The Royals beat the Blue Jays in a 4–3 thriller Friday night to win their second consecutive American League pennant and advance to the World Series. There they will take on the National League champion Mets, who completed a sweep of the Cubs in the National League Championship Series Wednesday night. The World Series will open in Kansas City on Tuesday night, but the early victories by both pennant winners will leave us with three days without baseball. To help pass the time, here are a five initial thoughts on this year’s World Series matchup.
Hey, remember the ’80s?!
The Kansas City Royals and New York Mets won consecutive World Series in 1985 and 1986, respectively, each benefiting from an iconic play at first base late in Game 6 of those series (umpire Don Denkinger’s blown call on Jorge Orta in ’85 and the groundball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in ‘86). Neither has won another World Series since, though this will be the second World Series appearance for each during this span. The decisive seventh games of the 1985 and 1986 World Series were both played on October 27, exactly 30 and 29 years before the scheduled first game of this year’s Series. One of those championship droughts will end this year.
Expanding their horizons
There have been 54 World Series played since the American League expanded to add the Los Angeles Angels and replacement Washington Senators in 1961 and this is the first that will feature two expansion teams. It’s fitting that the World Series to hold that distinction will feature the Mets and Royals. The first three pennants won by expansion teams were won by the Mets in 1969 and ’73 and the Royals in 1980. In 1986, the Mets became the first expansion team to win a second World Series. In the first quarter century after that initial expansion, the Mets and Royals, the latter of whom made the playoffs seven times in 10 years from 1976–85, were far and away the most successful of baseball’s then-10 expansion teams. This Series will result in either the Mets becoming the first of the major leagues’ now 14 expansion teams to win a third World Series, or the Royals tying them, the Blue Jays and the Marlins as the fourth expansion team to win a second championship.
Coming in hot
Both of these teams were fortified down the stretch by major deadline acquisitions and a return to good health, particularly in the starting lineup. The Mets’ most notable trade acquisition was outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, but they got catcher Travis d’Arnaud off the disabled list the same day that the Cespedes trade became official, called up outfield prospect Michael Conforto just a week before that, and added captain and third baseman David Wright, back from more than four months on the shelf due to spinal stenosis, in late August. All four produced, Cespedes exceptionally so, and the Mets went from being dead last in the majors in run scoring through the seasons’ first four months, scoring just 3.5 runs per game from April through July, to ranking third in the majors (behind only the Blue Jays and Red Sox) in runs scored per game after July 31. Since Cedpedes’s Mets debut on August 1, a span of 68 games including the first two rounds of the playoffs, New York has averaged 5.3 runs scored per game.
The Royals made a big deadline splash, as well, adding Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto, who ranked high among the most sought-after hitters and pitchers available. Cueto struggled down the stretch, but Zobrist fulfilled all expectations, and when the similarly-skilled Alex Gordon returned from a nearly-two-month disabled list stay on September 1, the Kansas City lineup shifted into overdrive, scoring 5.1 runs per game over their last 43 contests, including the playoffs.
Mets’ rotation a novelty for K.C.
The Mets obvious advantage in this series, or really any series at this point, is their starting rotation, but the size of that advantage is particularly striking in this matchup. Looking at the top three men in the Royals rotation—Johnny Cueto, Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez—and factoring in Cueto’s struggles down the stretch and in the postseason over the course of his career, there’s not a single pitcher in the Royals’ rotation that I’d favor over any of the Mets’ top three starters—Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. I’d take my chances with rookie Steven Matz over veteran Chris Young in the fourth spot as well.
This is the best rotation the Royals have had to face this postseason, and that advantage is compounded by the Royals’ hitters unfamiliarity with the Mets’ four starters. These two teams haven’t met in interleague play since 2013, before deGrom, Syndergaard or Matz made their major league debuts, and Harvey did not start against Kansas City that year. As a result, the only member of the Royals’ starting lineup to have faced any of the Mets’ four starters is Alex Rios, who went 1-for-3 with a strikeout against Harvey in May ’13 when he was still with the White Sox. The only Royal to have faced deGrom is backup catcher Drew Butera, who went 0-for-3 with a strikeout against him while with the Dodgers last August. The only Royal to come to bat against one of the Mets starters this year is Cueto, who went 0-for-2 with a strikeout against Syndergaard when the Reds visited Citi Field in June. Syndergaard out-pitched Cueto in that game as well, a 2–1 Mets win.
To be fair Ventura has a similar advantage against the Mets. Only former American Leaguer Yoenis Cespedes has faced him before, and Cespedes has gone 1-for-7 with an infield single and five of his six outs against Ventura coming on the ground. However, the rest of the Royals’ rotation is composed of long-time National Leaguers, and an ex-Met in Young who played under Mets manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen for parts of two seasons in 2011 and ’12. Perhaps the best way to summarize the disparity in familiarity between the teams is that Cueto has given up more home runs to the players in the Mets’ starting lineup than the total number of plate appearances the Royals’ starting nine has against all four of the Mets’ starting pitchers.
Enjoy the time off
The five days off the Mets will have between games might wind up cooling off red-hot NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy, but it will also give Cespedes time to let his ailing left shoulder heal, and the break should be a welcome one for the Mets’ young rotation as deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard are well past their previous career highs in innings already. Over the next few days, you may hear a few horror stories about the long layoffs that preceded the 2012 Tigers’ and 2007 Rockies’ sweeps at the hands of the Giants and Red Sox, respectively, but of the 15 teams to have five or more days off heading into a World Series, eight wound up winning the Series.