Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Andrelton Simmons

Series Preview: Royals at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Royals head west for the final time this season (yes, that’s accurate) and begin by hitting Anaheim to take on the Angels. The Angels have all the looks of a pretty mediocre team this season for a number of reasons, but they also have one of the two best players in baseball, so I suppose anything is possible. It’s not that long ago that the Royals swept the Angels in the ALDS. I like to believe that the Royals broke the Angels. Last year, the Royals went 6-1 against them, which included a three-game sweep in Anaheim in April. A repeat would be fun.

Offensively, the Angels have a pretty interesting setup. They’re top heavy with Mike Trout leading the way. He’s having a slow start to the season and is still hitting .299/.400/.493. That’s really impressive. Unfortunately for the Angels, he can’t do it alone. He’s gotten help from one of the most underrated players in baseball, Kole Calhoun. I might have an unhealthy level of admiration for Calhoun. He hits, plays defense and is just overall really good. And then there’s Yunel Escobar, who is having a nice start to the season for the Angels as their third baseman.

Those three aren’t the only players who could contribute to the Angels. Albert Pujols is off to a .153/.228/.292 start that seems likely to turn around at some point and some point soon. C.J. Cron has been even worse, and while I don’t think he can rebound to the level Pujols could, he’s certainly better than this. Left field was supposed to be manned by Daniel Nava, who has a chance to actually be a contributor as well, but it’s hard for him to do that while he’s on the disabled list. Craig Gentry has been playing a lot of left field in his stead, but he’s not an answer by any stretch of the imagination.

And then there’s the black holes in the lineup, and they’re led by Johnny Giavotella who has followed up a really solid 2015 season by hitting .136/.156/.136 in the season’s first few weeks. His double play partner, Andrelton Simmons is a wizard with the glove, but he hasn’t hit yet either. Carlos Perez would be looking awful right now offensively if not for Giavotella around to make him look better. The bench has been a help with Geovany Soto as backup catcher hitting really well to start the season. Cliff Pennington isn’t much with the bat, but he’s at least provided a small amount of value early. The rest of the bench includes Rafael Ortega and Ji-Man Choi. At least their backups are decent.

The Angels rotation had a real chance to be downright bad heading into the season, but they’ve actually pitched well. Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago were expected to be solid for them this season. Santiago has been better than Richards, but both have given the Angels some quality innings. The surprise of the rotation is probably Jered Weaver. He doesn’t look like a pitcher who can get hitters out anymore, but here he is, pitching pretty well. Nick Tropeano has been mostly very good in his first three starts of the season as well. Matt Shoemaker is the only Angels starter who has really struggled. Andrew Heaney might be out for awhile, but when he returns, Shoemaker seems like a safe bet to lose his job.

The Angels bullpen is average with a good closer, Huston Street. Street doesn’t get strikeouts, but he gets the job done, year in and year out. Fernando Salas has been solid, while Joe Smith has been his usual very good self. Shawnee Mission South graduate Mike Morin has the makings of a good middle reliever, but hasn’t shown consistency. Jose Alvarez and Greg Mahle are the left-handed options in the bullpen, and both have their strong points, but neither is great. And then there’s Cory Rasmus, who fills the role of innings eater in relief. I actually like Rasmus more than I probably should, given that he’s never been anything special, but I do like what he does for the bullpen, even if the results aren’t great.

Monday – Ian Kennedy vs. Garrett Richards
Richards was having a truly fantastic season in 2014 when he broke his leg and wasn’t able to pitch again that year. It looked like he was about to turn into one of the game’s true aces, but he took a step back in his return last season and hasn’t been a great deal better this year. That’s not to say he isn’t good. I just thought he would be level or two above where he is by this point. I guess control holds him back as he can get a little wild at times. He’s pitched against the Royals nine times, including three starts, and has a record of 0-1 with a 4.26 ERA in 25.1 innings. He gave up three runs over six innings in his one start against the Royals last year.

Three thing to watch for against Richards:

  1. Richards is really a fastball/sinker/slider pitcher, and all three pitches serve distinct purposes. His fastball is incredibly straight, and he throws it quite a bit. I remember his fastball moving more in the past, but it’s always been straight according to the data, so I don’t know what I was thinking. His sinker has really good action on it when it’s working. He throws both at about 96 MPH, so yeah, he throws hard. The slider is really his money pitch as the fastball and sinker have been destroyed this season. He also does have a changeup that he flashes periodically.
  2. Richards is one of those pitchers who you need to get to early or else you might not get to him at all. Last year, he was at his worst the first time through the order. This year, he’s gotten lit up on his first 50 pitches before settling in to a groove. The Royals have been good early in games this season, so that could work out well for them.
  3. Richards has been way better against lefties than righties so far this year. Last year, he had a reverse platoon split, but it wasn’t as spread out as it’s been in his first four starts this year. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain have hit Richards well, but he’s really held down Kendrys Morales, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer in their careers.

Ian Kennedy looks to continue his very impressive start to his Royals career. It will be a sort of homecoming as he’s from Huntington Beach. You never know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for a player, so we’ll see about that. I was a fan of Kennedy signing with the Royals, but this start to the season has been better than I expected. The big difference is his command has been better than advertised, which has helped him a great deal. He’s 0-2 with a 5.73 ERA in three career games (two starts) against the Angels. Of course, he hasn’t faced them since 2012 and the game that made the ERA look ugly came in 2008, so I’m not sure what that tells you. Escobar, Pujols and Soto have hit Kennedy pretty hard, so watch for them in this one.

Tuesday – Edinson Volquez vs. Jered Weaver
There was a team when Weaver was considered one of the best pitchers in baseball. From 2013 to 2015, he’s seen his ERA rise, culminating in a rough season last year. This year, he’s been decent enough in his first three starts with a solid ERA. He also has struck out just seven batters in 17.1 innings. It’s hard to get by in 2016 with striking out less than four batters per nine innings. It sure seems like it’s only a matter of time before Weaver becomes a liability for the Angels. He’s 7-6 with a 2.77 ERA in 14 career starts against the Royals, but he did get hit hard in two starts against them last season.

Three things to watch for against Weaver:

  1. Weaver’s velocity is probably the scariest thing about him. He used to throw 90+ on his fastball, but that is now down to an average of about 82 MPH this season. His sinker has a similar velocity. He throws his fastball so slow that it’s occasionally classified as a changeup. The change he does throw averages about 73-74 MPH, so that’s how you can tell the difference. He also throws a slider and a curve, but the curve has been knocked around this season.
  2. This isn’t at all surprising given his lackluster stuff, but Weaver really struggles when he faces a lineup a third time. He’s good enough the first time through and really good the second time, but when he faces a lineup a third time, he allows a .963 OPS this season. I guess if you get enough chances to time a fastball that slow, you eventually figure out how to hit it a long way.
  3. Lefties have absolutely destroyed Weaver to the tune of a 1.053 OPS this season. He’s held righties down, though. Last year, he had very little platoon split, so that might even out soon, but it’s good news for Gordon, Moustakas, Hosmer and Morales if it doesn’t. Those four along with Salvador Perez have all homered against Weaver in their careers.

Edinson Volquez might actually be better so far this season than he was in 2015 when he had a solid year for the Royals. If he can keep his walk rate down, he could potentially put up the best season of his career, which would be nice for the Royals. He’s 1-3 with a 9.42 ERA in five games (three starts) against the Angels in his career. The last time he faced them was in 2007, though, for a frame of reference. Pujols has hit him hard, but the other four Angels he’s faced haven’t fared all that well against him in their careers.

Wednesday – Chris Young vs. Nick Tropeano
Tropeano was never rated highly as a prospect, but one thing he was able to do throughout his minor league career was get strikeouts. He’s brought that aspect of his game to the big league level in his short time in the big leagues with the Angels. He strikes me as one of those pitchers who could really put in a nice career in the back of rotations and could even pop up with a really good season here and there. He’s never faced the Royals in his career.

Three things to watch for against Tropeano:

  1. His changeup is supposed to be his bread and butter, but it’s his fastball and slider that have me intrigued. He doesn’t throw hard. The fastball is just 91-92 MPH, but it moves pretty well, and he’s able to get some weak contact on it and he limits power well. His changeup is good, but his slider has actually been his best out pitch as a big leaguer.
  2. Tropeano isn’t the type of pitcher that you hope to just wait out, but it’s clear that he doesn’t get deep into games. He might eventually, but at this stage of his career, he just doesn’t. Because of that, if he does have it all working, the Royals best bet would be to show some of that patience they’ve shown more of this season. Tropeano isn’t likely to be hanging around this game after the sixth, and that might even be too long.
  3. He has a fairly traditional platoon split in his career, holding right-handed batters to an OPS about 70 points lower than what he’s allowed to lefties. Only Morales has faced him among Royals hitters, and he’s 0 for 2 against Tropeano. I do think Moustakas could fare very well in this matchup given Tropeano’s propensity for allowing fly balls and Moose’s propensity for hitting long fly balls.

Young will look to build on a good start against the Orioles on Friday. That makes two good starts and two bad ones for him, so he’s looking to tip the scales here. Pitching in Anaheim is similar to pitching at Kauffman Stadium, especially during night games. The Angels lineup could pose a problem for him with the good hitters, but I could see Young working around them to pick on the struggling hitters to see if he can’t put together five or six quality innings. The good news is that he doesn’t have to get deep into the game with an off day following his start. Young is 4-3 with a 5.29 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) against the Angels in his career. He does have a 2.51 ERA in 14.1 innings against them over the last two years. He’s handled Pujols really well in 22 career plate appearances in his career, but has been hit hard in very limited plate appearances against Soto, Escobar and Calhoun.

It might be last season and the 2014 ALDS talking, but I almost feel like the Royals could sweep this series. I’m not confident enough to predict that, but man am I thinking about it. I do think the Royals take two of three from the Angels. I just think they’re the better team and two of their top starters get to go in the series.

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