It’s been a long time coming for the Kansas City Royals, who haven’t played in an MLB playoff game since 1985. That streak will come to an end on Tuesday night when the Royals host the Oakland Athletics in the 2014 American League Wild Card Game.
When Kansas City clinched its first postseason berth in 29 years, the team ended an historical playoff drought. The Toronto Blue Jays had been the closest team to matching the Royals’ futility, not having reached the playoffs since 1993. In the NFL, NBA, and NHL, no team has gone more than 14 seasons between postseason appearances.
Winning 89 games and finishing one game behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, the Royals are the most improbable team that qualified for the 2014 MLB Playoffs. Kansas City’s run is not only unlikely because of their struggles over three decades, but because of the way they won the first wild-card spot.
A lot has changed since the Royals last played October baseball. Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You” was at the top of the charts, and the average price for a gallon of gas was just $1.24. However, the Kansas City teams of 1985 and 2014 are similar in many ways. Other than future Hall of Famer George Brett and Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen, the Royals that won the title were lacking in high-profile players.
Unlike some of the 2014 World Series favorites, the Royals don’t have a lot of star power. Kansas City began the season with a payroll of just over $92 million, ranking them 19th in all of baseball.
Offensively, the Royals have as little firepower as any team in MLB. They finished the regular season dead last in home runs with 95, putting them 116 behind the league-leading Baltimore Orioles. Alex Gordon is first on the team with 74 RBI, tying him for just 53rd-best in the Majors.
Kansas City’s pitching is the biggest reason why the team has a chance to reach the World Series, but the Royals don’t sport a top staff. With a 3.51 team ERA, the Royals rank 12th in the league and eighth among the 10 playoff teams. Twenty-six starters had an ERA under 3.00 in 2014, and none of them play in Kansas City.
With such little star power and an absence of recognizable names, the Royals have made it to the postseason by playing as the ultimate team. While Kansas City has no hitters with 75 RBI, eight players have at least 50 RBI. No starting pitcher on the team has 15 wins, but three-fifths of the rotation has at least 13 victories.
The Royals have finally gotten over the hump, relying on a core group of young players that has grown together and improved every year. In the last six seasons, Kansas City has seen its win total increase from the previous year, and seven of the team’s top eight run producers have been with the Royals since 2011.
In addition to their homegrown talent, the Royals have a few key players that were acquired in trades. In 2010, Kansas City dealt Zack Greinke for a package that included Alcides Escobar, who played all 162 games at shortstop and finished second among Kansas City hitters in WAR (wins above replacement). Before the start of last season, the Royals made one of their biggest splashes in recent memory, acquiring James Shields from the Tampa Bay Rays. The right-hander went 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA in 2014.
On Tuesday night, the Royals will face another team that’s been put together with a small payroll. However, the road to the postseason has been much different for the Athletics.
Oakland has a strong track record of making the playoffs, but the team has been historically bad in its postseason failures. In eight playoff appearances since 2000, the A’s have lost in the first round seven times and never reached the World Series. Every time Oakland has lost in the ALDS, the series has been decided in a fifth and final game.
The 2014 season was expected to be the year that Oakland would finally play in the Fall Classic, but that possibility seems to get more unlikely each day. The A’s had the best record on the day of the MLB trade deadline, but it’s all been downhill for the team since August.
When Oakland traded outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for pitcher Jon Lester, the A’s were one of the favorites to win their first championship in 24 years. However, the team has gone 24-33 over the final two months of the season, finishing 10 games out of first place and barely clinching the second wild-card spot.
At home, the Royals have been named the slightest of favorites in the wild-card game to reach the ALDS. Las Vegas casinos have put their odds of winning at -110, and the A’s come in at +100.
Prediction: Kansas City 3, Oakland 2