Bryce Harper

Series Preview: Royals vs. Washington Nationals, May 2-4

The Kansas City Royals return home hoping to turn things around after a terrible road trip, but they have a tough opponent in the Washington Nationals. Multiple times over the last few seasons, the Nationals have been considered baseball’s best team prior to the season starting. They haven’t made good on those expectations, but they still have a ton of talent. They’ve had a great start to the season, but I think it’s fair that some aren’t completely sold on them. Their first 21 games were against teams either expected to be horrible or teams who have started off poorly. They fared well before sweeping a series against the Cardinals over the weekend, but the competition is fair to question.

Offensively, the perception is that the Nationals have a good lineup, but so far this year they haven’t performed that way. Obviously they’re led by the best player in all of baseball, Bryce Harper. He has struggled a bit recently, dropping his numbers to mere superstar level. I’m sure the Nationals would love to get better production elsewhere in spite  of him being able to carry an offense because pitchers can just work around him. Daniel Murphy is the only other Nationals hitter doing anything worth mentioning. Wilson Ramos is having a nice start to the year too.

If you look up and down the Nationals lineup, you see a list of players who should be performing better, but just aren’t. Jayson Werth has been the best of the worst, but that’s not saying much. Anthony Rendon has been nothing short of terrible, and the same can be said about Ryan Zimmerman. Danny Espinosa and Michael Taylor have both gotten off to bad starts this season, but those two probably weren’t expected to help Harper as much as the Werth/Rendon/Zimmerman trio were. Ben Revere should be back soon enough to take over for Taylor anyway.

The Nationals bench has been a problem for them as well, which makes it tough when they aren’t getting anything from their starters. Jose Lobaton is not much of a hitter. Clint Robinson, a former Royal, has become sort of a fixture on the Nationals roster, but he’s struggling too. They added Stephen Drew this winter, who has been awful. Their backup outfielders, Matt den Dekker and Chris Heisey, should both be good, but den Dekker has started off poorly. Heisey has been good, though. There’s elements to a good bench, but they just haven’t played well.

What the Nationals can do, though, is pitch, which should be terrifying for a struggling offense. They’re led by Stephen Strasburg in his free agent walk season. He’s been outstanding this year. Max Scherzer is their other ace, but he’s been inconsistent to start the season, though he had a great start in the series finale against the Cardinals. The stuff is still there, so it’s not anything to worry about, but he’s had a rough go so far. Gio Gonzalez has been fantastic, with less walks than you usually see from him and his usual unhittable self. Tanner Roark has been great as well, though a lot of his numbers are boosted by a start against the Twins. And then there’s Joe Ross, who has also been quietly good for the Nationals.

The bullpen is very good as well. Jonathan Papelbon isn’t the same force he was when he was with the Red Sox early in his career, but he still knows how to get outs. He’s set up by a combination of Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero, all of whom have performed well to start the season. Oliver Perez was a nice signing by them as a LOOGY, with Yusmeiro Petit starring as a long reliever. He was a guy I would have been interested in over Dillon Gee, but I understand that he was also a fair amount more expensive. The bullpen is currently rounded out by another lefty, Sammy Solis, who was brought up to replace Matt Belisle, who is now on the disabled list.

Monday – Edinson Volquez vs. Gio Gonzalez
It’s kind of hard to believe Gonzalez will turn 31 this season and is a veteran. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that he was traded multiple times as a prospect before establishing himself with the A’s. He’s now a good middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’s off to a great start this season. I mentioned the walk rate dropping to start the year, and that’s been a big help. Gonzalez is 3-3 with a 7.49 ERA in eight career starts against the Royals with the last coming in 2013.

Three things to watch for against Gonzalez:

  1. He has four pitches – a fastball, sinker, changeup and a curve – and all have their moments for him. His fastball is an interesting story in that the velocity on it is way down this season. Last year, he averaged nearly 93 MPH, but this year it’s averaging a touch under 91 MPH. It’s still been an effective pitch, though. His sinker is also down in velocity, yet has been incredibly useful this year. Seventeen of his 24 strikeouts have come on his changeup and curve, so there’s really no pitch that a hitter can sit on against him.
  2. One thing about Gonzalez that has been true throughout this career is he just isn’t a typical workhorse starter. He doesn’t get that deep into games typically, but he’s effective when he pitches. He’s made it into the seventh inning in three of his four starts, but never later. He’s also given up two of the four runs he’s allowed all year (not a typo) in that inning. He’s allowed a .395 OPS the first time through the order, a .464 OPS the second time through and a .618 OPS the third time through. It doesn’t ever get good for him, but it’s certainly much better for hitters.
  3. Gonzalez has dominated everyone this season, but he’s been better against lefties than righties, which isn’t great for the Royals. In his career, he actually doesn’t have much, if any, of a platoon split. Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer have both homered against Gonzalez. Hosmer has two and Gordon has just one, but they have a 1.400 and 2.444 OPS against him respectively. Salvador Perez is also 5 for 6 against him.

Volquez is coming off his worst start of the season that saw basically every one of his stats fall back in line with what could be expected of him. His strikeouts came down to about where we thought he’d be, his walks came up and so did his ERA. It’s funny how a baseball season tends to do that. Still, he has been the Royals most consistent starter. He’s 2-2 with a 4.68 ERA in six career starts against the Nationals, but had a 1.46 ERA in two starts against them in 2014. Murphy has hit him, and Drew has been okay as well, but not many Nationals have faced Volquez.

Tuesday – Chris Young vs. Tanner Roark
When Roark is on his game, he has great control, gets weak contact and gives hitters a pretty comfortable 0 for 4. This season has been a little different for him as he’s walking way more hitters and has struck out more than in the past. Of course, I mentioned above that he had a huge game against the Twins with 15 strikeouts. If you take that game out, his K/9 is basically his career average. The walk rate is still up, which is interesting. Roark picked up a win against the Royals in 2013 with 4.2 innings of shutout relief in his only appearance against them in his career.

Three things to watch for against Roark:

  1. Roark relies very heavily on a sinker that he throws at about 92 MPH that gets him a good amount of ground balls. He flashes a four-seam fastball at a similar velocity that just has slightly different movement on it. He also throws a changeup and a slider that have both been very good this year, and a curve that flattens out and has been hit a little this season.
  2. Roark flashes great control, but this season, he’s throwing fewer first pitch strikes, but more strikes in general. He’s also gotten less swings on pitches outside the strike zone, which leads me to believe that he’s been making fantastic pitches that are also strikes. That doesn’t really bode well for Royals hitters as they aren’t always the most selective. It’s not just that you want your hitters swinging at strikes, you want them swinging at good strikes, and Roark lives in good parts of the zone. It’ll be interesting to see how selective they can be in this one.
  3. He’s handled righties way better in his career, allowing a .600 OPS against them compared to a .702 OPS for lefties. Royals hitters have a combined nine plate appearances against Roark in their careers. They’re 2 for 8 with a walk. If you’d like to draw some conclusions from that, I’d recommend you don’t.

Speaking of guys who don’t get a ton of strikeouts, Young has gotten a ton early in the season, averaging more than one per inning. He’s been much better in his last two starts, but the home run ball has still hurt him. I think he can do some damage against the Nationals as long as he works around Harper. He’s 3-2 with a 2.75 ERA in nine career starts against the Nationals, but his last time facing them came in 2012. Zimmerman, Werth and Harper have all homered against him, but he’s handled all but Harper well in limited plate appearances.

Wednesday – Kris Medlen vs. Stephen Strasburg
The Royals aren’t able to avoid the ace in this series as Strasburg gets the ball in the finale. Considering what was expected of him when he was drafted, some might argue that Strasburg hasn’t lived up to his potential, but a guy with a 3.06 ERA, 10.4 strikeouts per nine and just over two walks per nine for his career is pretty darn good to me. He stands to make an awful lot of money this offseason, and maybe even more than that if he keeps up what he’s done this year. He’s faced the Royals once and took the loss back in 2013, but he only gave up one run in six innings.

Three things to watch for against Strasburg:

  1. Strasburg has a great fastball and he uses it, throwing it more than half the time. He averages 95-96 MPH, but can touch a few miles per hour above that with solid movement. He also throws a changeup that has been phenomenal this season. He has two breaking pitches, a slider and a curve, and both can be deadly when they’re on, but the slider actually hasn’t been great this season. It’s still been good, just not great.
  2. Strasburg has very good control, and with that throws a lot of first pitch strikes. It’s not a terrible idea to swing at his first pitch. This season, 20 batters have had their at bats decided on the first pitch and they’re hitting .350 with a .450 SLG, including two of the six extra base hits he’s allowd this season.
  3. Strasburg has a weird platoon split. He’s been great against everyone, but has allowed a .396 OPS against lefties and a .677 OPS against righties. He’s had next to no platoon split in his career before, so I expect that’ll change at some point. Only two Royals hitters have even faced Strasburg, Infante and Morales, and they’ve both struggled, but in limited plate appearances.

Medlen has struggled with command and control a lot this season, but he’s found a way to battle through it for the most part. At this point, you can’t really expect to get seven innings from Medlen, but you can hope for five good innings. Aside from his near disaster start against Baltimore, his other three have been exactly what you’d want from your number five. Medlen has made quite a few appearances against the Nationals after spending a few years with the Braves. He’s pitched against them 14 times (four starts) and gone 3-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 44 innings. In those 44 innings, he has 52 strikeouts and eight walks. So that’s good. Werth has hit him hard, but that’s about it for Nationals hitters who have faced Medlen. Harper does have a homer against him but not much else. He’s been especially tough on Espinosa and Zimmerman.

Man, the way the Royals have been playing, it’s hard to even find a win in this series. But they’re still a good team, no matter what the evidence of the last week says. I think getting home and in front of the friendly crowd will be good for them. I think they beat Roark and find a way against one of Gonzalez and Strasburg to take two of three in this one. I feel kind of crazy for predicting that, but this team will find a way to surprise us a few times this year.

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