As the Kansas City Royals inch closer and closer to their first postseason berth since 1985, it becomes harder and harder to not play out scenario’s in your head. What if they win a Wild Card spot? What will the starting rotation look like? Who do you leave off the playoff roster? These might all seem like minor details, but for us Royals fans it is foreign territory. Hey, we’ve spent close to 30 years just asking for a game that really matters; these questions seem to matter more to us than they should. With all that said there are a few things that not only make me feel confident that we could not only be witnessing a number of playoff games but that this team could be a great fit for what is headed their way.
Obviously the preference for most of us is for Kansas City to win the American League Central, as the Royals would avoid the one game playoff that is the wild card. Winning a wild card is still playoffs, but there is always the possibility that the Royals have an off night and that would leave them one and done. Also, unless the Royals finish above or tied with Oakland in the Wild Card race they will be playing that game on the road. The thought of only getting one playoff game and not getting October baseball at ‘The K’ saddens me in ways you don’t even know. Like watching the end of Toy Story 3. I’m not alone on that, right? Anyway, there has been lots of discussion on whether the Royals playing in one game would be satisfying enough, and I can easily see why one game would not be enough. Either way, playoffs are playoffs, whether you play 1 game or 21. Bottom line is that the Royals need to reach the Division Series for any of the following points to even matter.
There are normally three key things stressed for a team to go deep into the playoffs: pitching, defense and timely hitting. The good thing is the Royals are good for at least two of those, with the third coming and going. Let’s start with the pitching. This has been one of the bigger factors in the Royals success this year and without it we probably aren’t even talking playoffs right now. It will be interesting to see if the Royals will go with a 3 or a 4 man rotation to start out. I would imagine the top three goes James Shields, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie. I would like to think Yordano Ventura would be the third rather than Guthrie, but my gut tells me they won’t want to push him real hard, as he has already pitched the most innings in one season of his career(179.0 as we speak). You also have to wonder where Jason Vargas is in this conversation, as he has had a really good season but in his last 7 starts he has a 5.89 ERA/1.66 WHIP and Kansas City has lost 6 of his those starts. Since I can’t see either Guthrie or Vargas being a part of the bullpen(unless they are a long reliever, and sweet baby Jesus, let’s hope we don’t need one of those) they will probably either start or not be on the playoff roster. This will lead to some interesting dilemmas for Royals management, as they will want to get the most out of their rotation without killing Ventura’s arm or using a starter who is regressing(I’m staring at you, Vargas!).
But it’s not just the starters that will guide this team in October. The Royals bullpen has been a major force over the last few years and this year has added an element of dominance to the late innings. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland you are seeing a back portion of the pen who will slow down the best of offenses. Three guys with upper 90’s heat, nasty off-speed pitches and the ability to make a Royals game be over if they are leading after 6 innings. Add in the likes of Jason Frasor, Brandon Finnegan(who was drafted by Kansas City this summer) and just for the hell of it Francisley Bueno and Louis Coleman and you have the making of a playoff caliber pen. It will be interesting to see if Aaron Crow makes this squad, as obviously manager Ned Yost still thinks fondly of him, despite his disappointing season where inherited runners abound and velocity decreases. Add in the possibility of Ventura being in the bullpen and you could make the case that Kansas City will make opposing teams want to strike early or pay for it when HDH enter the game.
Defense is also a major plus for Kansas City and something that will help them in their hunt for gold. This has been about a solid of a unit as the Royals have had in a very long time, although there have been a few hiccups these last few weeks. For the Royals to play deep into October they need the ‘D’ to step up and return to their earlier levels of excellence. It shouldn’t be hard to muster, but this team has also showed the penchant to let pressure affect their play on the field.
The timely hitting is the only thing that could be a worry. The Royals are hitting at a .270 with runners in scoring position, which is in the top 5 in baseball this season. It does drop to .214 with 2 outs in the inning, which lowers them to the middle of the pack in both leagues. They are also doing well when they get past the 7th inning, hitting at a .252 clip which is good enough for 6th in all of baseball. So this is a team that can hit and hit in the clutch if needed. But if you are a Royals fan you know how streaky they can be as well. One minute this team looks like an offensive juggernaut, the next you wonder if even Kent Murphy or Domingo Ayala(Google them; go ahead) could hit better than Kansas City’s hitters. They also aren’t a team that takes a lot of pitchers, so it is rare when you see them work a count and attempt to wear a pitcher down. Surprisingly they don’t strike out much either, although this means a lot of ground balls that don’t get past the infield. There is also a reliance on bunting when they start to struggle, which can be both good and bad. Letting a speedy player bunt early in the game for a hit? Fine by me, although I would prefer they hit. Sacrifice in the first 6 innings? Awful and something the Royals are notorious for doing. More than anything this team needs to hit in the clutch and attempt to be moderately consistent to reach the next level. I hope this can happen, but if there is anything I worry about it is this very issue that has hampering the team for the last couple seasons. Bottom line, this is a team of hackers who have both good and bad nights.
Oh, there is one more positive that will be amplified in October; speed. The Royals are almost a team that harkens back to the 80’s, one built on speed, defense and pitching. The Royals like to flaunt this speed whenever possible, especially with both Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on the bench for late inning heroics. This is a team that needs to use that speed to their advantage when they get to the postseason, if for no reason than that it is a plus for the team. This is a team full of speedy guys(Dyson, Gore, Cain, Aoki) and guys who are good base runners(Gordon, Escobar). If the offense is struggling? Use your speed by stealing bases and utilize the hit and run. The Royals aren’t a team that can bunch up a few hits and then expect a big three run bomb, so causing some damage on the basepaths would seem to be a solid game plan. I’m not saying do this all the time, and obviously I think they need to be smart about when they do take advantage of the speed, but there are times that this team strands runners on base, runners that could be in motion. Making opposing pitchers and defenses feel uneasy should be a regular part of Kansas City’s offense this October and one that could gain them a slight advantage.
Look, there are areas of concern when it comes to this Royals team, like the much maligned offense, a non-threatening bench or Ned Yost’s tactical decisions. All could cost this team in the playoffs. In fact the ideal scenario for the Royals would be for them to get a lead by the 6th inning and then let Yost throw HDH out there for the last 3 innings. The less Yost has to manage, the better. But putting that aside, there are many teams in the American League who have already said they don’t want to play Kansas City in postseason play because of the way they are built. This is a Royals team that is used to playing in low scoring affairs and have shown a penchant to be a team that doesn’t give up late in the contest. So as much as this Royals team isn’t the team you or I would have built and despite logic telling us they shouldn’t have gotten this far with what they have, they are here. Watch out American League playoff teams; the Kansas City Royals are coming no matter how unorthodox or old school their game plan is.