IT'S BEEN 29 YEARS SINCE THE ROYALS HAVE GONE THIS FAR, BUT THEIR MATCHUP WITH THE GIANTS IS STRAIGHT OUT OF AN EVEN DEEPER PAST. BUNTS, STEALS, DEFENSE AND CONTACT—LOTS OF CONTACT: THE 2014 CHAMP WILL SPEAK LOUD LY WITHOUT CARRYING BIG STICKS
THE BALL was dead and Buffalo Bill Cody and Rasputin were still alive the last time the World Series presented such a modest proposal. The Royals and the Giants lack bombast in the way they play—and that may be precisely why these two second-place clubs who failed to win 90 games are the last teams standing.
Kansas City and San Francisco have elevated the act of making do with less when it counts the most to an art form. Heading into the Fall Classic they had combined to go 16--2 this postseason; 13 of those wins occurred either in the last at bat or by one or two runs. Watching them reach a fourth round with confidence but with little room to spare was at once not only a throwback to Dead Ball era baseball, but also a glimpse of the future. The Royals and the Giants made for the first World Series in any full season since 1916 without a 23-homer hitter and a 90-RBI man. San Francisco catcher Buster Posey (22 homers, 89 RBIs) topped all "sluggers" in this Fall Classic, as Zack Wheat (9, 73) did when his Brooklyn Robins met the Boston Red Sox almost a hundred years ago.
As for the future? Imagine a game in which hitters make contact consistently and hit the ball to all fields. You're looking at it with the 110th World Series.
"We put the ball in play," said Kansas City hitting coach Dale Sveum. "It's a point of emphasis, especially in situational hitting. There's no run that can score and no runners who can move up a base without contact. One thing that's been lost in the game is how hitters and teams are satisfied with strikeouts and not understanding that you get 27 outs, and if you put 27 balls in play, you have a better chance of driving in runs."
The two dominant trends of this run-prevention age are the rise of strikeouts (they have gone up eight straight years, thanks to increased velocity, deeper bullpens and umpires calling more low strikes) and the industry-wide adoption of increasingly sophisticated shifts; hits are rarer now than at any time since the DH began in 1973. The Royals and the Giants found an antidote to such run-killing measures: shift-proof hitters who make contact and use the whole field. (And—take a bow, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Mike Morse and Travis Ishikawa—who can club the occasional well-timed home run.)
Kansas City struck out fewer times than any other team in baseball this year. The Giants were a middle-of-the-pack strikeout team in the regular season (14th fewest), but have been contact-happy in the postseason: Cardinals pitchers threw 200 two-strike pitches to the Giants during the National League Championship Series, but only 27 times in five games were they able to get a third strike.
Three key leadoff at bats in the NLCS, each one leading to a game-deciding rally, turned on the Giants' ability to avoid strike three. In the 10th inning of Game 3, St. Louis lefthander Randy Choate tried four times to get a third strike past San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, only to walk him. Crawford scored the winning run when Choate threw away a bunt.
In the sixth inning of Game 4, another Cardinals lefty, Marco Gonzales, tried to get a third strike by Juan Perez, but walked him. It was the snowball to a three-run avalanche. And in the ninth inning of a tied Game 5, St. Louis righthander Michael Wacha tried twice to get a third strike past Pablo Sandoval, only to see Sandoval lace a single to center. Three batters later, Travis Ishikawa blasted a 2-and-0 pitch into the rightfield porch, joining Bobby Thomson 63 years later as the only players to send the Giants into the World Series with a walkoff homer. Up until Game 5, the Giants had resorted so frequently to humble, even inventive ways of scoring runs that third base coach Tim Flannery started tracking "RTIs, not RBIs: runs thrown in." In the previous five games, the Giants had no homers but scored on five RTIs: a bases-loaded walk, two wild pitches and two errors.
ISHIKAWA, 31, his rare homer notwithstanding, is a prototypically modest Giant. He hit only three homers all season, in 119 plate appearances; San Francisco was his sixth organization in three years. He fell into the Giants' lap after Pittsburgh cut him in April and after he had been ready to quit baseball while languishing in the minors in 2013.
"I called a friend in Seattle and was crying," he said. "I told him, 'I'm doing everything I should be doing but I can't get it to translate on the field. And if I do hit the ball hard, it's right at somebody.' There were definitely times when I thought, I just don't know if this is what I want anymore."
What is it with San Francisco and the revival of languishing veterans? In the vein of Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Marco Scutaro, Cody Ross, Mike Morse and Steve Perry—the shaggy-haired lead singer of the 1980s band Journey is getting another run as an eighth-inning AT&T Park talisman—Ishikawa carved out a place in Giants' October lore. "Honestly," said manager Bruce Bochy, whose Giants teams carried a 30--11 postseason record into the World Series, "I think the cool weather here throughout the season keeps the older guys fresher."
The cool weather and deep power alleys at AT&T Park also encourage Giants hitters to think smaller than hitters in other places. The same is true for the Royals, whose home park, Kauffman Stadium, is the most spacious in the American League. "We play at least a hundred games a year in big ballparks," said hitting coach Hensley Meulens, referring to AT&T and the ballparks of NL West rivals Los Angeles (Dodger Stadium) and San Diego (Petco Park). "You need a flat stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone longer. We work on it all the time in drills and batting practice. The longer your bat stays in the zone, the better your chances of making contact.
"They've been keeping track of opposite-field home runs [at AT&T] by righthanded hitters. Last time I checked it was [a few dozen] since this place opened [in 2000]. That should tell you something. It tells you how hard it is to get the ball in the air and out to rightfield. So you better hit it on a line."
Defensive shifts may have exploded around baseball—they have increased nearly 600% in three years, to more than 14,000 in 2014—but they are of limited use in this World Series. Moustakas, the Kansas City third baseman, is regarded as the lone true pull hitter on either side. Both the Royals (.322) and the Giants (.349) finished second in their respective leagues in hitting to the opposite field, and each trailed a team with a decidedly hitter-friendly home park, Boston (.329) and Colorado (.352).
As for the approach of taking walks and driving up pitch counts, that now seems an outdated strategy of the last war. Walks are too hard to come by (this year the per-nine-inning rate sank to its lowest level since 1968, the Year of the Pitcher) and "getting into the bullpen" doesn't work so well when relievers are much tougher to hit than starters. The Giants (third) and the Royals (ninth) ranked among the most-aggressive-swinging teams in baseball, as ranked by percentage of pitches at which they swung. By contrast, the 15 least-aggressive-swinging teams combined to win just one postseason game.
Sveum was the Royals' third base coach when general manager Dayton Moore installed him on May 29 as the team's fourth hitting coach in the past two seasons. The Royals were 24--28 at the time, hitting .251 and slugging .348.
"I knew we had a lot of hitting talent," Sveum said, "but pitch selection was probably the biggest problem. We were swinging at so many balls down in the zone. We don't hit home runs anyway, but you're never going to hit balls down in the zone for home runs, for any kind of decent slugging percentage. We started focusing on the ball up, not down."
After Sveum took over, Kansas City went 65--45, hit .268 and slugged .389. Even so, the Royals hit the fewest home runs of any team in baseball (95), and the fewest of any AL pennant winner since the 1945 Tigers. Leftfielder Alex Gordon led the team in RBIs with 74, which could make Kansas City the first team to win a World Series without a 75-RBI hitter since the '65 Dodgers were led by Ron Fairly's 70.
While the Royals did hit some timely home runs to reach the World Series—Moustakas and Hosmer hit six postseason homers between them before the World Series—they became the first team ever to go 8--0 in one postseason in large part thanks to the the finer points of the game: contact hitting, speed, defense and a lockdown bullpen. Their outfield defense was particularly spectacular, especially in the ALCS against Baltimore, a flyball-hitting, homer-seeking team whose strategy at the plate fed right into the soft hands of outfielders Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki and Jarrod Dyson.
"Everybody knows we run the ball down," Sveum said. "I've never seen a leftfielder impact the game like Gordon.
"We all know our formula: pitching, defense, timely hitting and speed. I'm a firm believer that the more you can put the ball in play—and with the guys we have with great hand-eye coordination—the better off you're going to be."
NEITHER KANSAS CITY nor San Francisco was a model team during the regular season. Each blew midsummer first-place leads of at least three games. They posted the seventh- and ninth-best records in baseball, respectively. But the postseason tournament format has played to their strengths, particularly their deep bullpens, which never run out of options because of so many off days. (In the 22 days between the end of the regular season and the start of the World Series, the Royals had 14 days off, the Giants 12.) A World Series battle of the bullpens between Kansas City (6--0, 1.80 ERA this postseason) and San Francisco (5--1, 1.78 ERA) might provide more thrills to a postseason that already has seen a record 14 games decided by one run.
What the Royals and the Giants have done is give us an everyman's World Series, making up for a lack of superstars or superlative records with a resourceful style of play in wide-open yards with over-the-moon fans. Kauffman Stadium and AT&T Park ranked 27th and 29th this year in home runs. They happen to be the perfect settings for state-of-the-art baseball at its modest best—at least for this time of year.
The Royals and the Giants seem to have found an antidote for this run-prevention age: shift-proof hitters who make contact and use the whole field (and hit timely, if rare, home runs).
The Royals' strikeout rate this season, the lowest in the major leagues.
Home runs hit at AT&T Park this season, third fewest among National League parks.
Home runs hit at Kauffman Stadium this season, fewest among American League parks.
Photograph by David E. Klutho Sports Illustrated
BUNT FORCE Cain (far left) and Matt Duffy (left) are two of the many Royals and Giants who focus on handling the bat, not swinging for the fences.
Photograph by Brad Mangin Sports Illustrated
[See caption above]
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ISHIKAWA)
POWER SURGERS Hosmer (far right) and Ishikawa (right) combined for just 12 homers during the regular season, but they have provided timely long balls in October.
DILIP VISHWANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HOSMER)
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (POSEY)
MODEST MASHERS Posey (far left) and Gordon (left) were their teams' top run producers, though neither ranked in the majors' top 25 in RBIs.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GORDON)
[See caption above]
BRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CASILLA)
CLOSER ENCOUNTERS Santiago Casilla (left) and Greg Holland (right) anchor lockdown bullpens that help both teams succeed with little margin for error on the scoreboard.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HOLLAND)
[See caption above]