The Forefathers Of The 2014 Royals

The postseason took a breath on Monday night, with the NLCS participants enjoying a scheduled travel day, and the Orioles and Royals soaking in – pun intended – a rainy night in Kansas City. The Royals have clearly been the lead story of the postseason to date – they’re flying high at 6-0 after barely qualifying in the first place. As recently as one month ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who would have pegged them for a significant October run.

If they were fortunate enough to earn their way in, a short October stay was all that was expected of them. They were young, inexperienced, and most of all, offensively challenged. They were four runs down to Jon Lester in the 8th inning of the wild card game, but have been untouchable ever since. Is there a prototype, a contemporary, a forefather of this current Royals’ run?

The 2014 Royals put up a team slash line of .261-.314-.376 in the regular season, finishing 9th in the AL in runs scored and posting a 91 OPS+ as a unit. They were outliers in a number of ways, ranking 2nd in the AL in batting average, leading in stolen bases (153) and finishing with the lowest number of homers (95), strikeouts (985) and walks (380). They put the ball in play, but with very little authority. None of their regulars hit over .301 (Lorenzo Cain), or had more than 19 homers (Alex Gordon) or 74 RBI (Gordon). They were a solid run prevention unit, relying on a durable rotation, a deep, talented bullpen and exceptional team defense.

Of course, the switch has flipped since, oh about the 8th inning of the wild card game. The Royals are batting .270-.337-.429 in the postseason, and that includes two lengthy pitchers’ duels in the ALDS vs. the Angels. Gordon is channeling Babe Ruth, with Eric Hosmer co-starring as Lou Gehrig. 9th hitter Mike Moustakas certainly has tapped into his ever-present power potential, and even Alcides Escobar has gotten into the long-ball act.

The MLB regular season average slash line was .251-.314-.386 this season – the Royals are presently riding well above that level. Since the beginning of the divisional era in 1969, who are the Royals’ peers – playoff teams that had a 91 or lower regular season OPS+? How did those teams fare in October? Were any of them above average offensive clubs against the above average pitching one sees in the postseason? First, let’s define the peer group.

KC 2014 91 6
ATL 2012 90 1
CUB 2007 90 3
AZ 2007 83 3 4
HOU 2005 90 7 7
CUB 2003 91 6 6
ATL 2001 87 4 4
LAD 1996 90 3
ATL 1995 91 11 3
LAD 1988 90 8 4
STL 1987 89 7 7
NYM 1973 83 6 6
NYM 1969 84 7 1

Since 1969, 278 teams have made the playoffs, including the expanded 1981 version. 4.7% of them have had team OPS+ figures of 91 or lower. Exactly one of them – our 2014 Royals – played in the American League. The previous AL low water mark was 94, for the 1972 Detroit Tigers. It’s pretty hard to run out a 91 OPS+ in the DH league – and make the playoffs. This may turn out to be quite the historic bunch, in a number of ways.

Three of the Royals’ peers not only failed to win a round in the playoffs, they failed to win a single game – the 2012 Braves lost the wild card game, and the 2007 Cubs and 1996 Dodgers were swept in the divisional round. Let’s eliminate those clubs from our analysis and take a somewhat closer look at the remaining nine squads in reverse chronological order.

– 2007 Diamondbacks – Arizona got into the playoffs despite an 83 team OPS+ – tied for the lowest by a playoff club since 1969. They swept the Cubs, another one of the 13 clubs on our list, in the NLDS before they were vanquished in four straight by the Rockies in the NLCS. They were last in the NL in both AVG and OBP, which can happen when both Chris Young and Mark Reynolds are in your everyday lineup. Eric Byrnes was an offensive standout, a 20/50 guy, believe it or not.

As it was for most of the clubs on this list, run prevention was their forte, with peak level Brandon Webb fronting the rotation, and Jose Valverde and Juan Cruz – 87 strikeouts in 61 innings – fronting a strong pen. The Diamondbacks batted .258-.331-.428 in the postseason, fractionally worse than the MLB regular season line of .268-.336-.423.

– 2005 Astros – Despite a regular season team OPS+ of 90, Houston won a pair of exciting playoff series before being swept in the World Series by the White Sox. The offense was centered around Lance Berkman (.293-.411-.524) and a career year from Morgan Ensberg (.283-.388-.557). Recent major league starting pitcher Jason Lane (.499 SLG) got into the act as well. The Astros’ pitching staff was their strength, as their top three starters – Roy Oswalt (2.94), Andy Pettitte (2.39) and Roger Clemens (1.87) – all had ERAs below 3.00. Overall, the Astros batted .252-.322-.391 in their postseason run, below the MLB regular season average of .264-.330-.419. Lance Berkman did his level best, batting .357-.500-.643 in the NLDS, .286-.400-.525 in the NLCS, and .385-.526-.538 in the World Series.

– 2003 Cubs – Most will remember this version of the North Siders as the one that got Bartman-ized. Their relative offensive weakness (91 regular season OPS+) kind of fell through the cracks. Sammy Sosa (.279-.358-.553) was their only large weapon in a lineup that featured five players aged 33 and older. Their success was largely built upon the young right arms of Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior – both aged 22 – and 26-year-old Kerry Wood. This is the first of the clubs on the list to offensively perform at a better than MLB regular season average rate in the postseason, by a razor-thin margin of .258-.329-.442 to .264-.333-.422. Cubs fans will not be comforted by knowing that this was built on a .484 SLG in their seven-game loss to the Marlins, which featured command performances from Moises Alou (.310-.355-.552), Alex Gonzalez (.286-.333-.679), Aramis Ramirez (.231-.375-.654) and Sosa (.308-.455-.577).

– 2001 Braves – Chipper Jones meant even more to the 2001 Braves (87 regular season team OPS+) than Berkman did to the 2005 Astros. Chipper batted .327-.427-.605 on a club that ranked 2nd in the NL in K’s and 11th in BB. As was typical for Braves’ teams of this era, pitching was the driver of their success – Greg Maddux (3.05 ERA) and John Burkett (3.04) paced the rotation, and the bullpen was strong and deep, with several pitchers having career years. The team didn’t hit well in the postseason, batting just .243-.283-.410 compared to the MLB regular season line of .264-.332-.427. Jones had a huge NLDS, batting .444-.583-1.111, but no one performed against Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and the rest of the D’Backs in the NLCS.

– 1995 Braves – We finally come across the most recent of the three World Series champions on this list. The Braves’ only championship amid their historic run of division championships wasn’t built upon offense, as evidenced by their 91 regular season OPS+. They had many solid everyday performers, but their best was platooner Ryan Klesko (.310-.396-.608). Their pitching was exceptional – Maddux (19-2, 1.63) was at his peak, and Tom Glavine (16-7, 3.08) and John Smoltz (12-7, 3.18) weren’t too far from theirs. The bats came out to play in the post-season, however, as they hit .282-.352-.450 as a team, well above the MLB regular season line of .267-.338-.417. They hit well in each stage of the postseason, but dominated in the NLDS, posting a .331-.381-.519 team line, led by Marquis Grissom (.524-.524-1.048), Chipper Jones (.389-.450-.833), Klesko (.467-.467-.533) and Fred McGriff (.333-.400-.667).

– 1988 Dodgers – Largely remembered for Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser’s individual heroics in October, this bunch finished 11th in OBP (.305) and 8th in SLG (.352) during the regular season, posting a 90 OPS+. Only Gibson (.290-.377-.483, 31 steals) was a constant offensive threat. Hershiser (23-8, 2.26) was indeed exceptional, but he had help from Tim Leary (17-11, 2.91), Tim Belcher (12-6, 2.91) and a bullpen featuring three ERAs of 2.08 or better (Jay Howell, Alejandro Pena, Brian Holton). Pitching continued to carry them through the postseason, when they batted just .227-.292-.332, well below the MLB regular season line of .254-.318-.378. Only Mike Scioscia (.364-.391-.545 in the NLCS) and Mickey Hatcher (.368-.400-.737 in the World Series) were consistent offensive threats.

– 1987 Cardinals – Whitey Herzog’s go-go Cards posted a subpar 89 OPS+, but employed speed to an even greater extent than this year’s Royals. They stole 240 bags, and did lead the league the NL with a .340 OBP, but only Jack Clark (.286-.459-.597) showed any pop for a club that posted a .378 SLG. Their no-name pitching staff featured no one with more than 11 wins. The Cards continued to do it with mirrors in the postseason, coming within a win of a championship despite an overall batting line of .260-.305-.331, well below the MLB regular season average of .263-.331-.415. Tony Pena – who batted all of .214-.281-.307 in the regular season – was their offensive leader in the absence of the injured Clark, hitting .381-.458-.476 in the NLCS and .409-.480-.455 in the World Series.

– 1973 Mets – These guys matched the 2007 D’Backs for the lowest team OPS+ (83) by a playoff team in the divisional era. The early 1970’s featured a bunch of heavyweight clubs in the postseason – the A’s, Reds, Pirates and Orioles of this era were something to see. The 1973 Mets, not so much. They won 82 games, and finished last in the NL in SLG (.338). Like the 2014 Royals, their offensive team leaders had humble totals – Felix Millan (.290, 185 hits, 82 runs scored), John Milner (23 HR) and Rusty Staub (76 RBI) anchored their offense. Their pitching was exceptional, led by Tom Seaver (19-10, 2.08) and the hard-luck duo of Jerry Koosman (14-15, 2.84) and Jon Matlack (14-16, 3.20). Interestingly, not a single Met reliever had an ERA better than their team ERA of 3.26. They didn’t hit in the postseason, either, batting just .240-.312-.326, well below the MLB regular season line of .257-.325-.379. They almost won it all anyway, thanks in part to a strong World Series from Staub (.423-.464-.615).

– 1969 Mets – Ah, the Miracle Mets. They had never posted a winning record prior to 1969, when they posted an 84 regular season OPS+ before savaging the Braves in the NLCS and holding off a loaded Orioles’ group in the World Series. During the regular season, they finished 10th in OBP (.311) and 11th in SLG (.351), with only Cleon Jones (.340-.422-.482) posting an eye-catching line. Tommie Agee – 26 HR, 76 RBI – led in the power categories. Their pitching staff was young and strong, led by Seaver (25-7, 2.21) and Koosman (17-9, 2.28). In the postseason, however, the bats showed up – big time. They batted an amazing .327-.382-.575 in their sweep of the Braves, with Agee (.357-.438-.857), Ken Boswell (.333-.385-.833), Wayne Garrett (.385-.467-.769), Jones (.429-.467-.786) and Art Shamsky (.538-.538-.538) going wild. They hit much less in the World Series, but still showed power, with Donn Clendenon (.357-.438-1.071, 3 HR) and Al Weis (.455-.563-.727) leading the way. Yes, Al Weis, he of the .219-.279-.275 career line. Overall, they batted .265-.327-.463 in the postseason, well above the MLB regular season average of .248-.320-.369.

When you think about it, the Miracle Mets really are the most similar forerunner of this year’s Royals. They didn’t hit at all during the regular season, are going crazy with the bats in the postseason, and simply aren’t losing. Both are young clubs, comprised largely of heralded prospects who had been cutting their teeth at the big league level for a couple of years. Neither really came very close to the playoffs before their first big breakthrough. Both rely on run prevention, via both pitching and strong team defense. One large difference is the Royals’ team speed – the Mets didn’t steal very often.

Clearly, neither club suddenly became a legitimate offensive juggernaut in October. Their run prevention strengths got both teams through the long slog of the regular season intact, and randomness treated them kindly afterward. Randomness, however, breeds confidence, momentum and growth, especially among youthful players coming of age before our eyes. You can see the game slowing down, the ball getting larger, and the growth taking place for these Royal hitters. Eric Hosmer’s hardest opposite field fly ball was hit at 100.6 MPH this season. He went deep oppo at 110 MPH against the Angels. Opposite field power was the foremost attribute I saw in him as an amateur, and he’s just now tapping into it.

Alcides Escobar’s hardest fly ball was hit at 96.4 MPH during the regular season – he went yard at 99 MPH vs. Chris Tillman. Mike Moustakas has always flashed extreme pull power, but never sustained it – until now. There certainly is some randomness in play right now – but some growth as well. The Royals could be gone within a week – though I doubt it – but even so, this experience should pay long-term dividends.

The teams that just missed the postseason party must be wistfully looking at the Royals, realizing it could easily be them on such a momentous roll. If the Indians’ team defense weren’t so bad, if the Brewers got real production out of first base……most of all, if the Mariners actually would have played their third-best hitter, Michael Saunders, down the stretch instead of Endy Chavez and Chris Denorfia. If you can get into the party, absolutely anything can happen – just ask the Miracle Mets or the 2014 Royals.

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7 years ago

Bringing up the 1969 Mets while we’re getting ambushed by the 2014 Royals… you’re just trying to hurt us Orioles fans, aren’t you, Tony? Why don’t you toss in the 1979 Pirates and Jeffrey Maier just to finish us off.

7 years ago
Reply to  Orsulakfan

Never EVER speak of Jeffrey Maier again.