Last week everyone wanted to talk about “Back to the Future Part II” and, if they were baseball fans, they wanted to talk about that film’s prediction — and punchline — that the Cubs would win the 2015 World Series. The thing about this World Series, however, is that if someone did travel to the present from the 1980s, they wouldn’t think that the Royals facing the Mets would be all that crazy. Indeed, to a time traveler from 30 years ago, the 1985 and 1986 champs facing off in the Fall Classic would seem like a pretty straightforward proposition.
Yet here we are. And for as unlikely as this matchup may have seemed even a couple of years ago, we’re getting what has all of the makings of an epic matchup of two teams at the absolute top of their games. And, what’s more, two teams playing a style of baseball which, a few years from now, we’ll likely talk about as being quintessential 20-teens baseball: contact, defense, smart, aggressive base running and young pitchers pushing 100 m.p.h. and striking out guys by the boatload.
The Royals made it back to the World Series with the help of a lineup which didn’t feature anyone who hit more than 22 home runs. But it was a lineup which the Astros and Blue Jays can attest is anything but powerless. You can cruise against them for a while but then they’ll string together a couple of hits. Oh, wait, it’s five. Maybe they’ll steal a base or three. Or, if even if you can keep them from doing that, they’ll just score from first base on a single. Next thing you know they’ve put up three or four runs and your little lead is gone. If the game is close there is never a time you feel really confident against them. And if it’s close and in their favor you never feel like you have a chance against that bullpen, particularly Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis.
The Mets, on the other hand, never really let you get going in the first place. How can you against Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard? If you’re going to beat them you’re going to have to do it in a low scoring game. Preferably with someone like Clayton Kershaw pitching for you. Oh, you don’t have someone like Clayton Kershaw? Well, that’s a shame. In the meantime Daniel Murphy, with power and plate coverage on loan from God, Satan or someone else more powerful than we can know, is hitting homers every game and you’re starting to do crazy things like entertain the notion of pitching to Yoenis Cespedes, as if that’s the safe option.
We can argue about whether today’s game is more aesthetically pleasing than the game of past eras. Whether take-rake-baseball of the 1990s and 2000s is preferable to the pitching-heavy game we see now. But it’s hard to argue that the Royals and Mets aren’t masters of the current craft, with the Mets’ rotation looking nearly unstoppable and the Royals’ relentless, honey badger-like attack about the best one possible to contend with it. Between that and solid-to-spectacular defensive players all over these rosters, this series is the exact opposite of time travel. It represents the vanguard of baseball in the year 2015.
Let’s do a quick breakdown of the component parts:
Forget the season-long stats, this Mets lineup is a totally different beast now than it was all year. Since the trade deadline — just before which the Mets picked up Yoenis Cespedes — the Mets have been among the hottest offenses in the game. Between that pickup and the return from the disabled list of both David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud, the offensive attack of the Mets has been transformed. And that’s before you take Daniel Murphy’s recent tear into account. Cespedes left Game 4 of the NLCS early with a bad left shoulder, but he got a cortisone injection and said he expects to be ready for Game 1.
The Royals, as stated above, are full of tough outs up and down the lineup. And, much like the Mets, got a major boost late with an addition (Ben Zobrist) and a starter returning from injury (Alex Gordon). Even the guys who were pretty easy outs all year have toughened up in the playoffs. Most notably Alcides Escobar, the ALCS MVP, who batted .386 with five extra-base hits in the playoffs after failing to get on base at a .300 clip all year. As always, the AL will be at a disadvantage when playing in the NL Park due to losing the DH. Kendrys Morales has four homers and 10 RBIs in the playoffs but will likely be on the bench when the series moves to Citi Field on Friday.
Advantage: METS, but only slightly. Mostly because Murphy can’t still keep raking. Can he?
The biggest advantage either team has in this series is the Mets’ advantage in the starting rotation. Every single one of the Mets’ top three starters — Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard — is better than anyone in the Royals’ top three of Johnny Cueto, Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez. As such, it doesn’t matter much that Ned Yost hasn’t set his Series rotation yet, because the Mets have and always will have the edge here. If we go to fourth starters, Steven Matz is better than Chris Young and Kris Medlen too. Heck, if two Mets’ starters are run over by the Good Humor truck, they still have Bartolo Colon, who would likely be in the Royals’ playoff rotation if he played for them. Really, no matter what else we say about the matchups in this series, the Royals’ chances begin and end with their ability to make something happen against the Mets’ starters. No one has done it yet.
Even with Greg Holland gone for the season with Tommy John surgery it’s impossible to claim that the Royals’ bullpen is anything but intimidating. Wade Davis has shown he can go multiple innings if he has to and, as Game 6 of the ALCS showed, even a rain delay can’t stop him. Kelvin Herrera is almost as good. If Ned Yost needs more than three innings from the two of them Ryan Madson is waiting. He’s been great all year, his shaky ALCS Game 6 appearance notwithstanding.
For the Mets, it’s all about getting it to Jeurys Familia, who hasn’t given up a run — and hasn’t given Mets fans a reason to sweat — in the playoffs. It’s a little dicey beyond him. The Mets’ starters, however, have been making that bridge to Familia a short one. Even, if necessary, filling in as setup men on their days off themselves. Indeed, look for Noah Syndergaard to make at least one relief appearance in a close game.
Ned Yost was a butt of jokes in last year’s playoffs before suddenly looking like a genius by the time the World Series ended and solidifying that status in year in which the Royals cruised to the AL Central title. Chalk that up more to circumstance and hindsight analysis than anything else, however, and know that we’re always a move or two — most likely with the bullpen — which will allow us to turn “Yost” into “Yosted” (Pro tip: if your name is being turned into a verb, you’re probably not having a good day). This could’ve happened in Game 6 of the ALCS, in fact, when Yost let Wade Davis sit out in the bullpen while Madson gave up the lead thanks to a Jose Bautista home run. The upshot: when the game goes according to plan, Yost is fine. If he has to improvise, bad things can happen.
The only knock anyone has ever had on Terry Collins came years and years ago when he was a younger man and didn’t have much control over his clubhouses in Houston and Anaheim. He’s a steady hand now, whose in-game decisions aren’t questioned all that often. If his starters continue to do what they’ve been doing all postseason, he’ll have even fewer second guessers.
The last World Series game which took place was an epic battle in Kauffman Stadium where amazing pitching, hitting to contact and base running decided everything. It only seems appropriate that we’re right back here again. And, if anything, pitching, hitting to contact and base running seem poised to be an even bigger part of what’s about to go down.
For my part, it’s hard to pick against good starting pitching. And the Mets don’t have good starting pitching. They have GREAT starting pitching. And for that reason I’m not picking against them here. This is a very evenly-matched series overall, but give me the fireballers every time: METS in SIX.