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Are The Royals Really This Much Better Than The Mets?

Today is an off day for the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets, but not for us. As the teams traveled to New York City to resume the World Series on Friday with the Royals leading by two games to none, editor and writer Christina Kahrl joined FiveThirtyEight’s biggest baseball obsessives from her Kansas City hotel to look ahead to Game 3. As usual, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

Carl Bialik, lead news writer: Welcome, baseball fans! Historically, five out of six teams down two games to none in a best-of-seven series go on to lose. Can the Mets be the one out of six? Is there anything you see that makes that look likely?

Neil Paine, senior sportswriter: Well, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the last time the Mets were outscored by exactly seven runs in the first two games of a World Series was in 1986, and we know what happened then. (But seriously, they are in deep trouble.)

Christina Kahrl, editor and writer: Hrm. 1986: John McNamara, Red Sox manager and a model manager if tactical passivity is your thing. 2015: Ned Yost, Royals manager and a model manager if tactical passivity is your thing. I’m sensing a trend.

Nate Silver, editor in chief: Well, the Mets are playing at home. They probably have the best of the starting pitching matchups in Games 3 and 4, especially with Chris Young coming into Game 4 with some extra mileage on his arm.

Harry Enten, senior political writer: Let me offer this piece of hope for the Mets (because, as Neil notes, they are in trouble): The Royals are hitting at about their average through the small sample size of two games (.721 OPS vs .734 in the regular season), while the Mets are hitting quite below their average (.432 vs. .712 in the regular season).

Neil: Yeah, perhaps one ray of sunshine is that the Mets were ​this close​ to getting a split in KC, if Jeurys Familia doesn’t make that one mistake. And that was with Mets bats underperforming.

Harry: And then, surely Yost is bound to cost the Royals. Right?! Right?!

Christina: Actually, the thing you can say for Yost is that, a little like Tony La Russa in 2011 or Bruce Bochy in any World Series, he’s been working with what he’s got this postseason. Chris Young probably won’t have to face the Mets a third time through the order, he’ll be out and the Mets will be dealing with Kris Medlen or Danny Duffy in the middle innings.

Harry: Christina, you mentioned that Yost wouldn’t stick with Chris Young. The Mets bullpen is so weak that they had to bring in Jon Niese again in Game 2. And while it worked for one inning, it killed them in that second inning.

Carl: The starting-pitching matchups look good for the Mets on paper, and it does seem like the Mets bats are due to regress upward (progress?). So to what extent do we say the first two games were fluky, and to what extent do we reconsider our assessment of the two teams? Is Thor’s fastball advantage neutralized because of what we’ve seen Royals bats do to fastballs in the first two games?

Nate: The prior for anything that happened in a two-game series is pretty much ​always​ that it was random. These are two fairly evenly matched baseball teams. The coin came up heads twice. There were some interesting strategic decisions in Game 1: I think Yost was smart to bring in Chris Young, for instance, and the Mets might have been better off with Steven Matz or Thor in the game. But basically, this stuff is random. Also, I’m in the Ned-Yost-is-not-a-moron camp. He’s actually pretty laissez-faire, other than using his bullpen fairly aggressively. There are a lot of worse things to be.

Christina: The Mets pen — and Terry Collins’s remarkably retro usage pattern of his relievers, because he just hasn’t done the situational specialist thing with a guy like lefty Sean Gilmartin all year — is not really a significant asset. It makes for some interesting stuff to speculate about as far as the aggregate value of a skipper, as Nate just pointed out.

Dave Schoenfield and I were both scratching our heads about the decision to pull Niese as quickly as he was pulled in Game 1; he looked great, and if the alternative is feeding Bartolo Colon to that lineup …

Nate: The Niese decision also strikes me as having been dumb. Someone out there needs to put together a primer on extra-inning bullpen strategy; teams sometimes seem to forget that the average extra inning starts with a leverage index of 2.0 or so.

Carl: Part of the fun of a 14-inning Game 1 was how it generated so many tactical decisions we could debate afterward. We know from more than just the last two games that KC’s bullpen > Mets’ bullpen, as Christina mentioned. Were you surprised Yost left Johnny Cueto in for all nine innings in Game 2? How important is it to rest a bullpen after an epic game? And Neil, any evidence Yost and Collins aren’t headed for the Hall of Mediocrity you’ve written about?

Christina: I’d also put myself in the “Ned knows what he’s doing” camp. Is it more sort of a Burt Shotton thing, where he’s pretty easygoing? Yes. Are people over-freaked on his sporadic bunting? Yes — the Royals got just 32 sacrifice bunts from non-pitchers this year, which ranked sixth in the AL, behind the smart guys in Cleveland and Toronto, among others.

Harry: Soon enough, Yost will be wearing a bow tie in the dugout.

Neil: FWIW, I think both managers have squeezed a lot out of their talent this year. For Yost, this is part of a two-year pattern, so there could be something there.

Nate: One thing I’ve wondered about, Carl, is how leaving the pitcher in longer affects his next start. Cueto threw 122 pitches in a lopsided game. Is he 3 percent worse in Game 6 as a result? That’s not trivial, on the scale of these things. Maybe Yost was a little too laissez-faire in this case.

Christina: I loved Yost’s decision to stick with Cueto, both for what it did for the rest of the pen, but also because it was an endorsement of sorts. Much as he had during his bad patch in August and September, Cueto seemed to struggle with slider location, but he nevertheless did a superb job of keeping the Mets guessing. And remember, he will get an extra day’s rest before his next start, if it ever comes.

Neil: Right — maybe in that situation, you see the lead ballooning, so you know you’re on the verge of being up two games to none. The probability of needing another Cueto start goes down, but you can shield the weaker parts of the bullpen for later and simultaneously give Cueto that vote of confidence.

Carl: Endgame strategies certainly take a new shape when they could be endseason strategies. Cueto might not throw another meaningful pitch until spring.

Christina: I think my other big takeaway from Game 2 was that the Royals gave us a demonstration of one of the other important tactical factors that went into Terry Collins’s Game 1 lineup, which is that a bum wing handicaps Juan Lagares’s arm in center. With nobody aboard, no biggie, but it was part of the problem in that fifth inning. In that, you can feel badly for Collins — he “guessed” wrong in consecutive games, but he had good reasons both times for doing what he did, only to see the Royals exploit both options.

Neil: Game 1 showed us what can happen with Yoenis Cespedes in center field.

Christina: Exactly.

Harry: It’s amazing how that cost the Mets not once but twice. If you look back at the highlight reels of Cespedes’ great throws, he often boots it before firing out of his cannon, like he booted it in Game 1. Yet I think Johnny Damon may have a better arm than Juan L. (Kidding.)

Nate: I’m still having nightmares of watching Kyle Schwarber in left field. Compared to him, Cespedes looks like Willie Mays out there.

Neil: And, in fact, he made a Mays-esque catch last night.

Carl: Will it help the Mets to return to the outfield they’re more familiar with? Are there any other ways home field might help?

Nate: Citi Field is a quirkier ballpark than you might think — and, sure, it helps the Mets to know the outfield angles pretty well. But it’s also a park that suppresses run scoring, and that could make bullpen and endgame strategy more important, possibly to KC’s benefit.

Christina: I wonder if the Royals won’t profit here, as well. The Mets don’t really “do” the situational lefty thing, so the Royals could stack their lefties in the lineup even without Kendrys Morales and not have to worry too much about an in-game tactical penalty. I mean, Alex Gordon batting eighth is … simultaneously silly from our point of view, perhaps, but a reflection of how deep that lineup is in terms of not having one or two guys you can blow away handily.

Neil: Also, home-field advantage probably shows up in how the umps call the strike zone as anywhere else. And the Mets need strikeouts. They need to avoid putting KC in hitter’s counts. (Then again, there isn’t much strike-zone home-cooking can do about allowing first-pitch contact.)

Harry: The Royals have struck out just 10 times compared to the Mets’ 19 through two games. The Mets starting-pitching speciality is pitching the fast ball. Thor, who throws the fastest of any of the starters, is going in Game 3. This is not good. But then again, they play the game for a reason.

Christina: Alcides Escobar: Positively ump-proof.

Carl: We’ve praised the Royals lineup for handling the Mets heat so well. Why haven’t the Mets been able to hit for the last 16 innings or so? They obviously miss the home-run-a-game pace Murphy couldn’t sustain (to no one’s surprise), but what about everyone else? I mean, when a Lucas Duda infield single is about as good as it gets …

Harry: Duda is hitting .444 (or 4 for 9) this series. Every other Met who started both games is hitting .222 or lower. My goodness.

Christina: I can totally see a situation where Thor gives the Mets a great six innings, and maybe that’s enough to win with some run support. But the Royals are even better at making good contact against lefties, so I’m not wild about Matz’s chances if that makes the Mets defense a factor again.

Harry: Matz has not been very good this postseason. Yes, he hasn’t given up the long ball, but his WHIP is 1.45. I mean, he just doesn’t strike people out. But that may actually be a good thing given the Royals can’t be struck out. But as Christina points out, you can forget about the Mets if they don’t start hitting. That’s their problem right now. I don’t care if you have Sal Maglie going in Games 3 and 4; you don’t hit, you don’t win.

Christina: I also wonder if we weren’t oversold on Michael Conforto. His homer against Zack Greinke earlier this month is no small thing, but he fattened up on teams like the Phillies after his call-up. Cespedes is a notorious streak hitter; if tomorrow is the start of a hot streak, he could change up this source of concern in no time flat. And it is supposed to be warmer in New York than it was here in K.C., which ought to help.

Nate: One theme I’m picking up in several threads here is that the Royals, top to bottom, are a really hard team to exploit. Which, if you’re into game theory and all that, is one hallmark of having a highly effective strategy.

Harry: Here’s another question: How many runs has the Mets defense cost them? At least the first and last runs of Game 1. Beating a team that puts the ball in play like the Royals likely requires a good defense. The Mets defense has been “meh.”

Christina: Murphy costs you every time out there; he’s just not a good second baseman. Add that to Wilmer Flores’s inadequacy at short, and it’s hard to see the defense conjuring up anything like a Goins-Tulo ballet on the double play to save somebody’s bacon.

Harry: Such a change from the ‘99 Mets.

Neil: Yet the Royals’ offensive batting average on balls in play hasn’t been notably great in the series as a whole. (Even if you count that Escobar inside-the-park home run as a “ball in play.”) The Mets haven’t been great situationally on defense, though — they’ve often had their struggles in bunches. Which goes to something KC has done all year: sequencing, bunching hits, etc.

Carl: The Mets are struggling at pitching, fielding and hitting; the Royals are looking like a team with no exploitable weaknesses after being two innings from elimination against the Astros. Most sports books have the Royals as 1-4 favorites. Would you take those odds? And how many games do you think we have left in this series?

Harry: I would bet on the Mets at those odds because they are a better team than they have shown so far. Now, maybe they end up dropping the next two. It’s happened before. But the pre-series statistics showed the Royals and Mets to be pretty even. If you assume each game is a tossup, then the Mets have a 25 percent chance to win both of the next two games. It’s probably a little higher at home. Then who knows in a best-of-three?

Christina: I think if the Mets win Game 3, things get interesting, because I don’t know if anybody knows what to expect from Edinson Volquez in a Game 5.

Carl: Yes, when Volquez was last pitching, in Game 1, he hadn’t heard the awful news that his father died just before the game. It’s uncharted territory for Kansas City and for Fox, which didn’t mention it on air until Volquez knew, at the Royals’ request.

Christina: Indeed. Plus two flights to/from the Dominican Republic for Volquez, and what that does to a body. That’s where we just have to sit and watch, but how much Game 4 is won (or lost) by the Royals pen could be a factor in Game 5.

Neil: I think about 4-to-1 odds of a Mets comeback make sense. I think the Royals probably win in 6 now.

Christina: I’d subscribe to that line of thought, Neil. I can see the Mets winning two of three to get this back to K.C., but I still see this as a series the Royals ultimately win.

Nate: I’ll take Mets in 11.

Read more: Mets Pitchers Have Found Their Kryptonite

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Christina Kahrl is an MLB staff writer for ESPN.