World Series Preview: By the Numbers

The World Series starts tonight, and if you’ve spent any time reading the internet over the last 24 hours, you’ve probably been inundated with preview articles. If you haven’t been, I’m particularly fond of this one from Jonah Keri and Ben Lindbergh at Grantland, mostly because it includes this fantastic image.

royals-catch-probability-zones-tri

The rest of the preview is great too, which isn’t surprising, because Jonah and Ben do fantastic work on a regular basis. That preview is also annoying, as they stole a number of ideas I was going to spotlight in this post, which is why I stole their awesome outfield defense graph and put it in this one. But rather than cry over they-beat-me-to-it milk, we’ll just pivot and tackle the two World Series teams position by position. Forecasts are based on the 2015 Steamer projections found here on the site, and are based on an entire season’s worth of production.

Catcher

Giants: 6.7 WAR (#1 in MLB)
Royals: 4.5 WAR (#4 in MLB)

Salvador Perez is quite good, but he’s not Buster Posey. It’s also worth noting that catcher framing is not included in these projections, and the metrics suggest that Posey was much better at expanding the zone for his pitchers, making the difference likely even larger than this suggests. The Royals don’t have a deficiency behind the plate, but Posey is an advantage for the Giants against almost any other team they play.

Edge: San Francisco

First Base

Giants: 3.8
Royals: 2.7

Brandon Belt and Eric Hosmer are probably not quite as different going forward as they have been in the past, given Hosmer’s advantage in youth, but Belt is the better player right now. One additional slight advantage for the Giants: Belt has shown a minimal platoon split throughout his career, so he won’t be as easy to counter in high leverage situations as Hosmer, who hasn’t figured out how to hit good left-handed pitching yet.

Edge: San Francisco

Second Base

Giants: 2.0
Royals: 2.3

High-contact, low-power, moderate speed, and solid defense describes both Joe Panik and Omar Infante, two players cut from the same cloth. Neither is flashy, but both are serviceable regulars who can do enough to justify their spot in the line-up. These are the kinds of useful role players that good teams need to avoid having pits of despair, though Infante fell a little too close to that mark this year. His track record is fairly strong, though, and this isn’t the big advantage for San Francisco that their 2014 numbers would suggest.

Edge: Push

Shortstop

Giants: 2.2
Royals: 2.2

Brandon Crawford and Alcides Escobar are both in the big leagues for their gloves, and they both make plays that convince everyone watching that they’re among the elite defenders at their positions. The numbers don’t love either one as much, with both rating as just above average defenders, but both also hit well enough to be useful even without a lot of love from UZR. You could make a case that the numbers might be underrating both players, but it’s hard to make a case that it’s missing on one and not the other, so even if you adjust both up, the end result is still going to be the same.

Edge: Push

Third Base

Giants: 3.8
Royals: 3.4

This one’s a tougher sell, as Pablo Sandoval career on-base percentage is only 30 points lower than Mike Moustakas‘ career slugging percentage, and Sandoval isn’t exactly known as an on-base machine. As I noted before the ALCS, however, Steamer kind of loves Mike Moustakas, seeing improvements in his core peripherals this year that weren’t reflected in his overall line due to an absurdly low BABIP. By reputation and past performance, this is a big advantage for the Giants, but Steamer thinks this one is a lot closer than many think.

Edge: Push

Left Field

Giants: 0.9
Royals: 4.4

Here’s the biggest mismatch of the whole series, and the gap is actually even larger than the numbers suggest, since Steamer doesn’t know that Travis Ishikawa is a first baseman learning left field on the fly. Give him a strong defensive penalty than the forecast does, and the Giants are basically running replacement level players in left field, while the Royals might have the best left fielder in baseball. This one isn’t close.

Edge: Royals

Center Field

Giants: 2.2
Royals: 3.5

Gregor Blanco is one of the more underrated useful role players in baseball, but he’s not Lorenzo Cain or even Jarrod Dyson, and the Royals pair of speedsters give them an effective All-Star up the middle. Cain put on a show defensively in the ALCS, but it really says something about Dyson’s glove that Cain is the one who moves to right field when they put their defensive unit on the field to protect a lead late in the game. They have enough offense to justify their playing time, and their athleticism is unparalleled.

Edge: Royals

Right Field

Giants: 3.1
Royals: 2.4

Pence was a monster for the Giants this year, in part because he added over a full win in value with his defense and baserunning, but Steamer regresses both of those fairly heavily, pulling Pence down to the level of a good player rather than a star. I’d be okay bumping him up a bit here, as I think Pence is probably better than average at running the bases and playing defense, but the Aoki/Cain combination isn’t useless, so this isn’t a blowout the way the other corner spot is.

Edge: Giants

Designated Hitter

Giants: 1.8
Royals: 1.7

The injury to Michael Morse means that he gets to play the position he should have moved to years ago, as the Giants are one of the few NL teams who carried a natural DH all season. Often, the AL has an advantage over the NL when the DH is in use, but that won’t be the case in the four games in Kansas City. Steamer thinks Butler is better than his regular season struggles, but Morse gives the Giants a legitimate power threat, and evens out the bat-only spot.

Edge: Push

Starting Pitchers

Giants: 8.7
Royals: 10.4

Neither team is here because of their starting rotation, especially the guys after the #1 starter. James Shields and Madison Bumgarner are both high quality arms, but after them, it’s mostly just hang on and hope that the game is still close in the sixth inning. The projections like Yordano Ventura more than any other Giants starter, but sees most of the rest of the veterans as back-end innings eaters. Perhaps one of Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong, Jeremy Guthrie, or Jason Vargas will make a significant difference with some outstanding innings, but it’s tough to make a case that either team will have a big edge due to the expected performance of any of those starters. Ventura is enough to tip the scales towards the Royals, but both of these groups are just around to try and not lose the series rather than win it.

Edge: Royals

Relief Pitchers

Giants: 0.7
Royals: 5.0

Much has been written about the remarkable trio at the end of the Royals bullpen, and Steamer sees this as the best bullpen in baseball, with no one else even challenging for the top spot. Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera are significant weapons for the Royals, and the more often Ned Yost uses them, the higher the chances that Kansas City wins the whole thing.

But this projection almost certainly underestimates the Giants relief corps, since our WAR is based mostly on FIP, and the Giants have assembled a bullpen of guys who have built careers off of beating their FIPs. Santiago Casilla has a career 3.20 ERA and 3.92 FIP, a big enough gap that over 439 innings that he should get some credit for it. Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, Jean Machi, and Jeremy Affeldt have smaller gaps, but each also has a lower lower ERA than FIP, which is one of the reasons why the Giants racked up +4.6 RA9-WAR from their relievers this year, versus just 0.5 FIP-WAR. This is one of the areas where our pitching WAR is most flawed, and the gap isn’t as big as the numbers above suggest.

But the Royals bullpen is better. Blowing everyone away is better than trying to limit hits or strand runners, even if you’re pretty adept at those secondary skills. The Giants bullpen is better than these numbers suggest, but it’s still not Herrera-Davis-Holland.

Edge: Royals

Overall

Mostly, we see a lot of similarities, or at least offsetting advantages. The Giants are a little better on the infield, but the Royals are a little better in the outfield. The Royals pitching is better, but probably not quite to the extent that the forecasts suggest. The Royals have home field advantage, but only if the series goes to the seventh game; because of the 2-3-2 schedule, the Giants actually play more home games if the series only goes five.

Our playoff odds have the Royals as favorites using the Steamer forecasts, but basically call it a coin-toss if you use 2014 statistics as your inputs instead. Neither team is clearly better than the other, though, and both teams have something close to a 50/50 chance of winning the series.

If forced to pick for the fun of getting mocked when the prediction inevitably goes wrong, I’d probably take the Royals to win in six or seven games, but that’s entirely dependent on Ned Yost leaning very heavily on his relievers and not asking too much of his rotation. If we regularly see Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland combining for 12 outs per game, then I think the Royals are slightly more likely to come out on top. But it’s seven games of baseball, so in reality, we have no idea what’s going to happen. And that’s what makes it fun.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

37 Comments
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Phillies113
7 years ago

The 2-3-2 format is a puzzle. If the team with homefield advantage loses even one game in the early going, then that team effectively loses homefield advantage. A 2-2-1-1-1 format works in other sports to mitigate this, but I don’t know how logistically feasible that would be for baseball.

Hank
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

SILENCE! The last thing this sport needs is more off-days during the postseason!

#KeepNotGraphs
7 years ago
Reply to  Hank

Though for this postseason only, I think we deserve a best-of-seventy-seven World Series.

#KeepNotGraphs

Avattoir
7 years ago
Reply to  #KeepNotGraphs

Best of ’77: Reggie, Reggie, Reggie Reggie Reggie.

Justin
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

Huh? Same thing happens in 22111 if the home team loses one of the first two.

Semperty
7 years ago
Reply to  Justin

Not really. St. Louis just lost game 1, and thus played more games in San Fran than St. Louis. In a 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Cardinals the clinching game at home – retaining home field advantage.

Jake
7 years ago
Reply to  Semperty

But then game 6 would have been in San Fran, and the Giants would again have HF advantage….. The same thing happens, in a different sequence. All HF advantage means is that if you win every game played at home, you win the series. Thus, by SF winning one game in St Louis, regardless of the format of the series, gave them HF advantage, unless they were to lose on of their home games.

Robert Hombre
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

They don’t effectively lose home field advantage. They *do* lose home field advantage, regardless of whether it’s 2-3-2, 2-2-1-1-1, or 1-3-3. I’m really not sure what the problem is.

Phillies113
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Hombre

In a 2-3-2, let’s say Team A has home field advantage. Team B wins one of the first two games. Now the series moves to Team B’s home, and they have 3 games at home to clinch the series. Team A has lost the home field advantage.

In a 2-2-1-1-1, same scenario as above; Team A with home field advantage, Team B wins one of the first two games. Now Game 5 returns to Team A’s home, so they still get the benefit of a home field advantage.

Of course, the better team is going to win regardless of where the game is played, so it’s probably a moot point. Either way, I just thought it was something to think about.

Oh, and as for the 1-3-3, if Team A were to lose the first game, there’s no advantage to them whatsoever as the next games are at Team B’s field.

Jake
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

That is not correct. Your second scenario just delays the “home field advantage” by one game. The Giants would still get the advantage again in game six, if the Cards won game 5.

kdm628496
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

if you start with HFA and lose a game at home, you lose HFA for the series. you then need to win at least one game on the road in order to win the series. NO MATTER THE ORDER.

Phillies113
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

Ah, ok. Now I see what you’re saying. The order of the games doesn’t matter, so long as the home team wins its home games, like they’re supposed to. I understand now.

Avattoir
7 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

What’s the relevance here, with neither team evidencing a distinct home field advantage?

Giants: 45-36 Home … 43-38 Road; hardly distinct.
Royals: 42-39 Home … 47-34 Road.

[PA system; ‘This on? (tap tap) Ahem. Having won the toss, the Royals elect for all 7 in San Francisco.’]

Phillies113
7 years ago
Reply to  Avattoir

I was talking more generally, not about this Series in particular. My point, though, has been thoroughly demolished (as it was a bad point to begin with), so ultimately there’s no relevance to anything here.