Friday, October 30, 2015

Why the Royals Wanted the Mets, And Why It’s Working

By Louie Centanni

Two games in the 2015 World Series, a lot of fans are scratching their heads asking the same question: "Are the Royals really this much better than the Mets?"

The obvious answer is no. The Mets made it to where they are both deservingly and convincingly. They went through two of baseball's three best pitchers in their first series (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) and then, without so much as a hiccup, dispatched the Chicago Cubs in one of the least competitive Championship Series of all-time. A lot of baseball minds thought their young pitching was simply too much for any team to swallow in a short series.

Then they ran into Kansas City.

While dominant pitching often neutralizes good hitting in the playoffs, Kansas City sports the best possible approach to offset a group of 97 mph fastballs. They have a team that is desperate for contact. "Anything but a K" should be their motto.

And entering the fifth inning of Game 2, there was a foreboding sense for Mets fans that the Royals were on the verge of breaking through. Despite having a one-hitter at the time, the lion-haired Jacob deGrom had only thrown one pitch past the swinging bats of the Royals. That's right: one whole entire swing-and-miss. Anyone who had watched KC for 162 games knew that one run would not be enough of a cushion for a group that challenges opposing defenses so well.

Four innings later, the Mets are down to their final two strikes in the series, so to speak.

Why is it that Harvey and deGrom's decent — if not above average — outings looked so pedestrian against the scrappy Royals? To find the answer, allow me to make an analogy to a long-lost friend: Megaman.

This Nintendo game featured a part-man, part-robot superhero whose arm was outfitted with a literal cannon (not the kind Noah Syndergaard has). You were to go from level to level defeating bosses with names such as Fireman, Bombman, Iceman, Gutsman, Cutman, and Elecman. Each boss you outlasted would relinquish his unique weapon to you. And as any astute gamer remembers, you needed Elecman's shock to jolt Iceman; only Iceman's icicles could wash out Fireman; and so on.

If the matchup was favorable, an otherwise formidable opponent became a piece of cake.

And two games in, this concept is being mirrored by the Royals, whose unique weapon (consistent contact) somewhat disarms the Mets.

Someone asked me two weeks ago who I thought would win the World Series. I spat out what seemed at the time to be rambling gibberish that now makes perfect sense: "The Mets probably want to face the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays want to face the Cubs. The Cubs want to face the Royals. The Royals want to face the Mets."

My logic was this:

The Mets' pitching is built to take down big swings. That's why the Cubs were a great matchup, and that's why the Blue Jays likely would have faced the same fate. Home run hitters tend to go silent against the Cholula Hot Sauce fastballs coming out of the Mets' dugout.

Given the fact that both Toronto and Chicago had similar pitching strengths and weaknesses, I believe the big bats north of the border would have outhit the Cubs in a high-scoring series.

The Cubs were built to thrive on teams whose pitchers could succumb to the Walk Monster. While the Royals' bullpen is frightening to be sure, their starters haven't exactly been known to be the best pinpoint surgeons. An offense like Chicago's might have been able to work long counts and put pressure on a set of pitchers with whom they have great familiarity (Cueto and Volquez, who spent years in the NL Central).

Lastly, the Royals knew that they'd make contact against anyone. The way Arrieta had been throwing before the NLCS, they did not want to face a pitcher whose stuff forced such weak contact. Instead, they wanted heaters. The faster the better. If you miss a spot, they make you pay.

And from Alex Gordon's late HR against Jeurys Familia to Eric Hosmer's two-out singles against deGrom, that's what is happening.

Unlike the Cubs' young hitters, who allowed Mets pitchers free reign of the strike zone by taking hittable fastballs, swinging at pitchers' pitches, and falling behind in counts, the Royals have come out forcing the Mets to adjust to their approach on the mound. It has made the million-dollar arm Mets stumble thus far.

As an example, Matt Harvey's sub-40% fastball selection was, by far, the lowest in his career. He had no choice but to play his Plan B game.

Similarly, deGrom — who had made a living working in and out of jams against Los Angeles and Chicago — suddenly faced an opponent who wouldn't simply swing and miss to help him strand baserunners. The tightrope act he had perfected in rounds one and two was suddenly too much strain to bear.

So does this all mean the Mets done? Not by a long shot.

But if Syndergaard and Steven Matz are going to even this series up, it will take a few things to go right.

First, they must acknowledge that their goal should not be to strive for swings-and-misses, but for weak contact. The Royals do not take walks at the same rate as Chicago (or even L.A.), so use a few extra inches off the corners. Hope the umpire helps. No grooved pitches (I'm looking at you, Familia!).

Secondly, they must play defense. It's not that they've been doing poorly to this point - they just have to be a bit more impactful to neutralize Kansas City's momentum. Great plays should never be expected, but sometimes you simply need a bit of greatness to win a World Series.

And speaking of greatness, the Mets need Danny Murphy to come out of hibernation. Again, it's not like he's playing terribly, but his current .222 series average needs to improve. In the first two rounds, his motor revved up his teammates. If not him, someone must be the guy (and right now, Duda's shift-beating singles aren't exactly frightening KC).

So to return to the question that began this entire mess: are the Royals better than the Mets?

I don't think they are. But just as Iceman's H2O compound put out Fireman's flames, KC's weapon is fit to beat this level's boss.

The Mets may need to find a new weapon.

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