2014 ALCS preview: New kids on the block
For several years now, people have waited for the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals to harness their promising talent and get over the hump. The future, it seems, has arrived: The Yankees’ Core Four has finally ridden off into the sunset, the Oakland Athletics coughed up what had begun to look like their season of destiny and the Detroit Tigers appear to be near the end of their dominant run. After a pair of ALDS sweeps, the 2014 ALCS features two teams whose time has come. The Orioles and Royals are well matched, and despite seeming to be opposites on paper, there are similarities to consider.
Power vs. speed?
In a historic twist, the 2014 ALCS involves the team that hit the most home runs in the major leagues and the team that hit the least home runs in the major leagues. In 2014, the Orioles were the only team in baseball with over 200 home runs, with a whopping 211, while the Royals were the only team not to reach triple digits in home runs, with a paltry 95. This would seem to give the Orioles a clear slugging advantage, but here’s an interesting stat: The Royals out-doubled the Orioles in 2014, 286 to 264.
The Royals aren’t as power-challenged as this year’s numbers indicate. People forget that Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas are players whose power surges have been anticipated for years. Butler has hit 20 home runs twice and 19 home runs once, and he hit 29 only two years ago; he’s also only 28, just entering his prime. As for Moose, he’s only 26, and in only four seasons has already hit 20 home runs once (also in 2012). His problem hasn’t been so much power as consistently putting the bat on the ball, and right now he seems to be seeing the ball well at the right time. Last but not least, Hosmer’s been considered a rising star for a while. He’s athletic and strong, and he hit 50 home runs in his first three seasons — and he’s the youngest of the three, at just 24. Last but not least, Alex Gordon has been one of baseball’s most under-appreciated elite talents for much of his career, and he’s risen to the occasion so far. The Kansas City Royals didn’t hit home runs this season, but if you look at their personnel, they’re quite capable of doing so. The Orioles are well known for their power up and down the lineup, and I wouldn’t be surprised at a couple of slow-pitch scores at Camden Yards this series.
Adding to the historic nature of the matchup, the 2014 ALCS also has the team that stole the most bases in baseball and the team that stole the least bases in baseball. Yes, really. The Royals stole 153 bases in the 2014 season, while the Orioles stole a measly 44. Kansas City ran the Tigers ragged in the division series, and manager Ned Yost has his guys playing aggressive small-ball to complement their opportunistic outbursts of power. The Orioles don’t steal bases, but they do have some guys who can run. Adam Jones, their quietly dominant center fielder, is among a group of Orioles who can score from first on a single and are a threat to take extra bases and put pressure on defenses. The Royals do have the advantage in the speed department, but the difference isn’t as big as many casual fans believe.
Look up “long suffering fan” in the dictionary, and you might see mention of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals haven’t even made the postseason since 1985 and have spent the past few years stockpiling promising talent only to fall far out of contention far too early. As such, their fans are about as excited ad you might imagine. They recently achieved record-breaking noise levels in support of their team, and the youth-laden Royals have ridden fan energy to one gut-check victory after another. Meanwhile, Orioles fans who watched their team run away with the AL East are now watching them pound home runs in hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Both teams are riding high off fan energy.
Defense and pitching
The Royals have an advantage over the Orioles in two key areas: pitching and defense. Kansas City’s outfield defense has been phenomenal, personified by Lorenzo Cain’s two highlight-reel grabs to secure their sweep of the Tigers. The Royals’ bullpen is one of the best in baseball and was a key factor when they played 34 innings in their first three postseason games. Moreso than the Orioles, the Royals are able to shorten the game and shrink the field.
Who wins the 2014 ALCS?
The Orioles have more experience playing meaningful games in the fall, and Buck Showalter’s experience and seasoned button-pushing gives them an advantage. Both teams rely on youthful exuberance and the energy of maniacal home crowds. But the Royals have a slight advantage in pitching, defense and speed, and their recent power surge makes them a threat to win games that aren’t low-scoring.
This will be a close, exciting battle between two youthful, exuberant teams. But the Royals can win in a wider variety of ways, and that should be just enough.
Prediction: Royals in seven.