Felix Hernandez

Series Preview: Royals at Seattle Mariners, April 29-May 1

The Kansas City Royals will try to bounce back from a very disappointing series as they head to Seattle to take on the Mariners in a three-game set this weekend. The Mariners have started the season decently and sit within striking distance of the top of the American League West with an 11-10 record. The Royals won four of six games from the Mariners last season, including two of three in Seattle, a place it seems like they struggle at times. Hopefully for the Royals sake, they can find that magic again to stop this losing streak at three.

The Mariners are a team with some offensive firepower, which is kind of a change from previous seasons when they’ve struggled to score runs. I actually think their offense has a chance to be better than it has been, and they’ve been pretty quality. They’re led largely by two veterans. Robinson Cano had a rough season last year, but has bounced back in a big way with some serious power. He’s already hit eight home runs and has driven in 24. His average and OBP are down a bit, but he’s been extremely productive. Nelson Cruz is the other big bat, and while he hasn’t put up the eye popping numbers we’ve seen from him in the past, his .272/.355/.494 line is definitely getting the job done.

They have a couple other guys who I like a lot who haven’t gotten going yet in Kyle Seager and Adam Lind. Seager in particular has had a rough start the season, hitting just .143/.241/.338. He’s too good to keep that up, though. Lind just hasn’t hit for the power the Mariners had hoped for when they acquired him, but the season is still quite young. In addition to those two, Chris Iannetta has been good for them with a .379 OBP. Seth Smith and Leonys Martin have also had their moments early, though Martin has a sub-.300 OBP and is showing power he hasn’t really shown in the big leagues in his career to this point.

I also really like Ketel Marte as someone who can give the Mariners a different element to their power. He’s been okay enough to start the year, but there’s more in his bat than .288/.321/.329, specifically in his walk rate. Familiar face Nori Aoki was signed this offseason to give the Mariners another player with a different dimension, but he’s started the year off very rough. Steve Clevenger is the backup catcher, and he has a fantastic walk rate, but that’s about all he’s done offensively this season. And then there’s Dae-Ho Lee who has been good off the bench for Seattle. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s a 34-year old who played the last four years in the Japanese league and the 11 years before that in Korea. He has power and has a chance to make a decent-sized impact for them. I like what he can do for that team.

Pitching for the Mariners seems to have always been their staple, but in previous years, they’ve had some issues. This year, though, the starting rotation has a lot to like. It’s obviously led by one of baseball’s best, Felix Hernandez. He continues to lose velocity on his fastball but finds a way to pitch and pitch well. He’s had some control issues this season that we’ll get to in the matchups below. Taijuan Walker seems to have taken that next step to being what the Mariners and experts all thought he could be. He’s really good. Nate Karns was a kind of sneaky acquisition this off-season. He’s not a guy who will be a staff ace, but he can be pretty darn effective. Hisashi Iwakuma was as good as gone before an issue with his physical with the Dodgers surfaced, and the Mariners were able to strike a deal to bring him back to Seattle. He hasn’t been great to start the year, but he has a track record of success.  And the other pitcher they brought in was Wade Miley, who I like as a middle to back of the rotation guy. He’s given up some runs to start the season, but I think he has a chance to be good in Safeco.

The bullpen is sort of built on the fly. Closer Steve Cishek is a castoff who used to be good for a couple seasons. He’s had a solid start to the season, looking more like his old self. The Mariners may have found themselves something with him. They brought in Joaquin Benoit to work as a setup man, but he’s now on the disabled list. Vidal Nuno has been outstanding in seven innings of work. Tony Zych will get you strikeouts…and he’ll walk guys. He’s kind of a wild card. Nick Vincent has struck out 12 in 9.1 innings and walked nobody. That’s a good ratio. And then we’ve got two former Royals rounding things out at different stages of their careers. Joel Peralta is the veteran, and he continues to provide valuable middle relief innings. Mike Montgomery has been shifted to the bullpen this season, and so far, the experiment looks like it’s working for the former top prospect. All in all, it’s a solid bullpen that’s deep but I wouldn’t say it’s great.

Friday – Kris Medlen vs. Felix Hernandez
King Felix takes the hill for the Mariners in the opener. I mentioned above that he’s had to evolve as a pitcher, and after seeing his walk rate jump by almost a full walk per nine innings last year, he’s had more trouble this season. He walked five in his first start and six in his third start. I’m not sure what’s causing that, but he has been wild this year at times, which is good to note. Still, he’s one of the best, and also the unluckiest. The Royals could use some good luck right now. At 30 years old now, it would make some sense if Hernandez is beginning his decline phase, but it’s weird to think about that because I still remember when he was 19 and making his big league debut to all that fanfare. It doesn’t seem that long ago. He’s made 12 career starts against the Royals and gone just 4-5, but with a 3.01 ERA. He gave up four runs on nine hits in 6.2 innings against them in one start last year.

Three things to watch for against Hernandez:

  1. I mentioned the velocity drop. He used to sit in the upper-90s with his fastball. Now, he averages a bit under 91 MPH with it. He only throws it about 15% of the time. He relies on a pretty good sinker that’s a similar velocity to the fastball, a changeup that is silly good and a curve that is also really good. The sinker has been the pitch that’s given him control issues as he’s dealt seven of his walks using that sinker. Hitters are also batting .350 with a .750 slugging percentage against it this season, which is not ideal for him. It might be worth at least considering that he has only issued two walks at home, compared to 13 on the road. I don’t know what that’s about.
  2. There’s a couple interesting things going on with Hernandez that deserve notice. The first is that he’s been amazing with runners in scoring position. He allows a .172/.250/.276 line with nobody on base, which is dynamite, but with runners in scoring position, he’s allowed a .043/.267/.043 line. You can look at that two ways. One is that he’s great with runners in scoring position, which he is. But the other is that he won’t stay that great all year. So there will be some regression coming. That’s part of why his FIP is more than two runs higher than his ERA. The other thing that struck me is that he’s allowed a 1.071 OPS on fly balls. By comparison, his opponent in this one has allowed a .455 OPS. Some of that is defense, some of that is luck and some of that is hitters driving the ball, but it’s interesting.
  3. Hernandez has handled left-handed batters just fine both his year and in his career, but he’s been torture for righties. The Royals lineup is pretty balanced in terms of numbers, but the big bats are mostly from the left side, so that would seemingly bode well for them. Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Jarrod Dyson, Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas all have a career OPS against Hernandez between .750 and .778, which isn’t as bad as I would have expected. Omar Infante has hit a gentleman’s .071/.188/.071 against him in 16 plate appearances and Alex Gordon has a .557 OPS against him in 27 plate appearances.

Medlen is looking to rebound from his rough start against the Orioles his last time out. He was kind of done in by his defense, which you don’t hear often when talking about the Royals, but he did plenty of his own damage as well. The stuff seems pretty good for Medlen so far, but the command has been next to non-existent for him, which is a problem. I wonder if he turns more to his new cutter or slider or whatever he wants to call it in this game, as it’s been a good pitch for him this season in his three starts. His changeup has rated pretty poorly, and that’s his bread and butter, so I look for that to make a turnaround sometime soon. Medlen has never faced the Mariners before. In fact, Mariners hitters only have 10 career plate appearances total against him. They’re 1 for 9 with a walk and a double. Clevenger has the hit.

Saturday – Yordano Ventura vs. Wade Miley
Miley has sort of settled into a similar career role that it seems a lot of guys do. He gives a team innings. Some are really good, some aren’t, but in the end, he’s probably about average and helps to save a bullpen. He’s thrown between 193.2 innings and 202.2 innings in each of the last four seasons and has had FIPs of 3.98, 3.98 and 3.81 in the last three years. I thought he might be better than this, but I still really like what Miley can do. He’s had a rough start to the year with a 7.04 ERA and a lot of hits allowed, but I think he’s better than that. He’s 3-1 with a 3.96 ERA in four career starts against the Royals, including a 0.68 ERA in two starts against them last year. That’s pretty good.

Three things to watch for against Miley:

  1. Like Hernandez, Miley throws a fastball and a sinker. He actually throws a bit harder than Felix with his fastball coming in around 91-92 MPH and his sinker about a mile per hour below that. He rounds out his repertoire with a changeup, slider and a curve. You’d expect the change to be better, but it’s been hit pretty decently throughout his career. This year basically everything he’s thrown has been crushed, so maybe the Royals can get on track against him.
  2. He’s been the anti-Hernandez when it comes to runners in scoring position, allowing a 1,290 OPS compared to .691 with nobody on. The moral of this story is to find a way on base, even if it means leaning into one. He’s actually only allowed four hits to lead off an inning, so given his struggles with men on and men in scoring position, things could be a lot worse for him than they already are.
  3. This year, right-handed bats have destroyed Miley with an OPS of nearly 1.000. He’s held lefties down better, but still hasn’t been great against them. In his career, he has a decent sized platoon split, but nowhere near what we’ve seen in his first few starts this year. Moustakas and Perez each have homers against Miley in their careers, but that’s pretty much all the damage any Royal has done against him.

Ventura might have had one of his most encouraging starts of his career his last time out. He struggled through a first inning where he had to throw 28 pitches. It looked like the bullpen would get a workout. He ended up going seven innings and throwing 96 pitches against a very difficult Orioles lineup. That’s been one of the more encouraging things about his season, pitching out of trouble. He struggled with that early last year and has really fixed those issues. The Mariners do well with curves and aren’t terrible on changeups, plus they can hit a fastball, so this matchup will be tough for Ventura, but I like what I’ve seen from him so far this year. He’s 0-2 with a 3.24 ERA in four career starts against Seattle, and gave up three runs in six innings against them last year. Marte and Smith have both tripled off him and Cruz has homered off him, but he’s held the Mariners he’s faced down for the most part other than that.

Sunday – Ian Kennedy vs. Taijuan Walker
In the first part of the season, Walker has been everything the Mariners always hoped he’d be when they drafted him in the first round a few years ago. It’s all come together for him to this point with great control, limiting hits and limiting home runs. He was pretty off and on last season as he was just hittable at times, including having a propensity for giving up the long ball. So far this year, his walk rate has continued to decrease and he’s still striking hitters out, but now he’s not making the same mistakes he did last season that led to some uneven performances. He’s started once against the Royals in his career, back in 2013, and he gave up four runs in five innings, but it’s safe to say he’s a different pitcher now than he was three years ago.

Three things to watch for against Walker:

  1. He relies heavily on his fastball, which he throws at about 94-95 MPH, but can touch higher than that. He has a really good curve and an even better split-fingered pitch that he throws as his two and three pitches, but he also flashes a sinker and a cutter at times. When he has it working, the ball is moving in all different directions and he can be really tough to hit. It’ll be interesting to see if he can continue his run of great pitching or if consistency remains an issue for him.
  2. One of his issues in his first couple seasons was that he struggled early in the games. Many of the greats have had that issue before. If you’re going to get him, you’re going to get him early. This year, he’s sort of continued that because he has gotten stronger and better as games have gone on, but he’s also still been really good early. I guess it’s still fair to say that you need to get him early, but he’s mitigated that some by starting games as strong as he finishes them.
  3. In his career, Walker has next to no platoon split, but this year, he’s absolutely dominated lefties for whatever reason. That seems like something that will come back in line with his career norms, so maybe there’s a regression day in this one and the Royals lefty bats can do some damage against him. The six Royals hitters who have faced him are a combined 2 for 11 with a walk and a sacrifice fly.

Kennedy is coming off his worst start of the year, but I didn’t think it was all that bad. He created some of his own bad luck and some of his own trouble, but he also just got bit a little by some bad luck he couldn’t control. I’ve loved what I’ve seen from Kennedy so far this year. It is interesting to keep an eye on him from the stretch due to the issue with his hands that has suddenly become something to worry about, but I think that’s mostly a non-issue. He’s 0-2 with a 5.59 ERA in two career starts against the Mariners with both those starts coming just last season. Smith and Aoki have really rocked him in his career, so I bet both those guys will be in the lineup for this one.

I think the Royals will bounce back some in this series, but the Mariners pitching in this series concerns me. I think they can hit any and all of these starters, but the way they’re hitting right now, they could also score four runs in the three games. Hopefully the off day can help get them back on track because this offense is kind of painful to watch right now. I think they continue to scuffle, but scratch out a win to just lose two of three before heading home for a short three-game set Monday through Wednesday.

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