The Kansas City Royals enter the World Series red hot, having narrowly defeated the Oakland Athletics in the one-game American League wildcard playoff, and then subsequently sweeping the heavily-favored Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles in the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series. 8-0 so far this postseason, the Royals have the feel of a team of destiny as they host the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night.
However, the Royals’ road to the postseason was not a smooth one. The team finished second in the American League Central and only secured a postseason berth in the final few games of the year. Throughout the season, Kansas City had to rely on less traditional ways of scoring and preventing runs to stay competitive. Acutely aware of their deficiencies from the start, the Royals have done more with less than any team in the league and their unique brand of baseball has been the key to their perfect postseason run.
To understand the Royals’ brand is first to understand what the Royals could not do. For the first time in the modern era, a team with the fewest home runs in the league has advanced to the postseason, and now the World Series. For context, the Royals hit fewer than half the home runs the Orioles hit, 95 to Baltimore’s 211. Kansas City also walked the fewest times in the league, 16 fewer than any other team. In several other key offensive metrics, like slugging percentage and on-base percentage plus slugging (otherwise known as OPS+), which adjust OPS for the team’s ballpark, the Royals finished in the bottom five or worse.
The Royals built a roster to counterbalance their weaknesses, endeavoring instead to plate runs by putting balls in play and moving runners aggressively. The Royals struck out the fewest times in the league by a wide margin, 119 fewer than the second-to-last A’s and 457 fewer than the league-leading Houston Astros. Kansas City also stole bases and did so efficiently, leading the league with 153 steals on an 81% success rate. Couple this with the Royals’ propensity to sacrifice and what emerged in the 2014 regular season was an offense that relied on simple, albeit unconventional ways to score runs and keep games close.
The Royals had more than just offensive issues they needed to strategically counterbalance. The team entered the 2014 season with only one sure ace in the rotation, James Shields. After Shields, the team relied on journeymen Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, unproven prospect Danny Duffy, and rookie Yordano Ventura. Fearing the team might be handicapped by their starting staff, the Royals assembled a bullpen and defense that would help to alleviate some of the pressure from the starters.
The starting rotation performed better than anticipated, led mostly by Ventura and Duffy overachieving and Shields registering his fourth consecutive 200+ innings pitched and sub-3.60 ERA season. The bullpen, however was not merely good but dominant. With a lead in the seventh inning the team very rarely faltered, using the combination of Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland, who converted 46 of his 48 save opportunities, in the ninth. The Kansas City trifecta posted sub-1.50 ERAs in the regular season, overpowering batters with fastballs that all register over 95 MPH. Even more impressively, the trio never allow home runs. Holland, the most home run happy of the bunch, allowed only three all season. Herrera and Davis went 142 innings and incredibly never served up a home run ball, a feat that may never again be replicated. When the Royals get to their bullpen three with a lead, the game rarely ends in anything but a Royals victory.
The Royals also assembled a team that prevents runs by playing excellent defensive, boosting the performance of their pitching rotation and bullpen. Although Kansas City finished the season seventh-to-the-bottom in fielding percentage, by more advanced measurements, the Royals was one of the best fielding teams in baseball when it came to saving runs. The Royals success comes on the strength of their outfield defense, anchored by Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. As measured by Baseball Reference, the outfield as a whole saved the most runs in the league, 45 throughout the season. Cain and Gordon individually each finished top 10 in the league in Defensive Wins above Replacement (WAR), a stat which measures how many more wins a player contributes above an average player. The team generally excelled everywhere on defense in the regular season, making life easier for the pitching staff.
As the postseason has gone on, the Royals have seemed to take their unique brand of baseball to a whole other level, sacrificing and stealing more often, dominating more out from the bullpen with a lead, and continuously making tremendous plays on defense to save runs. There is something undoubtedly special about this Royals team and no matter the outcome of this World Series, fans of the game should appreciate having been treated to a team so strange and yet so undeniably entertaining.
Game 1 of the 2014 World Series between the Royals and Giants will be televised on Fox, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday.