If the Major League Baseball season ended today, the Kansas City Royals and the Saint Louis Cardinals would maintain the best record in their respective leagues. Throughout this season, the Cardinals have by far been the best team in baseball, and the Royals have been a close second.
These two Missouri powerhouses appear to have what it takes for a postseason run—strong pitching, consistent bats, and an even better bullpen. And while neither team has the star power like the Yankees or Dodgers, that’s not important: Kansas City proved a year ago that fundamentals trumps talent in the playoffs.
The Royals return to the top and the Cardinals continued dominance comes at an interesting time. Exactly 30 years after they previously met in the World Series in 1985—a Series that also just so happened to result in Kansas City’s last title. While the nation probably isn’t too interested in watching the battle for Missouri in the World Series, Missourians everywhere would rejoice. And since they’re by far the league’s best teams, it wouldn’t be undeserved.
Now the ’85 World Series certainly has become something an iconic classic—and not just because it pitted the two interstate rivals against each other— based mostly on star third baseman George Brett leading the Royals to a relatively surprising game seven victory. In case you’ve forgotten, the Cardinals had finished the regular season with baseball’s best record (101 victories), and the Royals had just squeaked into the playoffs with 91 wins. By the time the playoffs arrived — and everyone saw the Royals knock off the Toronto Blue Jays in surprising fashion in the American League Championship — both teams were playing terrific baseball, and the series was not to be missed.
While many similarities exist between the circumstances that led to the battle for Missouri in 1985 and what could occur in a few months. Whether or not history will repeat itself remains to be seen, obviously. Here are four reasons why it we could be denied a repeat.
1. The NL’s Depth
Despite facing various injury problems during the season, the Cardinals have maintained the best record in the National League mostly because of their depth. The starting rotation’s deep, the bullpen has a handful of quality arms, and Saint Louis boasts a lineup that can produce runs from first to ninth in the batting order. They’re not alone, though, and therein lies the problem.
First, it seems likely that the Cardinals will face either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Pittsburgh Pirates at some point in the playoffs. Both of those teams — as well as the Washington Nationals if they can find a spot in the postseason — have starting pitching that nearly equals the Cardinals’ dominance on the mound.
Furthermore, the Dodgers don’t just have a solid rotation, but they have two aces in Zach Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. In a seven-game series, opposing teams potentially will have to face those two hurlers for a total of four games, which is enough to complete a series victory. Might the Cardinals make it to the World Series? Well, that’s anybody’s guess. But to do so, the odds will be stacked against them.
2. The Royals’ Starting Rotation
Opposite from the Cardinals’ league-best team earned run average, the Royals starting pitchers might be their downfall. Kansas City’s ninth best team era in the majors (3.60) isn’t as good as it appears—that number has been boosted by its dominant bullpen. Sure, adding Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline drastically helped, but it still might not be enough. In order to successfully use its bullpen, Kansas City will need a lead, thus the issue.
Minus Edison Volquez and plus the addition of Cueto, the starting rotation has been far from impressive. Take Jeremy Guthrie and Yordano Ventura for example: both have an ERA over five. While manager Ned Yost could certainly alter the rotation where one of those two pitches from the bullpen, one of them will still have to start and that’s a far cry from a guarantee.
3. Wildcard Wonders
Going back to looking at history to help determine the future, being in either the National League or American League doesn’t necessarily mean quality results. Take last year for example: both the San Francisco Giants and the Royals (the World Series’ opponents) entered the playoffs in the wildcard game. And then in 2011, the Cardinals last World Series title, they were also the wildcard. Saint Louis advanced all the way to the NLCS a year later, again as the wildcard. This season has shaped up to have one of the deeper pools of talent and parity, and as a result of that, it seems more likely that not that whoever advances past the wildcard battle royale (sorry, not sorry) will be a contender. That does not bode well for a rematch.
4. Lack of an Underdog Story
This is one entry that might be more superstition than factual, but baseball’s a superstitious game, so why not? During the Royals’ 2014 Cinderella run, they were the quintessential “little guy;” the team that nobody thought would be in the playoffs, let alone the World Series. And naturally, they became America’s team because Americans love a Cinderella story.
It’s not sabremetrics, but neither the Cardinals nor the Royals have that feeling this year to us. Kansas City sits atop the mountain, and the Royals are lacking that same “team of destiny” vibe. It’s not easy to go from underdog to the team that the underdogs are gunning for, and while success should be more likely as the top seed in the playoffs, mentally, it can be a hindrance.