Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The San Francisco Giants face the Kansas City Royals in Game One of the 2014 World Series this evening at Kauffmann Stadium in Independence, Mo. Game time is slated for 7 PM local time (8 PM EDT).

They're talking about a dynasty out there in media-land, and we confess that back in 2012, in the giddy aftermath of Detroit, we dropped the term ourselves. Should the Giants win their third Series in five years, they'd join the, uh, New York Yankees (1996-2000, actually four out of five) as the only team to do so in 40 years. Go back a few more years to the beginning of the division era, and only the Oakland A's, with three straight from 1972-1974, join the list. Both those teams, of course, are certified dynasties, and while three in a row has tended to be the standard, in this age of wild cards and 43-game postseasons three out of five beats anything anyone has done for over a decade.

In that case, nine players on the Giants' 40-man roster are officially dynastic candidates, having played on all three teams--  Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, and Madison Bumgarner.   As we all remember, there was a lot of turnover between 2010 and 2012. Between 2012 and today, the change rate is lower. Fourteen of the 25 active Giants-- the above nine (minus DL denizen Cain) plus Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco, Hunter Pence, Joaquin Arias, and Ryan Vogelsong-- were with us two years ago. Travis Ishikawa stands alone; he was on the 2010 team but not the 2012 squad. That leaves ten newcomers. They are Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, Yusmeiro Petit, Jean Machi, Hunter Strickland, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy, Andrew Susac, Juan Perez, and Mike Morse. Peavy has played in a World Series before; the others are making their first appearance. How sweet it is for veterans Morse and, especially, Hudson; and how exciting for rookies Panik, Susac, Duffy, and Strickland. Yes, Bruce Bochy is going with the same 25-man, twelve-pitcher roster that won the division series and NLCS. If it ain't broke, "Boch" ain't about to fix it.

The Royals, by contrast, are stocked with players nobody's ever heard of, or at least so until now. But this team has won eight consecutive postseason games, sweeping the Angels and the Orioles after beating Oakland in the playoff. There's always the chance KC is a reprise of the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who won seven straight postseason games to cap a 17-game overall streak, and then were swept themselves in the Fall Classic by Boston. But nobody with any sense is talking about sweeps here.  Kansas City and the Giants are hitting and pitching at about the same level in the postseason (when you allow for the DH). KC outscored their opponents 42-26 in eight games, the Giants 41-25 in ten. One outstanding number is the 12 homers allowed by the Giants' pitchers; another is the same pitchers' 0.95 WHIP. Solo homers aren't going to beat us-- not often, that is. By any measure, the Royals' most dangerous hitter is first baseman Eric Hosmer, 25; he has a 1.314 OPS in the postseason, hitting .448 with eight RBI and seven walks in 29 at-bats. He strikes out a lot but doesn't hit into double plays, which is impressive considering the number of men they've gotten on base.

Looking at the stats, we immediately see the one thing that sets the Royals apart from all others: they've stolen 13 bases in eight games, and have been caught only three times, a healthy 81% success rate. Most impressive is that seven different Royals have swiped at least one base without being caught. Much is being made of this in the pregame buildup, and while we're adamant (along with noted Royals fan Bill James) about stolen bases being a minor offensive weapon, the effect that a stolen base, or even the threat of one (or two or three), may have on a pitcher's confidence is not to be disregarded. Stolen bases can cause small innings to escalate into big innings if they force mistakes by the pitcher or the defense. What's often overlooked, though, is the disastrous effect of a caught stealing, which is a true double whammy for the offense (lose a baserunner and lose an out). Buster Posey averages 29% throwing out baserunners. If the Royals run and he can maintain that average, the running game will probably cost KC more than they gain from it.

Mike Morse will be in the lineup as the designated hitter for the games in Kansas City, whether facing righty or lefty. If he gets hot, it's always possible he might start ahead of Ishi in left field against southpaw Jason Vargas when the series returns to San Francisco. The young, hundred-mile-an-hour righty Yordano Ventura has been tabbed by Ned Yost to start tomorrow night against Jake Peavy: what a contrast in pitchers! Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong round out Bochy's quartet for Games Three and Four; Yost has not tipped his hand yet, but Vargas and veteran Jeremy Guthrie would seem the likely candidates.

Getting back to the dynasty thing, let's note that of the nine Giants who've played on all three World Series teams, four of them are the core of the current bullpen: Affeldt, Lopez, Romo, Casilla. Among the comings and goings and changes and such, these four have been the unseen bedrock upon which Bochy depends in close games. They were the difference-makers in the St Louis series, in which the two teams were essentially even everywhere else. These four give "Boch" the absolute confidence with which he makes his in-game decisions, at times when other managers may hesitate or make an impulsive move. No, they're not perfect; each had his moment of crisis over the past two weeks, one lost a game and another nearly gave one away. No matter. They are four, and when one can't deliver, another will. There is no reason to doubt that this under-the-radar advantage can tip the series in our favor one more time.

Tonight it will be Madison Bumgarner, the Giants' unquestioned ace, NLCS MVP, and last ace standing for the National League, against James Shields, the 33-year-old veteran who won 14 games this year. Shields is a consistent, hard-working right-hander who's been a steady, quality starter for eight years now, six with Tampa and the last two in KC. Oddly, Shields was a lot more effective on the road than at home this year, to the tune of  half a run a game and a 4-6 mark, compared to 10-2 away. He did cut down on his walks this season, and he doesn't trend strongly toward either flyouts or groundouts. He pitched his best game of the postseason in the division series against the Angels, a powerhouse lineup whom he limited to six hits and two runs over six. He does that tonight, he'll give his team a chance to win. If he pitches as he did against Baltimore-- five innings, ten hits, four runs-- it'll be up to his teammates to do the same against "Bum," and what's the chance of that? Nothing is ever for sure in baseball, but Madison Bumgarner on the mound in the World Series tends to promote a strong sense of well-being for those of us who follow the San Francisco Giants!

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