Saturday, October 17, 2015

ALCS a Heavyweight Showdown

The reigning AL champs are itching to get back to the Series (Bleeding Royal Blue)
Because of baseball's division format, added wild card games, and the sheer randomness that ensues in a best-of-five series, it's become exceedingly rare that the two best teams (record-wise) meet up in the league championship series. This is only the fourth such time in the American League since the wild card era began in 1995.

But in a year where all but three American League teams finished within seven games of .500 (how's that for parity?), the Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals were head and shoulders above everyone else. The Royals had the league's best record (95-67), and the Blue Jays its top run-differential (+221). They were the only AL teams to top 90 wins this year.

How they got here is quite interesting. The defending AL champs appeared to take a step back over the winter, losing ace James Shields to free agency and making a host of questionable free agent signings. Experts thought they'd be lucky to crack .500, let alone return to the postseason. But Kansas City got off to a hot start and never looked back, spending just 19 days out of first and never a day below second. They took over first place for good on June 8th, running away with a middling AL Central. Two months later they'd built up a double-digit lead and maintained it the rest of the way, winning their division by a whopping 12 games.

But whereas Kansas City cruised through the regular season, Toronto spent most of the year playing catch-up. After an active offseason in which they traded for Josh Donaldson and signed Russell Martin, the Jays were a popular pick to make the playoffs, if not win the division.

So it was surprising when Toronto started slow, playing losing baseball for the first two months. They'd slipped to last in the AL East by Memorial Day and were still seven games below .500 one week later. They begin digging themselves out with a sizzling June, only to flounder again in July. Toronto limped into the break with a losing record, having dropped 10 of 14 leading up to the Midsummer Classic. Their struggles continued throughout the rest of July, only coming to an end when the team acquired David Price and Troy Tulowitzki just before the trade deadline.

When Troy Tulowitzki came over on July 28th, the Jays were still one game below .500. Supplemented by David Price two days later, they won 14 of their next 15 and began steamrolling the American League. The Blue Jays became the hottest team in baseball, winning 43 of their final 61 games, good for a ridiculous .705 winning percentage--this from a team that hadn't managed to win even half its games for four solid months.

Toronto wasn't the only team to land a pair of big names at the deadline, though. Kansas City also made waves, fetching an ace in Johnny Cueto and bolstering its lineup with Ben Zobrist.
Both teams instantly took on the look of World Series contenders, so it's only fitting that they're playing each other for the rights to be in the Fall Classic.

The Royals, of course, were just there last year, and would have won were it not for a herculean effort by Madison Bumgarner. After coming oh so close, Kansas City is determined not just to get back to the Series, but to win it.

So are the Blue Jays, who just snapped the longest active postseason drought in American professional sports. With Price a free agent at season's end and many of their best players about to join him soon, the time to win is now. This could be their last, best chance for awhile.
Toronto's power makes them a formidable opponent (Betting Talk)
A few days ago, it didn't look like either one would survive the ALDS. Both were on the cusp of losing to inferior teams, just one game away from elimination. Toronto went down 0-2, dropping the first two games to Texas at home. When the Jays lost Game 2, blowing an eighth-inning lead and losing in extra innings, it felt like Toronto's fans had just seen the last game at the Rogers Centre this year. The Blue Jays' season was about to end in disappointment.

But Texas, who recently failed to win a World Series despite being one strike away twice, was once again unable to finish the job. Toronto battled back, winning both games in Arlington to force Game 5 and return the series north of the border. Having burned through Price in Game 4 and facing Cole Hamels, however, the Jays appeared to be at a major disadvantage, especially after the Rangers grabbed an early lead and still led after the seventh-inning stretch. Once again, it looked like Toronto's season would end in tragedy.

Until the Rangers imploded, committing three straight errors and choking away the game in one of the craziest innings I've ever seen.

The Royals were in similarly dire straits, losing two of three to begin the series and staring down a four-run deficit in Game 4. With just six outs left in their season, the odds of them living to play another day were three percent.

But for the second year in a row, the Royals rallied from down four runs in a must-win elimination game, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. They stunned Houston with a five-run frame, then tacked on two more in the ninth for good measure. Back in Kansas City, they won Game 5 two days later, overcoming another early deficit to send the Astros packing.

So now that they're here, who's the better team? The Royals were the American League's best team wire-to-wire, but the Blue Jays were the best team in baseball after the All-Star Break. We know momentum doesn't matter heading into a playoff series, but both teams have to be feeling pretty good about themselves after cheating death in the ALDS.

The Blue Jays were actually a much better regular season team than the Royals despite winning fewer games. They played in a tougher division and outscored Kansas City by 167 runs--more than one per game. Their run prevention was nearly as good, too, allowing only 29 more runs than Kansas City. According to Bill James's pythagorean model, which estimates how many games a team should have won based on its run differential, Toronto should have won 102 games this year--or nine more than they actually won. The Royals--winners of 95--would have been expected to win 90.

The gulf in talent becomes obvious after a quick comparison between the two rosters. Toronto boasts an All-Star lineup with Donaldson, Martin, Tulo, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. They also have the AL's best pitcher at the moment in Price, who might, as Bumgarner showed last year, win the series all by himself.

Which is why even though Kansas City sports the superior regular season record (and thus home field advantage), I sense that Toronto is the better team. This series won't prove that, of course, and the Royals are obviously good enough to win. I just think the Jays have more talent. I was originally going to say Toronto in six, but after Kansas City's Game 1 win I'm revising it to Toronto in seven.

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