Three Strikes: Success of Royals, Giants could spur revolution
SAN FRANCISCO — The hitting revolution may be under way. The Kansas City Royals are in the World Series, and the San Francisco Giants are one win away from joining them, in part because they successfully have countered the record-setting strikeout environment of today's game.
The Royals, the toughest team to strike out in baseball, whiffed 28 times in their four-game sweep of Baltimore in the American League Championship Series. Their rate of 7.0 strikeouts per game in the ALCS sits below the MLB average of 7.70 per game — a rate that has gone up nine consecutive years.
The Giants have been an even more difficult team to put away with two strikes. Cardinals pitchers have fanned only 20 San Francisco batters in the four National League Championship Series games, a strikeout rate of 5.0 per game. The Giants have struck out four or fewer times in five games this postseason; the other nine playoff teams combined have yet to do it once.
San Francisco is winning postseason games by taking advantage of balls in play of any kind. They have scored more runs in their past six games on plays without a hit (12) than with one (10) – and without hitting a home run. In Game 4, they set an NL playoff record with a sixth straight game without a homer in one postseason. Only the 1973 Athletics, who went eight straight games without a homer, had a longer streak.
"We joke we have a Bloop Attack, a Walk Attack, any kind of attack," said San Francisco hitting coach Hensley Meulens. "And we have the RTI — runs thrown in."
The Giants finished off the Nationals in the NLDS when a wild pitch sent home the deciding run. They won NLCS Game 3 when Randy Choate "threw in" the winning run in the 10th inning by throwing away a bunt. And they came back in the sixth inning of Game 4 when St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams made two bad throws that allowed a run to score each time.
All of this may sound as if San Francisco has been incredibly fortunate, but the Giants are creating opportunities for themselves by grinding out at-bats. The error by Choate was set up by a leadoff walk by Brandon Crawford. The three-run rally in Game 4 was set up by a walk by Juan Perez.
The Giants operate under a very smart hitting philosophy for today's game, one that is inspired by playing their home games in a pitcher's park. Meulens preaches a flat swing that keeps the barrel in the zone longer than the modern power swing, which has a slight lift to it. San Francisco sacrifices the opportunity for the occasional home run in favor of the frequent ball in play.
As strikeouts and shifts continue to gain traction, the hitter who can make contact and use the full width of the field becomes more valuable. Look for teams in spring training next year to put more emphasis on this approach; the Pirates did just that in their camp this year. The philosophy is bound to become more popular because of the success of the Royals and Giants.
2. Will rest rupture Royals' rhythm?
Now the Royals face what may a more difficult opponent than Baltimore: too much rest. Kansas City's reward for sweeping the Orioles is to get five days off before Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
Five teams have entered the past eight World Series on five days or more of rest. All of them lost the World Series. Those teams — the 2012 Tigers, 2009 Phillies, 2008 Phillies, 2007 Rockies and 2006 Tigers — played .292 baseball in the World Series (7-17).
The problem is that the rhythm of playing baseball for seven months on a nearly everyday basis is interrupted. Kansas City manager Ned Yost will have to figure out how to keep his red-hot team as sharp as possible, most likely with intrasquad games. But whatever he cooks up can only be an approximation of competitive major league baseball.
The rest is not insurmountable. The Royals certainly have the defense and bullpen to win the World Series. But five days off presents a challenge to Yost and his staff, at least entering Game 1.
3. News and notes
• Santiago Casilla quietly has emerged as a lockdown closer for the Giants. In NLCS Game 4, he allowed his first hit in 34 days; hitters had been 0-for-35 with one walk against Casilla until St. Louis' Jon Jay reached him for a single. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Casilla's work with the Dominican Republic WBC championship team last year boosted his confidence. "When he came back, he was a different pitcher," Bochy said. "It did change him. This is the best he's thrown."
• San Francisco's bullpen has held hitters this postseason to a .161 batting average (19-for-118). Only four bullpens ever have been tougher to hit in one postseason, with at least 75 batters faced: the 2007 Diamondbacks (.113), 2001 Braves (.141), 1990 Reds (.152) and 2002 Cardinals (.160).
• Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright threw few bullpen sessions this year because of his 276-inning workload last year. But Wainwright worked through what he called a productive bullpen session after his NLCS Game 1 start, trying to fix mechanical problems. Wainwright said he was taking the ball out of his glove too soon in his delivery and shortening his stride. St. Louis needs a sharp Wainwright in Game 5 to extend the series, especially because the Giants start ace Madison Bumgarner.
• Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain has never been an All-Star, but he deservedly was named the ALCS MVP. Cain continues a recent tradition: LCS MVPs who would never be confused with regular season MVPs. There's something about the playoffs that bring out the best in complementary players. While the winners in 2009 (Ryan Howard in the NL and CC Sabathia in the AL) included a regular season MVP and Cy Young winner, and Josh Hamilton won the ALCS MVP in 2010 the same year he won the award for the full season, the other winners since then include a series of non-superstars: Cody Ross (NLCS, 2010), Nelson Cruz (ALCS, 2011), David Freese (NLCS, 2011), Delmon Young (ALCS, 2012), Marco Scutaro (NLCS, 2012), Koji Uehara (ALCS, 2013), Michael Wacha (NLCS, 2013) and Cain (ALCS, 2014).