2014 World Series Preview;
The Kansas City Royals, an Appreciation
Three years ago, during the 2011 postseason, I wrote almost daily about October’s on-field happenings. That particular post-season, featuring 38 games played (only three less than the maximum possible) and a month of Ron Washington, created material for 2,000 word essays on a daily basis. For writers with a critical-reasoning slant, Ron Washington was a gift that kept on giving and it wasn’t hard to write columns with a unique view of the decision making. Unique, because there wasn’t much competition from the national press.
For years the best critical daily writing about baseball resided behind pay walls at Baseball Prospectus’ website, but as their super-talented writers graduated to national media platforms while print sportswriting simultaneously lost market share, the baseball-writing landscape shifted and looks very different today than it did ten, five and even three years ago. To be sure, that’s not why I don’t write about playoff baseball on a daily basis in 2014. Having returned to the world of financial industry, unlike two and three years ago, I am no longer a full-time writer. But over the last three weeks of playoff baseball, I have had passionate in- and post-game views of Ned Yost, Mike Matheny, et al only to see them expertly covered not only in expected outlets like FanGraphs and Grantland but at Deadspin, Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, and on and on. Hell, “cluster luck” the linchpin of my memoir gets cited and recalculated in numerous corners of the web. These days, national points of view completely devoid of analytical reasoning, such as Keith Olbermann’s laughable, indefensible defense of Mike Matheny, are the exception not the rule.
That sets the stage for why I’m excited to put pen to paper (digitally) for the first time this postseason by addressing the Kansas City Royals’ performance in the ALDS and the ALCS. The narrative that’s emerged, unanimously as far as I can tell, from the digital-based sportswriting set is that the Royals are a wonderful story – for the city of Kansas City, for those who love underdogs, for small-market teams, etc. – who have created the perfect post-season team. However, the narrative continues, despite a masterful combination of speed, defense, and an unhittable bullpen, the Royals are one of the worst teams to ever play in the World Series. They are, the thinking goes, in the midst of a heater all while residing in a bed of 4-leaf clovers, lucky charms, and horseshoes.
There is some surface data to back up the “worst World Series team” claim. The Royals won 89 games and it’s historically rare for a team with less than 90 wins to make the World Series (just six of 76 teams in the last 40 years, ex-1981 and 1994.) Further, the Royals had the 3rd worst run differential during the regular season (+27) of those sub-90 win teams. Of course, while accurate, that’s not exactly a fair statement. Sub-90 win teams historically didn’t make the World Series because only the league’s best team (through 1968) or each division’s best team made the playoffs through 1993.
Run differential, as the study of sabermetrics has taught data-conscious fans, runs hand-in-hand with winning percentage because it’s a truer reflection of talent level over 162 games. And that goes to the tenants of sabermetrics: Great teams (and for the most part, only great teams) do dominating things over the course of a season. Or, as Ron Shandler succinctly puts it, “once you demonstrate a skill, you own it.”
When looking at feats it’s important, of course, to distinguish between skill and random variation. For instance, a five-game winning streak may feel dominate as it occurs, leading to features on MLB Tonight and discussions about how a certain team is a “team to watch” but the fact is there is nothing remarkable about a five-game winning streak. Over the course of 162 games, virtually every team will experience both five game winning and losing streaks. In fact, 26 of 30 MLB teams had at least one five-game winning streak in 2014 including the Texas Rangers and the Colorado Rockies, losers of 95 and 96 games, respectively.
So when the Kansas City Royals swept the Anaheim Angels three-games-to-none and led the Baltimore Orioles two-games-to-none (on the way to a 4-0 sweep) no commentators seemed willing to rethink their opinion on the Royals. “This is fun,” they told us, “but it’s just another example of Billy Beane’s famous quote about the playoffs.” Or, for the crankier commentator it served as an indictment of Bud Selig’s successful effort to expand the playoffs.
However, there was more to those five straight wins (now part of a current 8-game winning streak) than met the eye. You see, in winning those five straight games – against the two teams with the most regular season wins in 2014 – the Royals never trailed at the end of an inning. That’s right, the Royals won five straight games without ever trailing at the end of any of the 50 innings they played in those games (three of which featured extra innings.)
The more I thought about it, even without considering the quality of the opponent, that appeared remarkable to me. First of all, as it relates to the post-season narrative, Kansas City hasn’t really been lucky in any of the games versus the Angels or the Orioles because they never trailed with the same amount of resources (outs) left. Can you really call someone lucky if they never inflicted, to use a poker term, a “bad beat” on you? (The Royals defeat of the A’s in the Wild Card/Coin Flip/Play-In game was, however, absolutely a “bad beat” for Oakland.) Further, to accomplish such a streak you have to win mini-battle after mini-battle for an extended period of time. It would seem like a trait only the most dominant teams could possess.
So I started down the rabbit hole.
(Please note: The following is the result of a tedious review of box scores and winning streaks during the 2014 season using baseball-reference.com. Until verified by better authorities, it should be considered raw, first-level findings at this point.)
As you know from my pre-season writing, I called for big things from the Seattle Mariners in 2014 so I followed them pretty closely this year. As other Mariners fans can attest, Seattle ran hot and cold all year. When they ran hot, it was often due to a dominating starting pitching staff so I suspected the Mariners were a prime candidate to have run off a 5-game string without trailing. Well, the Mariners had 4 separate five-game winning streaks in 2014 but none during which they never trailed. So I kept going.
It turns out a handful of teams did accomplish the feat in 2014. The Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers all pulled off five-game winning streaks without ever trailing at the end of an inning. That’s three division winners, another team (the Braves) which spent 94 calendar days – more than half the season – in first place, and a less-impressive Tampa Bay Rays. For 2014 at least, it sure seems like you had to be a very good team to accomplish this feat.
Those are the teams with five-game strings. However one team did it twice during the 2014 regular season. And they didn’t stop at five wins either time. One team had a six- and a seven-game winning streak in 2014 during which they never trailed at the end of an inning. This team not only displayed dominance in excess of what any other team did during the regular season – they did it twice!
At this point, you’ve probably figured out that a Dr. Seuss book will have a more surprising plot point than what I’m going to tell you next: The Kansas City Royals were that team and through the post-season they’ve now accomplished something three times in 2014 – dominate its opposition over at least 5 games – that only a handful of teams did once.
Admittedly, I only examined the 2014 season to conclude that, in general, it’s playoff caliber teams that dominate their opponents over at least 45 innings. I’ll leave it to winter research, or the hands of others with more time and resources to disprove this hypothesis. However, for now, I’m going against the prevailing wisdom that states the Royals are simply a mildly above-average team that caught fire at the right time. Applying the Ron Shandler axiom, I think they owned the dominant skill all year.
Oh, if you’d like to look for yourself, the seven-game stretch occurred from June 7 to June 15 and the six-game stretch covered August 6 to August 11. The second streak is particularly interesting because one of the teams they dominated wire-to-wire for three of those games was none other than the San Francisco Giants.
(To be continued . . .)
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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