Quick, name three players on the Kansas City Royals. Bet you can’t do it in the time it takes Alcides Escobar to steal second base. See there’s a freebie.
Still can’t do it? Alright, double or nothing: Name the team that just swept the Los Angeles Angels – AL West champions and owners of baseball’s best record – out of the American League Division Series. And if you can’t name this team you either A) Live in a cave, or B) Really struggle to catch on. The answer, of course, is Kansas City.
Look at the box scores of the three-game series and you begin to understand why a team that can walk down the street in near anonymity is four games away from making the World Series.
As any sweep might indicate, the Royals were better than the Angels in every aspect of the game – hitting, pitching, fielding. But three games is only a snippet of the Royals’ season. What got them to the American League Championship Series is a playing style totally contradictory with modern baseball theory. In an era where every team employs some measure of statistical analysis, the Royals routinely roll the dice, relying on the lost art of the stolen base – they swiped an MLB-best 153 bags in the regular season – and letting the chips fall where they may.
That’s an oversimplification, of course. Yet, the Royals won 89 games this year despite ranking in the league’s lower third in fielding percentage and errors (they made 104 during the regular season) and in the middle of the pack in team ERA, strikeouts and opponents’ batting average. How? By eschewing the techies who said trading outs for bases is a losing formula.
The Royals aren’t blessed with a lineup full of big hitters – or hitters at all, really. Of all the Kansas City players with over 100 at-bats, only Lorenzo Cain has a batting average above .300. He finished at .301 (but is hitting just .211 this postseason). They famously hit an MLB-low 95 home runs this season, and 52 players hit more than Alex Gordon’s team-leading total of 19. But that’s where the old baseball adage comes into play. Before sabermetrics, the baseball sages used to preach that an average-hitting team must move runners over in every imaginable fashion.
And the Royals? That’s what they’re best at.
They steal bases, execute bunts and they are able to hit the other way – the latter which was extremely evident in Sunday’s clinching win over the Angels.
Manager Ned Yost doesn’t make his runners drop anchor once they reach base, waiting for a home run (though they had two; Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas each hit one). In fact a handful of Kansas City’s players are a threat to steal third. Three Royals – Jarrod Dyson, Escobar and Cain – ranked in the top 16 in Major League Baseball in stolen bases during the regular season, and in the postseason, no one has stolen or sacrificed more than Kansas City.
Does all this add up to a championship?
It does if you subscribe to the theory that speed never slumps. The only problem for the Royals is pitching does. And they’ve relied heavily on their arms throughout the year. That’s only caution, not hard fact. But in the ALCS, Kansas City will be a facing a Baltimore Orioles team that is just as hot and coming off a sweep of its own.
Conventional baseball wisdom says that Royals can’t keep it up. If they do, and somehow run away with the World Series, it might be using some of the most inconspicuous methods of any champion in history.
Yet, in a way, that would be ironic. Individually the Royals are invisible. And the way they go about winning seems to get overlooked by so many.