The easy World Series storyline is the Mets' power pitching vs. the Royals' contact hitting, but the series is more likely to be determined by soft stuff, fielding and baserunning, writes Katie Sharp.
There is no shortage of storylines in this year’s Fall Classic between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals — the first World Series featuring two expansion-era teams—with each trying to end a long championship drought dating back to the mid-1980s. The most obvious narrative is the Royals’ relentless contact lineup and high-average batters versus the Mets’ pitching prowess and power arms.
Where most teams zig, the Royals zag. They struck out the fewest times in baseball — by far — with just 973 and also had the fewest walks in the American League. Unsurprisingly, they had the most batted balls, and their aggressive approach resulted in the third-highest batting average and seventh-most runs scored. It was an unconventional formula by today’s standards, but one that was highly successful in the regular season and so far through the playoffs.
The Mets’ staff, on the other hand, typifies the prevailing state of the game, where pitchers are throwing harder with increasing frequency. The Mets threw more 95-plus mph pitches than any other team and ranked second in average four-seam fastball velocity among rotations.
The Mets’ top three starters — Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom — ranked second, sixth and ninth in four-seamer average velocity among pitchers with at least 150 innings this season; no other team had more than one player in the top 10.
Those three each also ranked in the top 20 in strikeout rate, giving the Mets the only trio of starters in the NL that struck out at least 25% of the batters they faced.
This matchup of contrasting styles sets the stage for a classic test of the theory that power pitching reigns supreme in today’s offense-starved era, where hitters are making less contact and runs are harder to manufacture.
On paper, at least, the Royals would seem to have the edge in this series because they’ve feasted on blazing fastballs this season. They ranked first in batting average (.284), second in slugging (.436) and had the lowest strikeout rate (13%) against 95-plus mph pitches during the regular season.
But to conclude that Kansas City has the definitive advantage would be too simple. The individual batter-versus-pitcher matchup in baseball is a complicated one, where each side is constantly adjusting to their opponents’ perceived weaknesses and strengths.
The Mets throw heat well, and the Royals hit heat well — so that matchup is essentially neutralized. Instead, the most crucial factor is probably how effective the Mets’ power pitchers are in executing their off-speed pitches. It is here where the Royals’ biggest hitting flaw just might be exposed. When facing pitches that bend and break and tilt in every direction, the Royals’ elite contact-hitting skill is somewhat negated and their superior ability to put the ball in play is lessened.
The Royals hit .210 versus changeups, sliders and curveballs, ranking 25th in the majors, and slugged .333 against those pitches, the 26th-best mark in baseball during the regular season. Similarly, they batted .215 (26th in MLB) and slugged .341 (28th in MLB) on pitches 86 mph and below.
This could pose a problem for Kansas City because the New York’s top starters not only dominate with their fastballs, but also have a deep repertoire of elite off-speed pitches to baffle hitters. The proof is in the numbers: deGrom’s changeup ranked fourth in batting average allowed and second in slugging among starters; Syndergaard’s curveball had the seventh-best whiff rate; Harvey’s slider had the second-highest groundball percentage; and in a small sample, opponents slugged just .244 against No. 4 starter Steven Matz’s curve this season.
The Mets have also increased their usage of off-speed pitches during the postseason. Each Mets starting pitcher has upped his non-fastball rate by at least 1.3 percentage points in the playoffs, with deGrom bumping up a full five points, to 43.3% offspeed pitches in his three playoff starts.
The good news—for fans in KC, at least—is that the Royals have fared much better with slower offerings in October. They’ve increased their batting average by 36 points and their slugging by 33 points versus changeups, sliders and curves; against pitches 86 mph or slower, they’ve increased their batting average by 27 points and their slugging by 59 points.
If the Royals have truly patched up this weakness, it could bode well for their chances to win the series, because once they put the ball into play, they should be able to exploit perhaps the Mets’ biggest shortcoming: their infield defense.
While the Mets transformed their lineup during the second half into a run-scoring machine, they also sacrificed a significant amount of defense for offense in using their current infield alignment — and the decision to play guys for their bats over their gloves could come back to haunt the Mets in this series.
No team had a worse third base/shortstop/second base defensive combo than the Mets this season. Those three positions collectively cost the team a whopping 50 runs — the equivalent of five wins — per Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric.
Here’s where the team’s postseason starters ranked individually at their positions during the regular season: Daniel Murphy (-6 DRS) was 35th out of 40 second basemen; Wilmer Flores (-10 DRS) was 36th out 39 shortstops; David Wright (-8 DRS) was 39th out of 45 third basemen. Ouch.
The Royals’ remarkable ability to put the ball in play on a consistent basis won't be the only challenge for the Mets when they're in the field. Kansas City's capacity to maximize trips around the basepaths by stealing and taking the extra base is what makes last year's World Series runner-up such a dangerous offensive team.
Kansas City ranked second in the AL in stolen bases (104) and were also second in extra-bases-taken percentage (44%), which measures the rate of runners advancing more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double. They boasted probably the deepest set of capable baserunners in the majors, with Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Ben Zobrist each taking the extra base on more than half of their chances this season.
Mets’ catcher Travis d’Araund ranked slightly above average in caught-stealing percentage (33%), but their starters’ success in preventing thefts varies widely. Syndergaard has been the worst of the bunch, allowing 15 stolen bases with just one caught stealing during the regular season; deGrom has been the toughest to steal against, with just four stolen bases allowed in 10 attempts. As for their fly-catchers, the Mets right fielders were among the worst in the league in holding runners, while their left fielders and center fielders were slight above average in preventing extra bases on balls hit to the outfield.
So yes, the juicy storyline heading into Game 1 is the Mets’ young flamethrowers versus the Royals' contact hitters, but it’s more likely the series will be decided on a different set of factors altogether.