It should be easy to root for the Royals. Having not made the playoffs for a sizable chunk of a century, they’ve given success-starved fans in the heart of the country a ride unlike any they’ve seen in a very long time. Given just a sliver of an opportunity with the one-game playoff, they’ve seized that opening and sit now just four wins from the World Series.
It’s everything you’d hoped the Mariners would do had they got in. And that’s where I have a problem. Because I am petty.
I’m trying to be happy for the Royals, I am. When I saw the video of Eric Hosmer celebrating at the bar with fans, buying an hour's worth free drinks as a means of thanks, I thought that was one of the most unique things I'd ever seen in sports, fans and athletes coming together to celebrate a shared experience. And at the same time, how could you not be jealous? How could you not envision partying at some random bar in Pioneer Square with the likes of Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison?
"That could’ve been us" is a refrain I’ve used on more than one occasion in watching these Royals. I mean, who would’ve thought that, at the beginning of the year, all the Mariners had to do to make the playoffs was be better than Kansas City? You would’ve taken that, right? And for a sizable portion of the season, the Mariners were better.
That’s why it stings, because it’s hard not to believe the Mariners could’ve done something very similar had they been given the opportunity. They never got that opportunity, not because it wasn’t given to them, but because they didn’t take it themselves. Still, even faltering down the stretch, I had long thought the Mariners were at least as good as the Royals, maybe a bit better.
Scoreboard watching throughout the second half, it seemed every time they won, it was on the back of a late-inning grounder that found a hole with a man on base. Looking at the standings, it was hard not to notice the Mariners' run differential far outpaced the Royals—and remained so to the end, with the M's finishing at +80 and the Royals a bit of a ways back at +27.
Then, looking even deeper, at Fangraphs' BaseRuns, which is even more context neutral than straight run differential as it aims to normalize not just runs outside of games—but the events leading to runs themselves. Basically, it looks at a team's offensive performance and normalizes run-scoring so as to remove potentially fluky things like "clutch" hitting. Getting to the point, while the Royals outperformed their Pythagorean record by five, it was even worse/better with BaseRuns, as they cleared their expected win total by eight—the best in the league.
So you could say the Royals were lucky in how they performed, by that metric—because they were. No team, in the macro, was better at maximizing their output. Though, it isn't hard to see why, even though their overall offense was almost identical to the Mariners by wRC+ (94 to 93). For one, they put the ball in play, with the lowest strikeout rate in the league. Then, a BABIP 12 points higher than the M's doesn't hurt either.
Though, looking at it another way, the Royals performed about to their talent level, and the Mariners may have overshot theirs. When you take a look at the season-end fWAR total, it's a bit jarring (and honestly borders on alarming) as the Royals blew by the Mariners 41.4 to 30.9.
For most of you, I'd imagine none of this matters. As Matt wrote on previously, it makes all the sense in the world to cheer for the Royals, and does so now even more than then with the teams that are left.
Runs like this are why you just want to make the dance. It's why Hunter Pence was so fired up when the Giants did themselves. It's fun to see serious attempts at winning rewarded even if, like someone put it on Ned Yost's managing, it's a little like a kid running into the middle of a busy street and being celebrated for finding a $20.
Sometimes you set yourself up to let luck and destiny take over, and sometimes they do. That's baseball, and these are the playoffs.
Though, for the latter, you can't say the Royals didn't set themselves up well. It probably isn't a coincidence that the two best defensive baseball teams, by fWAR's component measuring it, are matching up in the ALCS. Then, after all we've seen from good teams done in by bad bullpens, it doesn't hurt to have the best one in baseball (by fWAR) this time of year.
Runs like this happen, and it's fun to celebrate it—even if it isn't hard difficult the Mariners could've done something similar—because maybe, with an improved roster, they will. I'd love to avoid the one-game playoff next year, if at all possible (though not by the way they did this year), but it's worth remembering that the right mix can produce a run like this even when a team does barely squeak in.
Also, while we're here, it's worth looking at the other side too. No matter how many games you win, even if it's damn near 100, the playoffs are a fickle beast. People complain about the one-game playoff for the wild card teams, something I'm honestly fond of, but it's a considerably lesser tragedy than dropping the very best teams in baseball into a five-game series.
So if our dreams come true, that a Cano-Martinez-Seager heart of the order combines with the best rotation in baseball to power the Mariners to an AL West title in 2015, it's as important to cherish the journey as much as it is to be hopeful of reaching the ultimate destination.
For the Royals, both are still in play, and it didn't take being one of the best teams in the game.
That's baseball, that's how it works. For those few, like me, who are still bitter—it's worth giving in and just enjoying it. Because sadly, for all of us, there's precious little of it left to enjoy.