Tuesday night the 2014 World Series kicks off at Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals? Yes the Royals, for the first time since 1985, the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series. After victory in the Wild Card game over the A’s, a sweep of the heavily favored Angels in the ALDS, and a sweep of the Orioles in the ALCS, the Royals are a perfect 8-0 this postseason and are ready to face off against the National League Champions, the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are making their 3rd Fall Classic appearance in the last 5 seasons having won the title in 2010 and 2012.
Few are surprised the Giants are playing in the Fall Classic. Other than the Dodgers, the Giants had the best odds to win the 2014 World Series of all NL teams according to Vegas at the start of spring training. The Royals on the other hand, are a surprise to most; only 2 AL teams had lower odds of winning the World Series at the start of spring training. In this new age of using Sabermetrics in baseball, odds makers have become very precise when it comes to setting these odds. In the case of the Royals, it appears Vegas misjudged them back in March.
Sabermetrics takes traditional baseball statistics like batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, earned run average, and fielding percentage and brings them to the next level. One particular widely used statistic among baseball scouts and GM’s is WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. WAR is an attempt to put a single value on a player that relates his value to the team in comparison to a replacement player (a free agent or someone in the minors). WAR is a multifaceted calculation for both position players and pitchers. On top of a player’s hitting, base running, pitching, and fielding metrics, WAR takes into account the league (AL or NL), the ballpark, and the position the player plays in. Calculating WAR is no easy feat, in addition to statistics that come from the box score (BA, SLG%, OBP, ERA, and F%), WAR uses video tracking data in certain areas of the calculation like base running. Not only is WAR difficult for the average fan to calculate, but there are many different variations of the statistic as people have altered the calculation to their liking (a great resource to view historical baseball statistics is www.fangraphs.com).
When you start to look at the advanced statistics (WAR) for the two teams left standing it becomes a bit less surprising the Royals took the AL Pennant and a bit more surprising the Giants took the NL Pennant. Not only is WAR used to rate individual players, but it can represent an entire ball club’s ability. The below 3 graphs show how the Royals and Giants, as entire teams, compare in 3 areas (position players, pitching staffs, and team fielding) to the league averages and standard deviations for the 2014 season.
Note: Black dotted lines represent league averages and standard deviations, blue line represents Royals team metrics, and orange line represents Giants team metrics.
Advanced metrics, like WAR in this case, show the Royals have above average position players, pitchers, and team fielding. Meanwhile, the Giants have similar position player and team fielding metrics, but have a well below average pitching staff. Much like the NFL, where ‘defense wins championships,’ in the MLB, pitching staffs are generally associated with good success in October. One big reason the Giants won the NL Pennant is that their pitching staff, who allowed opposing hitters to hit 0.241 in the regular season, have battened down the hatches in the postseason limiting their opposition to a 0.192 batting average (best in the playoffs).
If you break down the team metrics, into individual player statistics you can see what really separates the Royals and Giants pitching staffs. In the below graph, you can see how the Royals and Giants 3-man starting rotation and 3 man bullpen (2 relievers 1 closer) compare to one another and the league’s best pitchers.
While neither team has a top 3 starting pitcher on their roster, both teams have solid aces (James Shields for the Royals and Madison Bumgarner for the Giants) who will be squaring off in Game 1. The real separation between the staffs is in the bullpen. In 2014, the Royals bullpen has been top notch; they have one of the league’s best relief pitchers in Wade Davis, and an excellent closer in Greg Holland. The Giants on the other hand, have had a sub-par bullpen this season that has risen to the occasion this October. Yusmeiro Petit being the prime example; he’s pitched 9 innings of shutout relief this postseason.
In review, we have a team in the Kansas City Royals, that Vegas gave little chance in Spring Training, who play phenomenal defense and have a dominant bullpen are going up against the San Francisco Giants, who are back looking to win their 3rd World Series title in 5 season. Both teams failed to win 90 games in the regular season, but have scorching hot pitching staffs. As much as Vegas and advanced Sabermetrics like to think they can predict what will happen, nothing can be said about clubhouse chemistry, playoff experience, and teams flat playing well when it matters most. One thing is for sure, this year’s Fall Classic is a good bet not to disappoint.
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