How unlikely is this year's World Series matchup between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants? It's just the second World Series in the wild-card era to feature two wild card teams, the last being the 2002 matchup between the Giants and Angels. But that's only half of it.
In 2002, the Angels won 99 games, the Giants 95. This year, the Royals were an 89-win team and the Giants won just 88 games, making this the first World Series in a non-shortened season in which neither team won 90 regular-season games. If we look at winning percentage, we can drop the qualifier: This is the first World Series ever in which neither team had a regular-season winning percentage above .550.
The Royals and Giants have more in common than their records. Both are teams built on pitching and defense with excellent bullpens and contact-hitting lineups that play in home-run suppressing ballparks (no one on either team hit more than Buster Posey's 22 home runs). Both have also shown a consistent ability this postseason to win close games — half of each team's wins this postseason have been one-run games — thanks in large part to those bullpens and the lineup's ability to take advantage of seemingly every opportunity given to them by their opponents.
The Royals, who are the first team ever to go 8-0 to start a postseason, have played four extra-inning games and won five games in their last at-bat. The Giants have played two extra-inning contests, one of them the longest game in postseason history (which they won, of course), and have won three games in their last at-bat.
Another curious fact about this year's matchup: These are the first World Series teams to have played each other during the regular season since 2009, when the Phillies took two of three from the Yankees in May, then lost to them in six games in the World Series. The Giants played a three-game set in Kansas City from Aug. 8 to 10, the latest regular-season confrontation of eventual World Series opponents in major league history. The Royals, then in the middle of their hottest stretch of the season (they went 24-6 from July 22 to Aug. 23), swept the Giants in that series, beating Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson, and Tim Lincecum in succession. The first of those contests points to two of the keys to this Series.
1. Madison Bumgarner
Bumgarner is the 800-pound gorilla in this World Series. Through his first four starts this postseason, he has posted a 1.42 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, and 5.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has averaged just shy of eight innings per start, completing at least seven frames in all four starts, and the Giants have gone 3-1 in those four games. The one loss came in a close game in which Bumgarner was out-pitched by the opposing starter, the Nationals' Doug Fister, who threw seven scoreless innings.
With the Giants and Royals having four and five days off, respectively, before Tuesday's Game 1, both should be able to set their rotations as desired, which likely means a Game 1 matchup of Bumgarner and James Shields. Shields shut out the Giants in that August series, but he has not been sharp this postseason, allowing four runs in five innings twice in three starts. His best performance was one in which he allowed just two runs on a pair of solo home runs, but was nonetheless finished after throwing 105 pitches in six innings.
That kind of short start is nothing new for Kansas City in these playoffs. The Royals got quality starts from Shields, Yordano Ventura, and Jason Vargas in the Division Series against the Angels, but haven't had another in their other five games this posteason. Ventura, who left his lone ALCS start with tightness in his pitching shoulder, remains the only Royals starter to pitch past the sixth inning this postseason.
Ventura was expected to be ready to start a potential ALCS Game 6 on Friday, and the Royals' sweep of the Orioles gives him extra time to rest his shoulder (ten days if he starts Game 2 in the World Series). Still, one thing the Royals clearly lack in this Series is a starting pitcher who can go toe-to-toe with Bumgarner or be expected to answer his performance in a subsequent game. As a result, Kansas City will have to look elsewhere to match zeros with the Giants' ace.
2. The Bullpens
The manner in which the Royals beat Bumgarner in August is an exact match for how they might expect to steal a win from him in this series. Their starting pitcher, in that case Vargas, kept the game tied through five innings, after which Ned Yost went to his dominant bullpen — specifically Jason Frasor, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, the exact same parade of righties that slammed the door on the Orioles in Game 3 of the ALCS — which held the Giants scoreless for four innings. While they did that, the Royals scratched out two more runs on a trio of singles and a pair of San Francisco errors. Bumgarner threw a complete game, walking no one and allowing just three earned runs, but still took the loss.
That's not a far cry from what the Nationals did to beat Bumgarner in Game 3 of the Division Series, the key difference being the Royals' reliance on their bullpen. Having apparently learned his lesson with his near-disastrous decision to bring Ventura out of the bullpen and into a jam in the Wild-Card Game, Yost has done excellent work extending the reach of his best relievers since Herrera's return from a flexor strain in the Division Series. In Game 1 of the ALCS, Yost used Herrera and Davis for two innings each starting in the sixth in a game the Royals won in ten innings. In Game 4, he used Herrera for five outs, again turning to him in the sixth inning after Vargas put the tying run on base. The veteran Frasor, meanwhile, has proven a capable accomplice to the Big Three, working three scoreless innings thus far this postseason.
Together, those four have gone 4-0 with a 0.94 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 31 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings this postseason, with Holland converting all six of his save chances. That's a huge part of why the Royals have been able to win close and late so often this postseason. The catch is that, while the Royals have no match for Bumgarner, the Giants' bullpen can hold its own against Kansas City's. The Giants' end-game may not be as dominant as the Royals' Big Three, but the San Francisco bullpen is arguably deeper.
For one thing, the two lefties on the Giants' roster, former Royal Jeremy Affeldt and sidearmer Javier Lopez, are better suited to high-leverage work than the Royals' southpaws — 2014 draftee Brandon Finnegan, who allowed four of the first five batters he faced in the ALCS to reach base and hasn't been used since, and Tim Collins, whose only appearance this postseason lasted three batters in Game 1 of the Division Series. On top of that, the Giants' top four relievers — Affeldt, Lopez, set-up man Sergio Romo and closer Santiago Casilla — have combined to allow just one run in 19 2/3 innings in this postseason, good for a 0.46 ERA, and 0.81 WHIP, both figures superior to what the Royals' top four have done.
Not included in that math: the nine scoreless innings thrown by long reliever Yusmeiro Petit, who has allowed just two hits and struck out 11 in his two appearances. Add in Petit, and the Giants have five relievers who have combined for a 0.31 ERA and 0.77 WHIP in 28 2/3 innings, the exact same number of innings thrown by the Royals' top four.
3. The Amazing Disappearing DH
Thanks to the AL's win in the All-Star Game, the Royals, who had the better regular-season record anyway, have home field advantage in this series. That is particularly important for them, because the loss of the designated hitter in San Francisco stands to hurt them more than the addition of one in Kansas City will flummox the Giants.
Quite simply, Billy Butler will be reduced to a pinch-hitting role in Games 3 through 5 of this series. First base is the only position he is even remotely capable of playing, and Eric Hosmer is not only leaps and bounds better in the field, but has also been the Royals' best hitter this postseason, hitting .448/.556/.759 and reaching base in all eight of the Royals' games; he's collected a hit in seven of them, including each of the last six. Butler went hitless in the Division Series but had two big RBI hits in the Wild-Card Game, hit safely in three of the four ALCS games, and is tied for third on the team with five RBI this postseason. He's also a key righthanded bat in a lineup that will have to contend with the lefty Bumgarner in San Francisco in Game 5.
Kansas City's pitchers also have little experience hitting. The only Royals starting pitcher to have spent more than a half a year in the NL is Vargas, who last pitched for an NL team in 2007. His impressive batting performances while with the Marlins in 2005 and 2006 (.310/.341/.381 in 44 plate appearances) are largely irrelevant to his potential at the plate in this series.
The Giants, meanwhile, have Michael Morse, who went 2-for-4 with a home run as a pinch-hitter in the NLCS, available to be their DH in Kansas City. Isn't it just like the Giants to have the oblique injury that sidelined Morse during the Wild-Card Game and Division Series turn out to be a positive for the team in the long run? Because Morse and Angel Pagan were hurt late in the season, the Giants turned to Travis Ishikawa in leftfield, despite the fact that he had never started a major league game in the outfield prior to Sept. 25 of this year. Ishikawa seemed likely to be a liability coming into the postseason, but has since proven himself at least as capable as Morse in left and rivaled Pablo Sandoval as the team's top hitter in the NLCS, going 5-for-13 (.385) with two doubles, a team-leading seven RBI and, oh yeah, the fourth LCS-clinching home run in postseason history.
4. The Streaks
That brings us to what, for the casual fan, is likely the most fascinating aspect of this series. The Royals are 8-0 this postseason and have only trailed for a total of 2 1/2 innings in the ALDS and ALCS combined. The Giants, meanwhile, are 8-0 in their last eight postseason series dating back to 2010 — 9-0 if you count this year's Wild-Card Game.
Both of these teams appear to be comprised of unicorns powered by pixie dust and rainbows. Neither is dominant on paper, but the only thing either one seems incapable of is losing in the postseason. So, what happens when the Giants' even-year mojo meets the Royals' storybook season? I can't wait to find out.