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ON THE BALL

Nov. 02, 2015
Nov. 02, 2015

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Nov. 2, 2015

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ON THE BALL

The Royals are the best contact hitters in baseball, and a formidable opponent for the Mets' young fireballers

This is an article from the Nov. 2, 2015 issue

Three hundred ninety-five times in the past 15 seasons a player has hit 30 home runs. None of them did so for the Royals, a postmodern team that has turned the simple yet diminishing art of contact into its primary weaponry.

"The franchise record [for homers] is still 36, by Steve Balboni 30 years ago," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said. "We have to emphasize speed, defense and athleticism."

Making contact in major league baseball has never been more difficult. The rate of strikeouts per game has hit a record high for eight consecutive seasons. Against this strong current swim the Royals, the toughest team to strike out in the majors for four consecutive years. Only one other team in the past 100 years managed such a streak, but that club, the 1971--74 Yankees, was a noncontender. The Royals returned to the World Series this year precisely because they put the ball in play.

Kansas City beat Toronto in six games in the ALCS just as it did Houston in five games in the Division Series: by stringing together hits like pearls on a necklace. The Royals batted an astounding .432 with runners on in the ALCS, while striking out just seven times in 86 such plate appearances.

There is no greater element that will decide the 111th World Series—the first between expansion teams—than this convergence of opposing forces: the strike-throwing power pitching of the Mets' deep rotation against the aggressive contact hitting of the Royals' deep lineup.

After New York's rotation in the regular season had the second-highest strikeout-to-walk rate in history (4.18, trailing only the 4.22 of the 2011 Phillies), the team moved finesse pitchers Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon to the bullpen in the postseason to rely solely on young guns Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, all of whom average (or in Matz's case, max out at) at least 95 mph with their fastball. Though all four starters have exceeded their previous career highs in innings, in nine postseason starts they are 6--2 with a 2.78 ERA while averaging 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. In true old-school World Series style (aka pre-interleague play), the Royals' starting lineup will see Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz for the first time, with the exception of three at bats by outfielder Alex Rios against Harvey in 2013.

"It's going to be a challenge," Moore said. "The best rotation we've seen in the AL is Cleveland, which is probably most comparable. They come at you with power and with strikes, which is not a bad thing for us. We like to be aggressive in the zone."

The Indians' best starters had a 3.18 ERA against Kansas City this year, and the Royals were 8--7 in those games. Unlike most teams, Kansas City's aim is not to make starters throw more pitches ("This team," outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "couldn't care less about pitch counts") but to seize the first and last hittable ones that cross the plate.

Kansas City won a thrilling ALCS Game 6 clincher with trademark Royalties. Lorenzo Cain refused to strike out leading off the eighth inning of a 3--3 game. Pushed to a 2-and-2 count from Toronto closer Roberto Osuna, he fouled off one pitch and declined the next two for a seven-pitch walk. The next batter, Eric Hosmer, likewise refused two-strike surrender. He lined a 2-and-2 pitch toward the rightfield corner for a single. Cain, running like Enos Slaughter in the 1946 World Series or Secretariat in the '73 Belmont, scored all the way from first base.

"We're all aggressive in the strike zone," says Rios, who drove in Kansas City's third run in Game 6 with a two-strike single. "Our goal is to keep the line moving."

The game ended with a last reminder of the importance of contact. With no outs in the ninth, the Blue Jays put the tying run on third base, whence it could be scored on nearly any kind of ball put in play. But Kansas City closer Wade Davis whiffed Dioner Navarro and Ben Revere before getting Josh Donaldson on a ground ball. Toronto, the more typical modern team, which sacrifices contact for power, batted .169 with runners on in the ALCS, striking out 30 times in such spots.

The Royals' brand of baseball is born from the necessities of venue and economics. Their home ballpark, Kauffman Stadium, is a pitcher-friendly yard with yawning gaps. With a middle-of-the-pack payroll (16th, at about $113 million) and a bottom-three television-market size (only Cincinnati and Milwaukee are smaller), the Royals understand that power is a high-priced luxury item they cannot easily afford.

"Power is something that develops later," Moore says. "So as players develop power, it becomes too costly for us either to keep or acquire. So if you're not going to hit with power, you must have a good two-strike approach, you must have the ability to hit in 3--2 counts, and you must have the ability to put the ball in play with a runner at third or second. We do look at strikeouts. If you're striking out as a young player, chances are even if you develop power later, the strikeouts are going to be there."

After the 2012 season, for instance, and to much criticism, Moore traded the franchise's top prospect, 21-year-old outfielder Wil Myers, to Tampa Bay in a deal to acquire Davis and pitcher James Shields. Myers was considered one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, but he lacked the ability to consistently put the ball in play and had struck out 140 times in 134 minor league games that year.

Since then Myers has been traded again, to San Diego, and so far he is a .256 major league hitter with 236 strikeouts in 235 games. And also since then, the Royals have become the first team since the mound was lowered in 1969 to win back-to-back pennants with as few as 139 home runs in both seasons. They did so by emphasizing the skill they need most against New York: putting the ball in play.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPLAY THE FIELD Ben Zobrist and his teammates take an aggressive approach in the strike zone that should match up well against the Mets' hard throwers.