It’s been almost three months since Royals fans have seen Kansas City players in action. Safe to say, Royals fans (including myself) are chomping at the bit to watch Royals baseball again, which hopefully will start up again with an “abbreviated” Spring Training sometime in June. Yes, this Royals season wasn’t shaping up to be the most “promising” campaign. However, the 2020 Royals are supposed to be better than the 2018 and 2019 versions, even if the projected improvement would only be about 5-10 wins (baby steps, Royals fans).
As expected for most hardcore Royals fans and bloggers, the 2014 and 2015 campaigns have been analyzed to the death over the past couple of months. That being said, I have not been doing that much on this blog. First, while I love the 2014 and 2015 campaigns, I wanted to dig deeper into other Royals players and teams outside that “popular” two-year span. Furthermore, with other blogs posting material focusing on those Pennant-winning campaigns, I wanted to be able to add something different on this blog, which hopefully would speak to the most passionate Kansas City Royals fan.
That being said, it’s been a lull Saturday night, and I am in the midst of re-watching Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series with the Astros. While people will remember the World Series, and perhaps even the ALCS with the hated Jose Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays, the ALDS with the Astros was probably one of the most fascinating postseason match-ups for the Royals during their two-year postseason span. The Royals and Astros were polar opposites in so many ways, and while Game 4 is the one that gets the most recollection from Royals faithful, the series as a whole is one that Royals fans shouldn’t forget in the vast history of Royals lore.
Let’s take a look at four interesting stories from the ALDS that may get forgotten with most baseball fans or even the casual Royals fan.
The Front Office Battle Between the Royals and Astros
I have just recently finished the “MVP Machine” by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, and I am currently working on “More than a Season” by Dayton Moore. The “MVP Machine”, while not particularly focused on the Houston Astros, does talk a lot about the Astros and their approach to data-driven player development. As for “More than a Season”, it provides a glimpse into not only Moore’s history and what led to him being the general manager of the Kansas City Royals, but also the development of the Royals’ organizational philosophy throughout the system.
In many ways, the 2015 ALDS was a clash between two different kinds of organizations. The Astros were a stat, analytically-driven organization, who basically had taken the “Moneyball”-style of building a team, and amplified it to the 10th degree. The 2015 Astros were filled with all kinds of reclamation projects, such as Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, and even Colin McHugh who proved to be bargains in their time in Houston, especially during the 2015 season. In fact, GM Jeff Luhnow at the time was the darling of the media when it came to MLB front office executives, much akin to the Billy Beane and his Oakland Athletics of the early 2000’s.
On the other hand, while the Royals certainly used analytics to find success in the Moore-era (Moore even in his book talks about revamping the analytics department when he got hired), they certainly paled in comparison to the Astros, especially when it came to using analytics with player development. While the Astros were a data-driven machine, the Royals on the other-hand were a club built on “culture”, which is examined to an extreme degree in “More than a Season.” While Moore’s tenure certainly went through its share of peaks and valleys, it’s obvious that his commitment to building a “Royals Way” culture came to fruition in 2014 and 2015. Maybe Moore and the Royals weren’t a “Moneyball”-esque team like the Astros, but they certainly built a club that had a mantra that couldn’t be matched in 2015, and that proved to be the case in the ALDS, as the Royals toppled the Astros’ analytical juggernaut in five games.
Kendrys Morales’ postseason breakout
In retrospect, the decision to let Billy Butler walk to Oakland and replace him with Kendrys Morales looks good now, even though it was kind of questioned at the time. For Royals fans, Butler was the face of the Royals franchise for a while, especially during those lean years early in Moore’s tenure as general manager. Yes, Butler was obviously regressing, especially in the area of power, during his last couple of seasons in Kansas City (he only hit 24 home runs between 2013 and 2014 after hitting 29 in 2012). But, Butler was a sure thing, a mainstay of the Royals franchise and Kansas City culture in general (I mean, he was “Country Breakfast” and had his own BBQ sauce for chrissakes).
Morales had a great regular season in his Royals debut, as he posted an .847 OPS and hit 22 home runs and 106 RBI in 158 games and 639 plate appearances as the Royals’ primary designated hitter. However, Morales really made his money in this ALDS, as he was the Royals’ most productive hitter in the five-game slate with the Astros. In 20 plate appearances, Morales posted a 1.037 OPS and hit 3 home runs and drove in 6 RBI, which included this dagger of a home run against Dallas Keuchel that clinched the decisive Game 5.
Furthermore, Morales led Royals hitters in the ALDS in Win Probability Added, as his 0.53 mark was 0.21 points better than the next best Royal during the series (which was Salvador Perez).
Safe to say, after the 2015 ALDS, Billy Butler defenders weren’t necessarily missing “Country Breakfast” anymore in the Royals’ designated hitter spot.
Carlos Correa’s Offensive Production, and Jose Altuve’s Lack of It
When Royals fans remember Carlos Correa, this is the first thing that comes to mind:
However, what people forget is that Correa was arguably the best Astros hitter in the series. In 20 plate appearances, Correa posted a 1.081 OPS and hit two home runs and drove in 4 RBI in the ALDS. Furthermore, Correa also led Astros hitters in WPA, as his 0.35 mark led Astros hitters in the ALDS (Rasmus was second at 0.27). In fact, if it were not for his error, Correa most likely would’ve been known as the hero of the ALDS, especially after his two-home run game in game 4:
While Correa held his own at the plate for the Astros (even though he made a huge blunder in the field, Bill Buckner-style), Jose Altuve didn’t quite match his middle infield counterpart. Though Altuve would win the MVP award two years later in 2017, he was anything but “MVP-esque” in the ALDS against the Royals. Altuve posted a .310 OPS and only had 3 hits total plate appearances against the Royals. Furthermore, his -0.31 WPA was the second-worst WPA in the series for Astros hitters, bested only by Evan Gattis. Altuve would have plenty of postseason moments in his young carer, especially during their 2017 World Series title season. Unfortunately, the 2015 ALDS will definitely be one that Altuve would probably like to forget.
Cueto’s memorable Game 5
It was widely known by Royals fans when Johnny Cueto was acquired that he would be a rental. Yes, Cueto’s personality and flair endeared him to Kansas City fans immediately, but it was almost a given that Cueto was going to receive a massive free agent deal that the Royals wouldn’t be able to match. While the Royals spent more on players from 2015-2017, they weren’t exactly flush with cash to the point where they could sign Cueto to a long-term deal without sinking the franchise (and this proved to be right, as Cueto signed a massive deal in the off-season with the San Francisco Giants).
While Royals fans enjoyed Cueto the person, Cueto the Royal and his performance on the field was less beloved. Even though he did well with the Reds prior to the trade to Kansas City, the 29-year-old ace underwhelmed during the regular season in Kansas City, to put it mildly. In 13 starts and 81.1 IP, Cueto posted a 4.76 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and 4-7 records with the Royals to finish the 2019 season. Those weren’t exactly numbers Royals fans were expecting when they traded Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed for the Cincinnati ace.
However, Cueto earned his bread and then some in the postseason, especially in Game 5 of the ALDS, as Cueto took the mound for the Royals in the critical contest. Even though he did give up a two-run home run to Luis Valbuena (RIP) in the second inning, Cueto was nails for the remainder of the game. He pitched 8 innings, allowed only two hits total, struck out eight, and allowed zero walks in the Royals’ ALDS-clinching victory. Yes, Cueto may have made some Royals fans doubtful after a ho-hum finish down the regular season stretch. However, Game 5 confirmed to Royals fans that Cueto was worth acquiring, even if it was for only a half-season rental.
And if that wasn’t enough, Cueto continued to prove his worth to Kansas City in the World Series, with a masterful complete game win in Game 2 against the Mets:
He wasn’t a Royal long. But God…Cueto certainly made an impact in his short time in Kansas City, and Game 5 of the ALDS was a marvelous memory from his brief Royals tenure.