‘Pennant Prize’: Ranking the Royals’ ALCS victories

With the American League Championship Series beginning today, as well as yesterday being the 30th anniversary of the Royals punching their first ticket to the World Series in franchise history with a win over the hated Yankees, I figured it would be a good idea to take a look at some past Royals ALCS appearances and rank which ones were the best. I decided to focus on just the pennant wins, which in turn would eliminate the 1976-1978 and 1984 appearances (they lost to the Yankees from 1976-1978 and they were swept by the Tigers in 1984). And thus, in this post, I will be focusing on the 1980, 1985, 2014, and 2015 ALCS appearances, which all resulted in Royals AL pennants.

For many of the rankings and metrics, I will be referring to Win Probably Added and Championship Win Probably Added (which is expressed as a percentage), as well as win expectancy from Baseball Reference. While I will mention traditional and other more commonly known advanced metrics, I feel WPA gives an idea of how much of an impact certain Royals hitters and pitchers had, in addition to measuring how dramatic the series was.

So let’s get to the rankings of the Royals’ ALCS wins and see which series rises to the top.

4. 2014 (Royals beat the Orioles, 4-0)

The Royals were always in control of this series, as they not only swept the Orioles in four games in the ALCS, but they also swept the American League postseason as general, as they did not lose a playoff game in the ALDS (against the Angels) or Wild Card (against the A’s) either. The lowest win expectancy the Royals had in this series came in the bottom of the 6th inning of Game 1 at Camden Yards, as the Royals squandered an early lead and had only a 43 percent win expectancy in the series. However, after the 10th inning of game 1, the Royals never saw their expectancy dip below 50 percent for the series, which shows how dominant the Royals were as they punched their ticket to the World Series, which luckily was able to be done at Kauffman Stadium, as seen in the highlights below:

Lorenzo Cain earned ALCS MVP honors thanks to his defense and hot-bat, as he posted a slash of .533/.588/.667 in the four-game span. However, he only finished third in WPA (0.26) and cWPA (5.06). The most valuable Royals hitters in those categories? Alex Gordon, who posted an OPS of 1.021 as well as a WPA of 0.47 and a cWPA of 7.61 percent. If fans needed something else to cement Gordo’s spot in the Royals Hall of Fame, this series may be a good exhibit for that.

Pitching-wise, the bullpen carried the Royals in this series, as Herrera, Davis, and Holland led the Royals in WPA, with 0.64, 0.58, 0.44 marks respectively. Herrera is often the more under-heralded of the three in the eyes of most Royals fans, but he was the most crucial in this particular series, with his crowning moment coming in Game 1, as he got out of a jam in a tie game in the bottom of the 6th with runners in scoring position and zero outs. If not for Herrera’s performance, the momentum of that series may have been very different, especially considering the first two games of the series were in Baltimore.

3. 2015 (Royals beat Blue Jays, 4-2)

Both teams came into this ACLS on the cusp of exciting series wins in their respective ALDS matchups. The Royals were on the brink of elimination in Game 4 in Houston before a dramatic comeback in the 8th inning changed the series (as well as Kansas City baseball history):

For the Blue Jays, they went toe to toe in a heavyweight matchup with the Texas Rangers, but they came out on top in the series after a wild 7th inning in Game 5, which was started by a weird play involving Shin Soo Choo’s bat, and highlighted by a huge home run from Jose Bautista, which involved a legendary bat toss.

However, even though the ALDS provided two dramatic series, which heightened anticipation, this one was actually kind of tame. The lowest win expectancy the Royals had in this series was 50 percent, which not surprisingly was in Game 1 of the series. And that makes sense in the grand picture of things, as the Royals held 2-0 and 3-1 series leads after two and four games, respectively. Furthermore, considering the Royals had the better record of the two, and had home field advantage, the Royals were seen as kind of the favorite, which also made things a little less dramatic in this series. The only reason this ranks higher is because the Blue Jays actually won a couple of games, unlike the Orioles, who were swept.

From a batting end, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer led the Royals in WPA, as they were tied at 0.23 (though Hosmer did hold a slight edge in cWOBA with a 5.43 rate to Escobar’s 2.97 rate). Escobar led Royals hitters in OPS with a 1.134 mark, which was amplified by two doubles and a triple in the series. The biggest moment though in the series belonged to Hosmer, who hit in the game-winning run in the bottom of the 6th that scored Cain from first:

From a pitching end, it was the bullpen that shined, as Davis lead Royals pitchers in WPA at 0.31, and Herrera came in second at 0.29. Surprisingly, Edinson Volquez was the Royals’ third-most important pitchers in terms of WPA, as he posted 0.24 mark, though that was mostly driven by a solid Game 1 performance where he threw six innings of shutout ball, struck out five and allowed only two hits (though he did walk four hitters).

2. 1980 (Royals beat Yankees, 3-0)

For some, this may be the crowning ALCS experience for two reasons: 1. It resulted in the Royals earning their first AL Pennant in franchise history; 2. It exercised the demons from three straight ALCS losses to the rival New York Yankees from 1976-1978, which included devastating Game 5 losses in 1976 and 1977. However, while the context matters a lot in this series, this gets the second point because in reality, the series was not that competitive. The Royals dominated the Yankees and swept them with ease in the Best-of-5 set.

According to the Series Probability Chart, the lowest win expectancy the Royals had in the 1980 ALCS came in the Top of the 2nd in Game 1, as it was 40 percent. The last time it was below 50 percent was in the bottom of the third when Amos Otis was batting against Ron Guiry with two outs (the win expectancy was 49 percent for the Royals). However, after Willie Aikens drove in George Brett and Otis on a single to left, the expectancy jumped to 51 percent and it never really hovered below that for the remainder of the series, as the Royals cruised to win three straight games.

Furthermore, the series was pretty much done after Brett’s legendary homer at Yankee Stadium in the Top of the 7th that gave the Royals a 79 percent win expectancy for the series:

Even though Brett had the ALCS’ biggest moment, he and Frank White actually had the same impact in terms of Win Probability. Brett posted a WPA of 0.35 and White posted a WPA of 0.34. Furthermore, White posted a .545/.545/.909 slash in the series which included a home run and a double. Thus, it’s not surprising that White earned ALCS honors, even though 30 years later, Brett’s massive home run still resonates the most with Royals fans.

Pitching wise, the Royals only used four pitchers in the series, and Dan Quisenberry was the only reliever used as well. (Can current MLB managers take note, please?) Unlike 2014 and 2015, where a few pitchers rose to the top (mostly relievers), all the Royals pitchers with within 0.02 points of one another, with Quisenberry at the top (0.26), Gura at the bottom (0.24), and Leonard and Splittorff in the middle (0.25).

1. 1985 (Royals beat the Blue Jays, 4-3)

While the Royals beating the Yankees in 1980 may have been satisfying for Royals fans in terms of getting revenge on the hated Yankees, the 1985 ALCS may have been the more competitive and dramatic series. The Royals came into the ALCS as heavy underdogs to the Toronto Blue Jays, who won 99 games during the regular season and won the AL East by 2 games over the Yankees. As for the Royals, while they won 91 games, they only won the West by 1 game over the California Angels (it was the second straight year where the Royals barely scraped by as the division winner).

The Blue Jays also took a commanding 3-1 lead after Game 4, and it looked like the Royals would have a challenge coming back, especially since the Blue Jays had home field advantage, with the last two games of the series in Toronto. In fact, after Jamie Quirk popped up to end Game 4, the Royals only had an 11 percent expectancy to win the ALCS, according to the Win Probability Chart.

However, the Royals chipped away in the series, and ended up winning not just Game 5, the last remaining game in the series at Royals Stadium, but also the final two contests on the road in Toronto. The biggest moment for the Royals came in the 6th inning of Game 7, as Jim Sundberg hit a triple (just inches away from a grand slam) that drove in three runs and changed the win expectancy from 65 percent to 90 percent in favor of the Royals. Here’s video of the moment below:

Even 25 years later, it is amazing to hear the wind come out of the sails for Blue Jays fans after that tremendous moment from Sundberg.

While Brett lost out to White for ALCS MVP honors in 1980, Brett earned the honors, and it wasn’t really close. Brett posted a sensational line of .348/.500/.826 with a 1.326 OPS and three home runs in the seven-game set. Furthermore, his 0.54 WPA was 40 points higher than the second-closest Royals hitter, which was Sundberg. Safe to say, if one needs an example of a player single-handily leading a team to a Pennant, Brett’s performance against the Jays is exhibit A.

On the pitching end, Danny Jackson ended up being the Royals’ most valuable pitcher, as he posted a 0.56 WPA, didn’t allow a run in the ALCS, and won a critical Game 5 as the starting pitcher. Surprisingly, the worst pitcher on a WPA basis was Quisenberry, who ended up posting a -0.98 WPA mark in 4.2 IP. Thankfully, he improved that mark in the World Series, as he posted a 0.10 WPA against the St. Louis Cardinals.

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