Back in August, I projected that the KC Royals bullpen would be the greatest late-inning force in post-season history. What I did not foresee is that the offense would match the bullpen’s excellence to make the entire team the greatest late-inning juggernaut major-league baseball has ever seen.
Was it skill, or just a fluke?
Really, the Kansas City Royals dominated the late-innings like no other playoff team before them. They pulled off seven comebacks to overcome multi-run deficits in one post-season, breaking the previous record of five by the 1999 New York Yankees. They outscored their opponents 51-11 after the sixth inning during the 2015 playoffs, 40-6 after the seventh, and 18-0 after the eighth.
Get that? In 16 post-season games in 2015, the KC Royals did not give up a single run in the ninth inning or later and scored 18.
Talk about dominance.
Rany Jazayerli looked up the most runs scored after the seventh inning in playoff history and showed that not only did the 2015 Royals set the record, they smashed it:
[table id=39 /]
If you’re great at preventing runs, scored more runs after the 7th inning than any team in playoff history, set the record for both comebacks, and multi-run comebacks in one playoff season, then it’s pretty safe to say you’re the the best late-inning team in playoff history.
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The interesting question is just how much is this skill, rather than just wild random chance. With respect to preventing scores in the late-innings, the 2015 Royals repeated the excellence of the 2014 squad. It’s the hitting that’s more of a question.
While not direct evidence, the recent playoff success of contact hitting teams suggests the KC Royals hitting success isn’t that much of an accident. Grantland writer Ben Lindberg cited Joe Sheehan’s newsletter for research that found teams with the better contact rate went 34-14 in playoff series since 2009. Add in the Kansas City Royals victory over the Mets, and the record goes to 35-14—that’s 71.4%.
However, the question is if contact hitting ability can explain the Royals deluge of late-inning runs in the 2015 playoffs. Lindberg asserts that the KC Royals extreme contact hitting ability did yield an advantage against hard throwing pitchers, which would seem to be a particular skill.
However, the Kansas City Royals didn’t score late-inning runs during the regular season anywhere close to 2.5 runs per game after the eighth inning they averaged during the playoffs, which makes the offense’s playoff heroics seem like luck.
I must confess, I hope the 2016 KC Royals make the playoffs just so we can see if the offense can replicate their 2015 performance. If they repeat their late-inning success in 2016, it begins to look like ability.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have to believe in clutch.