rangers so it's not time to go crazy and panic yet. It's certainly a weakness to watch out for though.
Despite their stadium being slightly more friendly to hitters than it is to pitchers, the Royals don't feature a ton of home run power. They had three guys, Morales, Moustakas, and Perez, hit 21 or 22 home runs this year but that's as much power as you'll get from the team. A lot of the guys are capable of taking a pitcher deep, but none of them do it on a regular basis. Good news for a relatively strong defensive ball club like the Blue Jays.
I guess it makes sense to start with the immediate playoff past and work your way backwards. The Royals are fresh off the heels of a Game 5 win over the Houston Astros in the ALDS on Wednesday night that would be the game everyone was talking about if it wasn't for the other contest that happened to come just before it. A back and forth series saw the Astros up 2-1 going into Game 4, where they were just six outs away from an ALCS berth. Then the unthinkable happened:
After that heartbreak, Houston was still able to get themselves a 2-0 lead in Game 5 before blowing another lead and losing the game 7-2. With the Texas Rangers still trying to process the unfathomable collapse that had just occurred, their state rivals were left doing the same just a few hours later. Last Sunday morning most sportswriters were already preparing their Battle of Texas headlines and by Wednesday night both teams were sent packing. Playoff baseball is great. Everyone gets to think they're the team of destiny. Nobody actually is. It's a crapshoot.
If we think back just one year earlier we remember the Royals' magical unbeaten run to the World Series where they were cruelly beat out by the Giants in the final game. While that team felt like they were playing with house money, the 2015 edition feels as though it's World Series or bust after how close they came just 12 months ago.
After 2014, the playoff history for the Royals becomes a lot more of a distant memory. All the way back in 1985 was their previous postseason appearance, where they faced a familiar team by the name of the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS. On the back of George Brett's heroics, Kansas City reversed a 3-1 series lead for Toronto and took the series in Game 7 at Exhibition Stadium. Many fans of both teams will likely watch the upcoming ALCS never knowing the events of 1985, but it is certainly a cool piece of history to look back on. I've linked the video of a great series recap by Bob Costas if you'd like to see the action for yourself.
The teams faced off in two series' in the dog days of summer this season, with the Blue Jays taking four of the seven games. The first series in Kansas City was won by the Royals in some good contests that included an 11-10 series finale win for Kansas City. Then right during the madness of the trade deadline, the Jays took three of four at the Rogers Centre in a wild couple of days of baseball. Some bad blood throughout the series eventually boiled over during the final game, as Edinson Volquez went a little wild and threw at everyone wearing a blue jersey.
Of course the two teams are a tinderbox for confrontation considering the craziness that is Ventura and Volquez combined with the eccentric displays at the plate from Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. This series is guaranteed to feature a fair amount of fireworks before it is all said and done, so hold on to your hats.
By this point in the season the Royals lineup is pretty well set in stone.
C Salvador Perez (R)
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
LF Alex Gordon (L)
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
RF Alex Rios (R)
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
The bench will likely feature a ridiculous amount of speed. If the ALDS roster is anything to go off of, then the dynamite Terrance Gore will be included along with Jarrod Dyson, and Paulo Orlando who sounds like the name of a shady cop in a 1970's movie. All three players are speedy outfielders with minimal additional value added at the plate. Drew Butera is the extra catcher while the fourth overall draft pick in 2010, Christian Colon, is the extra infielder. There's always a chance Jonny Gomes could be included on the bench, but his value comes mainly against left-handed pitchers which the Blue Jays have very little of.
In the ALDS, the Royals had their nine-man lineup see essentially every at bat in every game and I wouldn't expect that to change in this series. They have their horses and they'll ride them as far as they'll go.
Offensive Player to Watch
At any given time, a bunch of different players can step up for this Royals squad. Take the last series for example, as their best offensive players were those who you would consider the weakest pieces of their lineup. Alex Rios and Salvador Perez had huge impacts on the series despite finding themselves at the bottom of the order. All that being said, for the upcoming ALCS my offensive player to watch is Lorenzo Cain. The center fielder had his breakout season in 2015 and is the only .300 hitter on the entire Royals team. The third hitter in the lineup is the most consistent offensive player and has been the backbone of this 2015 Kansas City squad. Defensively, he's in the conversation as one of the top CFs in the game alongside Kevin Pillar. Lorenzo Cain could be a very tough out for the Blue Jay pitchers throughout this series.
Pitcher to Watch
The best hurler on the Royals seems to change from day to day, so picking one is a challenge. The man who will likely have the most impact, for better or for worse, is Wade Davis. The new Royals closer after Holland's injury, Davis has transitioned from failed starter and afterthought of the James Shields trade to the biggest piece of the team's bullpen. The former Rays product found himself pitching at the end of each of Kansas City's ALDS wins against Houston, allowing just one hit and striking out five. The intimidating closer throws a fastball and cutter in the high 90's and has put up wicked strikeout numbers in back-to-back years. It would be wise from the Blue Jays point of view to have the game in hand before letting Wade Davis get anywhere close to the mound.
My prediction last week of a straightforward ALDS win in four games resembled very little of what transpired against the Texas Rangers. I don't think anyone could have predicted what actually did end up happening. For this upcoming series I predict the Blue Jays to win the series in six games. While the Royals are a good team and a great story, they have no pitcher that can be counted on to dominate a team like Toronto such as Cole Hamels did. Volquez, Ventura, and Cueto are good pitchers capable of pitching great games, but I don't see them being able to do enough against the powerful Jays lineup to swing the tide of the series. Although I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the Toronto rotation, Kansas City doesn't feature enough star power offensively to tear them apart. Of course, if even one or two of the dependable Royals players get hot at the right time then this series could go the complete other direction and make me look like an idiot. What I can predict is that the games will be entertaining and that the benches will clear at least once. Bring on the ALCS.