The Kansas City Royals have been in back to back World Series without an offensive superstar. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain don’t carry the same clout as Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez or Carlos Beltran and their efforts resulted in 40 less runs than the Yankees scored last season. The long ball didn’t win the AL back to back years either; the Royals hit 83 less long balls than the Yankees. Over 162 games the difference in OPS and OBP are basically inconsequential with the Yankees holding a slight edge in both and the Royals significantly better at making contact and stealing bases.
This is an extensive way of saying hitting is not the reason the Royals have made deep October runs.
It’s been the pitching. More specifically, it’s been very specific things the Royals do well other teams don’t, but the Yankees are the closest to being able to replicate those abilities.
Starting pitcher is closer than one might think. The Royals held a .17 ERA edge over the Yankees in 2015, giving up just 17 runs less over the course of the entire season in the first six innings. While batting average against and WHIP are virtually irrelevant in difference, the Yankees surrendered 20 more home runs while striking out 99 extra batters.
So when much is written about New York’s starting pitching woes, the pitching in the first six innings is actually very similar. Though the Yankees didn’t go out and get a starter like the Royals did with Ian Kennedy, New York does have a full season of Luis Severino, expect a full effort from Nathan Eovaldi and see tremendous upside in Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia, the former who was extremely unlucky last season and the latter who is moving past alcohol addiction. And all of that says nothing of Ivan Nova another year removed from surgery and being able to get in a full spring training.
While Kansas City is reloading with guys like a presumably healthy Kris Medlan, flier in Mike Minor and signings like Ian Kennedy, plus a returning Jason Vargas, the Yankees see internal depth and health as the main improvement factors in the rotation.
In the eighth inning, there isn’t much difference either. The Yankees’ 2.95 ERA actually edges the Royals’ 2.96 in the eighth inning or later over a course of just 4.2 extra innings, and the combination of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller (mostly) also surrendered two less home runs, 11 less walks, lead the league in strikeouts and were within .02 and .04 in BAA and WHIP, respectively.
In other words, the biggest difference between the Royals and Yankees overall besides how they score (but ultimately score around the same runs) is in the seventh inning.
Enter: Aroldis Chapman.
He’s likely to never throw a pitch in the seventh inning this season and yet his presence may impact the inning more than anything else.
First, the problem. Kansas City, and it’s three headed monster in 2015, held a .55 advantage in ERA (3.06 compared to 3.61). They yielded 28 less hits just in that inning alone, resulting in 40 less runs. In other words, every four games the Yankees specifically surrendered an extra run in the seventh inning. New York gave up seven more home runs and held BAA and WHIPs higher than KC by .10 and .11.
Kansas City, more than any head to head comparison (because despite a superior defense the runs surrendered were about the same), the Royals dominated the Yankees in pitching in the seventh inning, likely because it had superior firepower at the back of the bullpen even though the Yankees had the better setup man and closer combination.
With Chapman in the fold it likely bumps either Miller or Betances, the duo who outperformed the Royals in the eighth and ninth, into the seventh. Since all three (including Chapman) are better than Justin Wilson, it’s not so much looking at the difference between Chapman and Wilson and feeling like both are good so it won’t make a difference, it’s looking at closing the gap between the starting pitcher exiting and the dominant arms stepping in.
The Yankees would likely love to have an arm it can cross off every year for 200 guaranteed innings in its rotation and this year it could produce two of them in Eovaldi and Severino to say nothing of Pineda and Tanaka who at least have a possible shot.
But the way to improve the team the most as it compares to the two time defending AL Champs on paper was to close the gap in the seventh inning. Adding a third closer caliber relief arm should do exactly that when April rolls around.