The last two teams standing in the American League are, arguably, the two that were the most aggressive at the MLB Trade Deadline. Will that serve as an example in future seasons? It certainly could. The Toronto Blue Jays will take the field at Kauffman Stadium for Game 1 against the Kansas City Royals on Friday night. Neither team will be using a trade deadline acquisition on the mound in the series opener, but those July additions will play a huge role in this series. The Blue Jays are a -150 favorite to advance to the World Series. It would be their second playoff series win since 1993. The last series win just happened in memorable fashion.
Jose Bautista and the Bat Flip Heard ‘Round The World propelled the Blue Jays into this matchup with the Royals. Toronto erased a 2-0 deficit to win three straight and advance. It was Bautista’s three-run dinger that broke a seventh inning tie in Game 5 against the Texas Rangers and it was that home run that was easily the biggest hit in Blue Jays history since the memorable Joe Carter walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.
For the Royals, their memorable moment came in Game 4 when they erased a four-run deficit in the eighth inning on the road against the Houston Astros to prolong the series and then trade deadline pick up Johnny Cueto did the rest in Game 5. After missing the playoffs for 28 straight seasons (27 if you don’t count the 1994 lockout), the Royals are back in the ALCS for the second straight season. The win over Houston in Game 4 was eerily reminiscent of the team’s AL Wild Card game win over Oakland in 2014. Could that be a sign of things to come?
Here are the dates and pitching probables for the series:
Game 2 @ KC: Saturday October 17; David Price vs. Yordano Ventura
Game 3 @ TOR: Monday October 19; Johnny Cueto vs. Marcus Stroman
Game 4 @ TOR: Tuesday October 20; TBD
Game 5 @ TOR: Wednesday October 21; TBD*
Game 6 @ KC: Friday October 23; TBD*
Game 7 @ KC: Saturday October 24; TBD*
* - if necessary
As mentioned, the Blue Jays are a -150 favorite in this series. For updated lines, check out BTB's MLB Baseball Odds.
The format will be a little bit difference for this preview, in hopes of organizing things a bit better.
The Blue Jays have been one of the most prolific offenses that we have seen in a while. Their .344 wOBA would rank fifth in a sample of all teams from 2011-15. Their .457 team SLG would rank third. Adjusted for the current run environment, this is the best offense in the last five years. The 2011 Boston Red Sox share a similar 117 wRC+. The thing that most people don’t notice about the Blue Jays while they’re busy bashing dingers is that this is a very disciplined offensive team as well. As a whole, they struck out in just 18.5 percent of their plate appearances, the fifth-best mark in the league, and tied for second with the Chicago Cubs in BB% at 9.1 percent.
Most people are infatuated with their 232 home runs, but this was a great offense across the board. They won’t see a whole lot of lefties in this series, which could work to Kansas City’s benefit. The Blue Jays had a .354 wOBA against left-handed pitching, the best mark in the league by a comfortable margin. As great as that number was, you don’t post league-leading numbers by only hitting lefties. Considering that a team will, on average, face a right-handed pitcher 70 percent of the time, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Blue Jays also posted a league-best .341 wOBA against right-handers. That was 10 points higher than any other team, and 16 points higher than any other team that doesn’t call Coors Field home.
It’s worth mentioning that Troy Tulowitzki, a player that everybody thought would be the ultimate difference maker, only hit .239/.317/.380 in 183 PA for the Blue Jays. He was hurt for a period of time, but his value was largely defensive in nature after he was acquired. Josh Donaldson (41), Edwin Encarnacion (39), and Jose Bautista (40) combined for 120 home runs. That’s as many as the Miami Marlins hit as a team and 20 more than the Atlanta Braves hit as a team. Russell Martin only hit .240, but his stat line is the reason why batting average is an archaic stat. He hit 23 home runs and had a 10.5 percent BB%, so he was 14 percent above league average overall.
There aren’t many similarities between these two offenses. Like the Blue Jays, the Royals don’t strike out much. In fact, over the last five seasons, only the 2011 Texas Rangers and the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals had lower K% than the Royals. Is it a coincidence that those two teams faced off in the World Series? Maybe, but maybe not. The similarities between the two teams stop at the low strikeout rate.
The Royals don’t walk, posting a 6.3 percent BB%. If you extend out a couple of decimal places, the Royals edged out the Marlins for the lowest walk rate in baseball this season. Kansas City hit 93 fewer home runs than the Blue Jays. Both teams hit .269 during the season. The Royals stole 16 more bases than Toronto, but by BsR, a baserunning metric at Fangraphs, Toronto’s overall value on the basepaths was more than 10 runs higher than Kansas City’s.
If Ned Yost continues to hit Alex Gordon eighth, it will only magnify the offensive edge that Toronto very clearly has in this series. The Royals got a career offensive year from Kendrys Morales and Lorenzo Cain had his best professional season across the board. Alcides Escobar, he of the 67 wRC+, which means he was 33 percent below league average offensively, has batted leadoff of late for the Royals.
The Blue Jays are unquestionably the better bet offensively in this series.
The Blue Jays really went for it when they added David Price. Price was probably the top starting pitching rental in the market and the price was right for GM Alex Anthopoulos. Price was 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA and a 2.22 FIP in 11 starts in 74.1 innings for the Blue Jays during the regular season. He was serviceable in Game 1 and then was used in relief in Game 4 for three innings in one of the biggest managerial blunders of the first round.
The return of Marcus Stroman was huge for the Blue Jays. He was great in his two postseason starts, though he didn’t factor in either decision. Stroman was hurt in Spring Training when he fielded a bunt and tore his ACL. Marco Estrada was the savior of the series for Toronto against Texas. Estrada threw 6.1 excellent innings in a tough road environment with his team down 2-0 in the series. His changeup, one of the most effective pitches in baseball this past season, was a neutralizer.
The key in this series could be RA Dickey. Estrada will start Game 1, followed by Price and Stroman, which leaves Dickey with the ball in Game 4. He’ll be pitching in the controlled environment of Rogers Centre with the roof closed, so his knuckleball should be a lot easier to command. It’s impossible to mention the pitching staff without talking about what Russell Martin has meant. Martin has had some issues catching the knuckleballer, but he’s a very smart catcher and a quality pitch framer.
The Royals will go with Edinson Volquez in Game 1, followed by Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto. Volquez will be an interesting matchup, since he’s a defense-dependent pitcher with erratic control. He would seem to be a good matchup for the Blue Jays, but we’ve said that about a lot of teams in the last two seasons and he’s posted ERAs of 3.04 and 3.55. His advanced metrics aren’t nearly as favorable, but he keeps the ball in the park and can work deep into the game.
Ventura, despite his Game 1 struggles against Houston, has been Kansas City’s best pitcher throughout the season. For a while, his ERA was not indicative of how he was actually pitching. He was inducing more ground balls and strikeouts, but it wasn’t showing up in his run prevention stats. Some unfortunate sequencing evened out in the second half when he stranded 79 percent of his runners. More than Cueto, he is the key to this series.
Speaking of Cueto, the big trade deadline pick up for the Royals got it done in Game 5. He was excellent, for the first time in a long time. He pitched like the confident ace that the Royals thought they were acquiring. He looked in control of the game and his stuff from the start. Now the question is whether or not it was sustainable. He’ll get the start at raucous Rogers Centre in Game 3, so he’ll have to manage his emotions, something he’s had a hard time with while struggling.
The Royals have some questions beyond these three. Will they use Volquez in Game 4? Will they try to get by with Chris Young? To be honest, I don’t see a scenario that benefits them, so I’ll give the advantage to the Blue Jays here as well.
Roberto Osuna looked like a seasoned vet in the games he appeared in for the Blue Jays as the moment never seemed too big. There are some big worries for the Blue Jays in this series. Left-handed ace Brett Cecil is out with a torn calf muscle. Left-hander Aaron Loup had a family matter to tend to and missed the winner-take-all Game 5 of the ALDS. If Loup is out of the loop for this series, the Blue Jays have zero lefties in the bullpen. At time of writing, there was no update on Loup.
This is a big worry for the Blue Jays. Now, the Royals do have a .336 wOBA as a team in lefty/lefty matchups, but you’d still like to have that option. Aaron Sanchez was called upon to face some lefties throughout the Texas series, but this may force the Blue Jays to consider adding Mark Buehrle to the roster as an extra lefty.
Greg Holland underwent Tommy John surgery for Kansas City, which pushed Wade Davis back into the closer’s role. There are a lot of instances, especially in the postseason, when the highest-leverage spot comes in the seventh or eighth inning. Will Yost use his relief ace in that spot or will he try to get by with Kelvin Herrera or Ryan Madson? Madson and Herrera have both been extremely good this season.
The Royals are a deep bullpen and they have a serviceable LOOGY in Franklin Morales. Danny Duffy can also thrive in that role, assuming he isn’t called upon to start at any point. This is one area in which the Royals likely have an advantage, though it is smaller than it once was.
The Blue Jays, like the Astros, are a solid defensive team. The Royals have been able to thrive, particularly in the AL Central, by taking advantage of poor defensive teams. Their contact-based offense almost depends on it. The Blue Jays aren’t as proficient defensively as the Royals, but this is an area in which I felt Houston had some value. Toronto is the same way.
Russell Martin threw out 31 of 71 attempted base stealers. Salvador Perez threw out 29 of 95 attempted base stealers. Giving up outs on the bases is not advisable for either team, though that's a bigger part of Kansas City's offense.
Neither John Gibbons nor Ned Yost impresses me as a manager. Gibbons’s usage of David Price was inexplicably bad in Game 4 and Yost’s placement of Alex Gordon in the order is poor. I don’t see an edge in this area.
In terms of home field advantages, the enclosed Rogers Centre crowd is certainly louder, but Kauffman Stadium has been a tremendous environment since the Royals improved. Both teams have an edge in home games, the Royals because Kauffman Stadium is not a good home run hitter’s park and the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre because it is.
Series Pick: Toronto in 5
I think this one is over quickly. The Blue Jays are likely to get a shaky Johnny Cueto in Game 3, a below average starter in Game 4, and then Yordano Ventura on very short rest in Game 5. If the Blue Jays can split in Kansas City or, best-case scenario, win both games, they will be in great shape to avoid a return trip to Kauffman Stadium. I felt that the Astros were a bad matchup for the Royals. Toronto is a much better version of the Astros from an offensive standpoint.