Sonny Gray

Series Preview: Royals at Oakland Athletics, April 15-17

The Kansas City Royals head to the West Coast for the first time in 2016 to take on the Oakland Athletics in a three-game set over the weekend. The A’s have put together kind of a weird team in 2016 with a few important pieces from their impressive three-year run from 2012 to 2014, but also with new parts who they hope can lead them to another series of good seasons. I guess that’s sort of your typical A’s team under this front office, though. Last season, the Royals took five of six games. The year before, the Royals went 5-2 in the regular season against Oakland before crushing their spirits in the Wild Card game that year. So it’s safe to say the Royals have the A’s number lately.

I like parts of the A’s offense this season, but they haven’t really clicked yet in the early going of 2016. They’ve got some speed, some pop, some guys who can get on base and a fair amount of versatility on their roster. Prior to the season, they added Yonder Alonso to play first, Jed Lowrie to play second, Khris Davis to man left field and Chris Coghlan to be a jack of all trades for them. All have their strong attributes. Alonso can work a walk. Lowrie can as well and has some pop. Davis can hit the ball a very long way. And Coghlan is just a solid hitter. I’m not really a fan of any of them from a defensive perspective, but how important is defense anyway (says the Royals fan, smirking)?

Behind the plate is Stephen Vogt, who looked like an MVP candidate in the first half of last season before hitting .217/.280/.349 after the All-Star break. Danny Valencia was acquired midseason by the A’s last year and was a revelation in Oakland, hitting .284/.356/.530. He was everything the Royals had hoped he would be for them in 2014, but wasn’t. He’s off to a somewhat slow start this year, but you know what they say. It’s early. “They” is everyone in this case. The two best hitters in the lineup are probably Marcus Semien and Josh Reddick. Reddick is incredibly underrated to me. I think he can really do it all. He’s a good defender, works a walk, has power. He’s actually kind of the perfect player for the Royals. Semien, on the other hand, can hit a little bit, but he’s not exactly a wizard with the glove. He has gotten better, though. The A’s brought in Ron Washington to work with him, and he improved throughout the season last year and has been passable most of the time this year. Of course, I haven’t watched a ton of A’s baseball, so maybe I’ve missed him looking better.

The rest of the A’s are kind of hot and cold. Our old friend, Billy Butler, is pretty much relegated to platoon duty as it looks like he’s getting close to being done in the game. Another former Royal getting playing time is Coco Crisp, who looks pretty decent this year after battling injuries for the last couple. Billy Burns is really fast and plays a solid center field. It remains to be seen if he’ll hit enough, but for now, he’s working out just fine for them. The bench is rounded out by Josh Phegley and Mark Canha. They’re both guys who are good for some occasional power and can get hot and work as starters for a couple weeks at a time here and there. Eventually they’ll get Sam Fuld and Eric Sogard back and have to make some roster choices. I think this A’s offense will be decent this year, but the parts need to work together.

The A’s starting pitching staff has been made over a bit, but the constant is the ace, Sonny Gray. The guy can pitch, and in spite of what they say, he’ll likely be the next player they deal for quite a haul. Behind him in the rotation right now is Chris Bassitt, who has been surprisingly successful in his big league career. I say that because I’m just not a fan of his stuff or command, but he’s made it work so far. Kendall Graveman is an intriguing arm for the A’s, who they acquired as part of the Josh Donaldson deal. He’s going to get every chance to become a mainstay for them. Eric Surkamp has been pressed into action for them with injury issues, so we’ll see how that experiment goes. And the final guy is Rich Hill, who was able to parlay four brilliant starts at the end of 2015 into a $6 million deal for one year with the A’s. He’s been good in his first two starts but has hit four batters, so that’s something to watch out for in this one.

The A’s also remade their bullpen, which they sort of had to. One addition was just a return from injury by their star closer, Sean Doolitte. Reports are that he looks good, but he did blow a save on Tuesday night, so he might still be a work in progress. The A’s also picked up a couple former Royals in Ryan Madson and Liam Hendriks to shore up the setup area. Madson has even picked up a couple saves in the early going. Hendriks has been scored on quite a bit, but he looked really good as a reliever with the Blue Jays last year, so I’d expect he can turn it around. They picked up John Axford to try to revive his career (though they gave him two years, so maybe they think it’s been revived). We’ll see how that goes for them. They also have Ryan Dull and Marc Rzepczynski  along with Fernando Rodriguez to round out the unit. I think it’s better than last year, but it’s definitely not a top tier bullpen.

Friday – Edinson Volquez vs. Rich Hill
To say it’s been quite a journey for Rich Hill would be an understatement. Early in his career, he was a well regarded prospect who the Cubs thought could be one of their next great starters. He had some good seasons even; control was his undoing. After leaving the Cubs, he bounced around the AL East (with stops in Cleveland and LA for good measure) before finally getting a late season opportunity with the Red Sox. Speaking of understatements, he made the most of it. In four starts, he went 29 innings, gave up 14 hits, struck out 36 and walked just 5. That earned him a deal with the A’s, and he’s had a decent showing in his first two starts, but with a crazy good strikeout rate and a good walk rate. Hill has faced the Royals 11 times in his career. He made two starts against them in 2009 and nine relief appearances against them in 2013. He’s gone 10.2 innings, given up 15 hits and struck out 10 while walking 8 in those appearances, which resulted in a 5.91 ERA for him.

Three things to watch for against Hill:

  1. Hill is a fastball-curve guy, and that has been a good combination for him since he resurfaced. The fastball isn’t special with regard to velocity, but it does have a lot of movement, which is part of why he has struggled with control at times. The curve is the strikeout pitch for Hill, but it can hang, so it’s not one to just let go by every single time. He also does mix in a slider from time to time to keep hitters honest. He has a change, but he rarely uses it.
  2. There’s just not much data on the new Rich Hill to determine what works and what doesn’t against him. And, quite frankly, not much has worked against him. A couple things to note, though, are that he will start an at bat with that curve ball, but that’s when it seems to hang a little from what I’ve seen, so Royals hitters should beware of that. He also has gone to his slider mostly when he’s behind in the count to right-handed batters.
  3. Last year, he was murder on lefties and righties alike. This year, he’s actually gotten hit really hard by some lefties, but the sample is so small that it’s hard to tell what’s just noise and what’s worth believing. Royals hitters have 16 total plate appearances against Hill, with the only hits coming from Kendrys Morales, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar.

Volquez has started off his 2016 in style with a lot of strikeouts and a couple really solid pitching performances. He’ll get the chance to pitch in a place that seems like it should be good for him, especially at night against a not great offense. I think this could be the start that we see Volquez give the Royals seven innings to help keep the bullpen a little better rested. He’s 2-2 with a 3.27 ERA in four career starts against the A’s. Coghlan has worked three walks against him and Davis has two doubles against him, but there’s not much data around the A’s matchups with Volquez as he just hasn’t faced them much.

Saturday – Chris Young vs. Sonny Gray
For a guy who has finished in the top three of a Cy Young vote, thrown 200+ innings each of the last two seasons and owns a career ERA under 3, I’d say that Gray is underrated. He’s hard to hit, gets swings and misses, limits walks pretty well and will give you innings. I think some question his durability due to his 5’10” frame, but until proven otherwise, I’m sold that he’s a horse at the top of a rotation. He may not be a Chris Sale-type ace with the overpowering stuff, but he’s definitely an ace. In three career starts against the Royals, he’s pitched well, but is 0-2 with a 3.15 ERA. The Royals did hit him in a start last year, but that’s the one where he got a no-decision. Baseball can be funny.

Three things to watch for against Gray:

  1. Gray sits at around 94 MPH with his sinker, just like Bassitt does, but the pitches are just better for Gray. They’re crisper and have a little more movement on them. Also like Bassitt, he throws a slider and a curve, but the slider can be devastating when it’s on. It gets a ton of swings and misses. The curve is very good too, but it’s not on the level of his slider. That is definitely an underrated pitch among hurlers in the big leagues.
  2. Here’s an idea of how good Sonny Gray is. Most pitchers are pretty good when they’re ahead in the count and can be hurt when they’re behind in the count. Obviously Gray could get hurt behind in the count, but he’s one of the best in baseball at still getting outs even in those situations. Last year, he allowed just a .731 OPS with just 11 extra base hits when he was behind in the count. The guy can pitch.
  3. Last year, he was slightly better against lefties, but in his career, he’s just tough on batters from both sides of the plate, which is to be expected from someone of his caliber. Nobody in the Royals lineup has faced Gray a ton, but Eric Hosmer is 3 for 3 against him, which is notable in a way. Lorenzo Cain also has two hits against him and two walks, so maybe he sees the ball well against him, too.

So far this season, Young has had one solid start and one rough go of it. I think a lot of the last start is that he just isn’t a good fit for that park or against that offense in Houston. It happens. He gets the chance to move to a park that definitely fits his style much better against an offense that isn’t quite as good at mashing mistakes. Young has faced the A’s 11 times in his career with 10 of those starts. He has a career 4-4 record with a 3.48 ERA in those 11 games. Over the last two seasons, he’s faced the A’s seven times with six being starts. He’s 2-3 with a 3.58 ERA in 32.2 innings in those games. Among A’s hitters who have seen Young, Lowrie is really the only one who has done any real damage against him, and that’s in just 11 plate appearances.

Sunday – Kris Medlen vs. Chris Bassitt
For a guy who has finished in the top three of a Cy Young vote, thrown 200+ innings each of the last two seasons and owns a career ERA under 3, I’d say that Gray is underrated. He’s hard to hit, gets swings and misses, limits walks pretty well and will give you innings. I think some question his durability due to his 5’10” frame, but until proven otherwise, I’m sold that he’s a horse at the top of a rotation. He may not be a Chris Sale-type ace with the overpowering stuff, but he’s definitely an ace. In three career starts against the Royals, he’s pitched well, but is 0-2 with a 3.15 ERA. The Royals did hit him in a start last year, but that’s the one where he got a no-decision. Baseball can be funny.

Three things to watch for against Bassitt:

  1. Bassitt throws a fastball/sinker combo with decent velocity. Both come in around 94 MPH. The sinker doesn’t move as much as you would like, which is why his career ground ball rate is at around 44 percent. He also throws a slider and a curve. Both are good pitches, but aren’t the swing and miss pitches you’d like to see. I guess that’s what makes him a back of the rotation guy rather than a front of the rotation guy.
  2. One reason I just don’t see it as an every fifth day type starter for Bassitt is that he gets smoked when a lineup sees him a third time. The first two times through, he’s actually quite good. I think a lot of that is because his breaking pitches are quality enough, but not so great that repetition doesn’t help against them. The first two times through the order, Bassitt allows a sub-.700 OPS. The third time through, though, that number jumps to .872 in his career.
  3. He actually has a reverse platoon split in his career, holding lefties to a .658 OPS compared to .733 against right-handed batters. Escobar, Moustakas and Alex Gordon all have multiple hits against Bassitt, but I have a hunch this is a good matchup for Morales.

Medlen had what I’d call a solid first start against Houston on Tuesday night. He seemed to fight some command issues throughout the game, but he also hadn’t pitched in about two weeks prior. I’ve been excited for Medlen all spring, and now that the season is here and he’s already shown what kind of makeup he has on the mound this season, I’m even more excited. I think he should do a decent job of navigating through this A’s offense in this park, though the ball does jump a little more during the day. Medlen has never faced the A’s in his career. He has faced Coghlan 16 times, though, and has allowed a .545/.688/.545 line to him, so watch out there.

Coming off a tough series against the Astros, I could see a bit of a letdown for the Royals as they head to Oakland, but I trust in this team to not falter. They’re better than the A’s, but I have to say the matchup against Hill and his curve is a little concerning. And Gray is really good too. So while I don’t think the A’s are especially great, I do think the Royals have their work cut out for them. I’ll predict a series win for the Royals here, but it won’t be easy.

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