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Mets throw smoke, but Royals can beat the heat

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BBTN picks World Series winners (1:04)

The Baseball Tonight crew makes its predictions and picks for the World Series. (1:04)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Chicago Cubs hit .169 against them, with nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits. The Los Angeles Dodgers hit .227 against them, with zero home runs.

And now, it's the Kansas City Royals' turn.

Their World Series assignment: Find a way, any way, to score against the ridiculous swing-and-miss assembly line otherwise known as the New York Mets' starting rotation. You can't beat that for fun.

"No, I wouldn't call that fun. I'd call that miserable," said the Royals' Jonny Gomes, who spent enough of this season with the Atlanta Braves to know exactly what his teammates are getting themselves into. "But on the flip side, facing our lineup can be miserable, too. So that sums it all up."

Yep. Pretty eloquently, too. So what could possibly be more riveting, as we contemplate Game 1 of this World Series on Tuesday in Kansas City, in a ballpark aptly nicknamed "The K," than having two teams whose greatest areas of strength go head to head like this?

The Mets' starters are the Kings of the K, the Wizards of Whiff, the Sultans of Swing-and-Miss. It's what they do. In their nine starts in the first two rounds of this postseason, they got more swings and misses, 140, than balls put in play, 136. Seriously.

Want an idea of how crazy that is? The Royals' starters have induced almost double the number of balls in play, 153, versus swings and misses, 84. And none of the other six teams that have played more than one game in this postseason are even close to the Mets' ratio.

But as you might have noticed, not swinging and missing is the specialty of the Royals' house. They're the Connoisseurs of Contact. They put 4,683 balls in play this season. That's the most in baseball, and only two other teams were within 200 of them.

They were the only lineup in the majors to strike out in fewer than 16 percent of all plate appearances. No other team was less than 18 percent. And as FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote last month, that's the lowest strikeout rate in modern history.

So it's strength against strength. It's the Seahawks' defense against the Broncos' offense. It's Chamberlain against Russell. It's the best against the best. And that's what the World Series ought to be. But now it's our job to try to figure out who prevails. So let's look at it from four key angles:

Power arms versus contact bats

Mets starters have thrown 520 fastballs in this postseason. An incredible 423 of them have whooshed up there at 95 mph or faster, and of those, the hitters turned just 24 of them into hits. So the ability to overpower pretty much everybody is still the essence of what these guys do best.

Of course, they haven't faced the Royals yet. And every morsel of data in the cosmos tells us that no lineup in baseball handles velocity like the Royals. Including the postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Royals are hitting .300 against pitches at 95-plus, and they have swung and missed less than 15 percent of the time. They have the ability to frustrate these starters in a way other teams don't.

"It makes for an interesting dynamic," Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said. "For a pitcher who thrives on the strikeout, both emotionally and to get through the inning, if he's not able to get that strikeout, and he has to grind through and grind through, that can really wear on a pitcher."

What makes that especially frustrating against this lineup, though, is that it's hitter after hitter causing that grind, not just two or three studs in the middle of the order. That can be a shocking experience, one NL scout said, for pitchers "who are used to pitching against a generation of hitters who don't care if they strike out 180 times a year."

So maybe we've all spent way too much time focusing on velocity. Maybe this will actually come down to ...

Can the Mets execute their off-speed stuff?

"You know what's made their young pitchers so much better?" observed one catcher whose team faced both clubs this season. "It's the ability to get their off-speed stuff over early in the count. And that's one of the keys against the Royals.

"You could see all those pitchers grow as the year went along. They're so much different than they were early in the year. They have the ability to throw their breaking stuff and their changeups for strikes now. And of course, they've still got the fastball. So in the back of your mind, if you're hitting, you've always got to be ready for that heater."

When pitchers throw as hard as these guys throw, it's easy to overlook their other weapons. But the Mets' Game 1 starter, Matt Harvey, has four unhittable pitches when he's right, including a curveball the opposition hits .191 against and a slider it hits .176 against.

Then there's Jacob deGrom's changeup. The opposition batted .144 against that pitch this season. And Noah Syndergaard mixes in a curveball on one out of every five pitches. The hitters were .184 against that pitch. So there's a lot more to this staff than one giant heat wave.

Throughout this postseason, the Mets have shown a consistent ability to mix and match in ways they hadn't all season. Nearly 40 percent of their pitches in the first two rounds have been off-speed. That's up from 36 percent during the season.

They also executed different game plans against the Dodgers, throwing 47 percent off-speed stuff, than against the Cubs, 32 percent. So it's not as if the Royals' hitters can show up and just start fighting off fastballs. It will be more difficult to prep for this staff than it's being given credit for. Then again ...

Can the Royals keep beating aces?

Madison Bumgarner will not be participating in this year's World Series. That's the best news the Royals have heard.

"The Mets have really good pitching," Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum said Monday. "But the thing is, it's not the Bumgarner type."

Yeah, those Bumgarner types are no fun at all. The Royals went into last year's World Series planning to be as aggressive as ever against MadBum. Instead, they "just couldn't pull the trigger for some reason," Sveum said, which allowed him to get to an 0-and-1 count in 49 at-bats over three games. The rest is history, as in "lose the World Series in seven" history.

But against non-Bumgarner types, it has been a whole different kind of history. In games he didn't pitch in over the past two postseasons, the Royals are 18-5. That's a winning percentage so good, it's the equivalent of going 127-35 over a full season.

"And one thing our team does," Sveum said, "is, we beat No. 1 starters. We beat No. 1's all year long."

Sveum started ticking off names: 2-0 in games started by Chris Sale; 4-1 in games started by Corey Kluber; 2-0 in David Price's starts in the postseason; 1-0 against Felix Hernandez; 1-0 in Sonny Gray's only start against them; 1-0 against Chris Archer; unbeaten in interleague starts by Gerrit Cole, Jake Arrieta and a guy they later traded for, Johnny Cueto. It's amazing.

"We do rise up to No. 1 starters. But obviously, these guys have got three of them," Sveum said of the Mets.

Nevertheless, it's proof that putting balls in play, especially against the best in the game, is an excellent recipe for success. Especially because it could expose ...

The Royals against the Mets' defense

"Here's something that scares me about the Mets that hasn't reared its head yet," an AL scout said. "That's Wilmer Flores playing shortstop, throwing routine balls away. You don't see Kansas City make mistakes like that. But the Mets could."

We should never forget, as we watch this World Series, that the Royals don't merely put pressure on pitchers with all that contact. They put just as much pressure on opposing defenses. And potentially, that's a big worry for the Mets.

In 103 regular-season appearances at shortstop this season, Flores committed 14 errors and cost the Mets 10 runs compared with an average defender, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Meanwhile, their second baseman, Daniel (The Bambino) Murphy, has racked up a terrifying minus-29 Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons, which ranks him among the worst defensive infielders in baseball.

Then there's the Royals' running game, which will test the Mets' pitchers as well as catcher Travis d'Arnaud.

"Their power pitching doesn't hold runners," said an executive of one team that played both clubs this season. "And offensive, over defensive, catchers. Not good. You can kill the Mets going after their catchers."

While d'Arnaud did improve his throwing this year, from a 13 percent caught-stealing rate in 2014 to 25.6 percent this season, just one of the Mets starters, deGrom, really gives him a chance. Mets catchers nailed six of 10 base-stealers with deGrom pitching this year, but just 3-for-14 with Harvey, 1-for-16 with Syndergaard and 1-for-6 with Steven Matz. That's a combined 5-for-36 with those three pitching, or 13.9 percent. Oof.

"I'm not confident in d'Arnaud throwing runners out," said the AL scout who was quoted earlier. "And I'm sure Kansas City will test that."

So when you add it all up, we were surprised to hear everyone we surveyed predict that the Royals will dent the scoreboard against the game's best young rotation. But what makes this World Series so fascinating is that these teams will test each other in so many ways, not just in the much ballyhooed narrative of lineup vs. rotation.

The Mets are built around home runs, walks, power pitching and starters. The Royals are built around singles, doubles, first-pitch contact, speed and bullpen. So what we have here are two really good teams. But two really different approaches.

"It's different styles of play," Royals pitcher Chris Young said. "But it shows there's not one absolute way that works."

So what way works best? Is it better to have a staff full of strikeout machines or a lineup full of line drives waiting to happen? Hey, that's what the next seven games are for -- to provide all those answers.

"And I'm willing to bet," Gomes said, "that there will be a couple of those games that need more than nine innings."