The pairing of teams in the World Series beginning Tuesday night is both improbable and delightful — like a foul ball bouncing perfectly into your beer cup. It's not what you expected, but it's time to chug anyway. And you'll be glad you did.
The scrappy San Francisco Giants overcame a string of injuries, the decline of some of their best pitchers from the last half decade, their division rival Los Angeles Dodgers' massive payroll, and then, in the National League Championship Series, the terrifying St. Louis Cardinals to take the National League pennant for the third time in five years. (The other two times, in 2010 and 2012, the Giants went on to win the World Series.)
On the American League side, the Kansas City Royals, after a 29-year postseason drought, just barely snuck into the playoffs. They've gone a startling 8-0 since, defying their lack of hitting power, the conventional wisdom, the unconventional wisdom, and the very laws of probability to represent the American League in the World Series.
Some writers are hailing the Royals as "America's team" because of their decades-long status as an underdog and recent raft of exciting extra-innings victories fueled by bunts and steals and pure gamesmanship. And while all those squeakers have given the Royals a whiff of romance, the team's undefeated postseason also gives them the look of a juggernaut.
Nonetheless, the contagious enthusiasm surrounding the Royals, fueled in no small part by the suddenly deeply felt connection to Kansas City fans from the players, is joyous. After the Royals swept the heavily favored Angels in the Division Series, players partied with fans at local hangout McFadden's. The Royals' young star Eric Hosmer put an entire hour's tab on his own credit card. After the Royals swept the Orioles in the Championship Series, Yahoo's Jeff Passan described the mood in Kansas City this way: "Kauffman Stadium turned into one giant, unrelenting, history-cleansing, burden-emptying, 29-years-in-the-making wall of sound on the final out." Hard not to catch the fever.
But what is most fun about the Royals and Giants is their trend-defying styles. For the past decade, Sunday Night baseball has been dominated by agonizing 210-minute wars of attrition between mega-teams like the Red Sox and Yankees, with both sides taking as many pitches as possible and trying to foul off as many as possible. These games are a kind of slow-motion siege on the pitching staff, an attempt to finally expose one of the worst bullpen options and hit a three-run homer. This style of play, the enforcement of PED rules, and the efficient use of great pitching talent have led baseball into the strikeout era. I'm happy to have it, because I like any baseball I can get. But others are likely to find this year's smallball World Series a relief.
In their series against the Cardinals, the Giants put the ball in play at an astonishingly high rate and struck out at a very low rate. And since 2010, the Giants have the highest "swing rate" and the fifth lowest strikeout rate in all of baseball, according to The Augusta Chronicle's David Lee. This is exactly the opposite of attrition baseball. The Giants aren't looking to draw things out — they're looking to get on base. The Giants also have a supreme knack for taking advantage of mistakes with their excellent baserunning. This is a team for the fan whose mind is ignited by a tradition-defying Moneyball-style of play and management.
On the other side, the Royals have made defense exciting. The team regularly fields six players who could be considered for Gold Gloves this year. As Baseball Prospectus' Sam Miller argued, "We're not just talking about a good outfield or a great outfield. We're talking about what one might decide to argue is the greatest defensive outfield of all time." Then there is the Royals' lights-out bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. (Hilariously, the Royals' role-policing manager Ned Yost seemed reluctant to bring any of these three into games where the trouble happened before the seventh inning, because that would mess with the preordained plan.) And remember, this is a team without true sluggers. No one on the Royals hit better than .285 this season. No one had more than 19 home runs. No one had more than 74 RBIs. The Royals do it with defense, pitching, and craftiness.
This series has many more good and great storylines and characters. The vindication of Kansas City GM Dayton Moore's trade for pitcher James Shields, for one. The drama of Giants veterans Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy pitching in an October Classic this late in their careers. The continuing breakout of young Royals, meeting with the unusual gaits and frames of the Giants.
In interleague play this year, the Royals swept the Giants. They stole eight bases and put up a 2.00 ERA. My prediction: The juggernaut rolls along, Eric Hosmer temporarily becomes more of a household name than Mike Trout, and the Royals win in six. But even if they don't, I guarantee, you'll want to watch.