Kansas City Royals vs Los Angeles Angels
Fresh off their momentous, come-from-behind, 9-8 victory in the 12-inning AL Wild Card game over the Oakland Athletics, the Royals head into Division Series play for the first time ever (the Division Series didn’t exist the last time they were in the playoffs in 1985, excluding their appearance in the Division Series of 1981 after that year’s strike) to face the Angels, who come in with the best record in baseball. If the Royals want to continue their Cinderella run, they have their work cut out for them. The series begins with Game 1 tonight at Angel Stadium (9:07 pm ET, TBS), with the Royals guaranteed at least home game, hosting Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 of the best-of-five series.
Pitching: Royals ace James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA) struggled in the Wild Card win over Oakland, but got off the hook thanks to the Royals’ late-inning rally. One of the negatives of a team playing in the Wild Card Game is that the rotation is now turned over, meaning Jason Vargas (11-10, 3.71) will start Game 1 instead of Shields. In Game 2, the saga of Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20) continues. The rookie threw 73 pitches Sunday, then was controversially brought into a tough spot in the sixth inning of the Wild Card Game (he didn’t do well) instead of a more experienced player or a reliever, and he will now make another start on Friday, before Shields returns to the mound for Game 3. While the Royals haven’t named starters after the first three games, Danny Duffy (9-12, 2.53) will likely be used at some point. On the other side, the Angels will go straight down the pitching depth chart, using Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59), rookie Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04), and CJ Wilson (13-10, 4.51) for the first three games. However, the loss of Garrett Richards to injury will hurt the Angels rotation. Later in games, Kansas City has the better bullpen, with the shutdown trio of Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA), Wade Davis (1.00), and closer Greg Holland (1.44, 46 saves) pitching the seventh, eighth, and ninth, although the Angels do have three players with 11 or more saves, including Huston Street (1.71, 17 saves) and Joe Smith (1.81, 15 saves), who have each had stints as the closer throughout the season.
Hitting: On paper, the Angels have the better lineup of the two teams. The team is led by MVP candidate Mike Trout (.287 average, 36 HR, 111 RBI), who certainly doesn’t play like the 22-year old he is. Albert Pujols (.272, 28 HR, 105 RBI) has been closer to his old self this year, and when Josh Hamilton (.263, 10 HR, 44 RBI) can say the same when he’s been healthy (played 89 games). While these players have led the team, every player in the offense has greatly contributed to the team’s success, winning 98 regular season games, and ranking fourth in the AL in homers and third in batting average, a combination that doesn’t always exist. The Royals are last in the AL in homers, but second in average, with six of the nine players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title above .266, and Lorenzo Cain (.301) leading the team. The Royals team leader in homers and RBI is Alex Gordon (.266, 19 HR, 74 RBI), which is less than overwhelming for the unit. But the team showed everyone on Tuesday night in the Wild Card Game what they do excel at, and that is stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. The team leads the AL in steals with 153, 21 more than the next team, and had seven on Tuesday, in addition to four sacrifice bunts. The old baseball saying of “get him on, get him over, get him in” certainly applies to the way this Royals team plays.
Other: Some have criticized Royals manager Ned Yost for his handling of Yordano Ventura in the Wild Card Game in what was Yost’s first postseason game as a manager. Now we will get to see how Yost strategically handles series play. Mike Scioscia in the Angels dugout has plenty of playoff experience, although it is not necessarily recent, with his team returning this year to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. That trip five years ago, however, was the Angels fifth trip in six years, all under Scioscia’s leadership, in addition to a World Series title in 2002 under Scioscia. The Angels have home-field advantage in the series, playing in front of a crowd that ranked second in the AL in attendance, and could go to Kansas City up 2-0 if they play well. The Royals come in with momentum, but may also be emotionally exhausted after their Wild Card win, and will have to play nearly perfect to beat the Angels.
The Angels will win the series, 3 games to 1.
Detroit Tigers vs Baltimore Orioles
In the other Division Series matchup in the AL, the Tigers meet the Orioles. Detroit is one of the favorites in the AL, led by a strong rotation in addition to a strong lineup, but many are saying the Orioles also have an excellent chance to make a deep run in these playoffs. The Tigers have become a perennial playoff team, with Jim Leyland leading the team to playoff appearances the last three seasons, winning at least one series in each appearance, with a loss in the 2012 World Series after beating the Yankees in the ALCS. After Leyland resigned after last season, it’s Brad Ausmus’ turn to try to win a World Series, something the franchise hasn’t done since 1984. To do that, the first step will be to beat the Orioles, who won the AL East by 12 games (compared to the Tigers winning the AL Central by a single game), and have had plenty of time to prepare for the postseason. The division title was their first since 1997, and the postseason bid is just their second since then, along with a Wild Card berth in 2012. The series begins today in Baltimore (5:37 pm ET, TBS) as they have home field advantage in a playoff series for the first time since the 1997 ALCS.
Pitching: Many consider the Tigers rotation one of the best in baseball, and one of its aces (yes, they have more than one “ace”) gets the ball in Game 1 in Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA), the 2013 AL Cy Young winner. He will be followed by another former Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander (15-12, 4.54), whose numbers seem lackluster due to a midseason rough patch, and who comes in pitching well. Midseason trade acquisition David Price (15-12, 3.26 overall, 4-4, 3.59 with Tigers), another former Cy Young winner, will pitch Game 3, followed by Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43) in Game 4. While Detroit has a rotation which can certainly lead to a deep postseason run, the Orioles rotation as a whole actually has a better ERA (3.61 to 3.89). While the staff has no clear leader, all of the pitchers expected to throw in the series could make their case that they are the best on the staff, starting with Game 1 pitcher Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34), and continuing with Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54) in Game 2. The team has not announced a starter for either game in Detroit, but expect two out of the trio of Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65), Kevin Gausman (7-7, 3.57), and Miguel Gonzalez (10-9, 3.23) to get the ball for Games 3 and 4. In the bullpen, the Tigers have their biggest weakness, one that could potentially prevent a deep postseason run if the cards don’t fall right. Closer Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA, 35 saves) has struggled all season, and only one of the other major contributors in the bullpen (Al Alburquerque, 2.51) has an ERA under 3.57. On the other side, the Orioles bullpen has quietly become one of the best statistically in the AL. Normally, someone in their first season in the closer’s role wouldn’t have an advantage over a veteran like Joe Nathan, but Zach Britton (1.65, 37 saves) has been better and more consistent all season. The supporting cast around Britton also had 16 saves between them, as Baltimore led the league in that category, with Darren O’Day (1.70), Tommy Hunter (2.97), and midseason trade pickup Andrew Miller (2.02 overall, 1.35 with Baltimore) all serving as valuable assets for Buck Showalter’s team.
Hitting: The Tigers are known for their pitching, but they also have a very stout offense, leading the AL in batting average and ranking second in runs scored. They are led by two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera (.313 average, 25 HR, 109 RBI), who has once again put up MVP-worthy numbers. So has Victor Martinez (.335, 32 HR, 103 RBI), who has had arguably his best season at age 35, falling just short of the AL batting title. JD Martinez (.315, 23 HR, 76 RBI) has seemingly come from out of nowhere to be a force behind Cabrera and the other Martinez, and Ian Kinsler (.275, 17 HR, 92 RBI) has done a nice job in the leadoff role despite not necessarily being a prototypical leadoff hitter. The Orioles offense is led by MVP candidate Nelson Cruz (.271, 40 HR, 108 RBI), a player who found a home when the Orioles took a chance on him when no one else wanted him following a 2013 performance enhancing drug suspension. Adam Jones (.281, 29 HR, 96 RBI) was a leader before the Orioles became a good team, and continued to lead them through their regular season success. While no one on the team hits higher than Steve Pearce (.293), the team ranks fifth in the AL in batting average, with nearly all of the usual starting lineup hitting at .268 or better. A late waiver trade for Alejandro De Aza (.293, 3 HR, 10 RBI in 20 games for Orioles) benefited both De Aza and the team, as both played better. One player who does not have a good average is Chris Davis (.196, 26 HR, 72 RBI), who is suspended the first eight games of the postseason as part of a 25-game drug suspension.
Other: Brad Ausmus is in his first season as a big league manager, so obviously this is his first postseason series. Buck Showalter led the Orioles to the playoffs for the second time in three years, after having led the Yankees and Diamondbacks to playoff berths in the 1990s, but is still looking to win his first postseason series. Both of these teams are very capable of winning the series, but the Tigers have been here before have had moderate postseason success, and sometimes in sports a team that has been successful in the past finds a way (perhaps simply out of habit) to defeat a team new to the big stage. With these two teams very even, that could very well happen here.
The Tigers will win the series, 3 games to 2.