Francisco Lindor

Series Preview: Royals at Cleveland Indians, May 6-8

The struggling Kansas City Royals hit the road again to take on their division rival Cleveland Indians for the first time in 2016. While the Royals have struggled recently, the Indians haven’t been able to get out in front of their AL Central brethren, sharing in the middle of the division and looking up at the surprising White Sox. Last year, the two teams played each other pretty close with the Royals winning the season series 10 games to nine. The Royals did go 6-4 in Cleveland last season, so maybe they can keep that up.

The Indians offense isn’t what one would call good, but they have some serious potential to actually be dangerous. It’s kind of a weird juxtaposition. Their best all around player has to be their young shortstop, Francisco Lindor. He can really do everything, but I would have to say his offensive output at this point in his career is a little surprising. Regardless of surprise, it’s real. He’s a heck of a player. They recently also moved Carlos Santana to the leadoff spot a few times, and he’s an OBP monster when he’s seeing the ball well. It makes a lot of sense and they hope will jumpstart the offense a little bit. They’ve also gotten solid production from Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin, partially filling in for their other best player, Michael Brantley. Brantley is back now from his injury. He hadn’t really started hitting yet until the series finale against Detroit when he had four hits. It would have been nice if he could have waited a few days.

Why I say they’re dangerous is because they have the players hitting well, but they also have other guys who definitely have the thunder in their bats. Mike Napoli can hit the ball a long, long way. I think he was a good signing for them even though he hasn’t been great so far. Jason Kipnis is capable of some crazy offensive stretches. In May and June last year, he hit .397/.480/.607. That’s two months of that. Yan Gomes can get going and provide some big offense to the Indians as well. They have the weapons. Even Juan Uribe and Marlon Byrd can make some positive contributions to this offense even at 37 and 38 respectively. The two guys I haven’t mentioned, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez, also have their moments. So you can sort of see why I don’t think they’re an especially good offense, but they have potential to be good at times.

Of course, the top of the rotation is where it’s at for the Indians. They’re led by Corey Kluber, the 2014 AL Cy Young winner. He’s up to his usual tricks of not giving up hits or walking batters while striking guys out. The strikeouts are down a bit this season, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Danny Salazar has been phenomenal this season for the Indians. We’ll talk about him below, but all you need to know for now is that he’s allowed an astonishing 4.2 hits per nine innings. Josh Tomlin has continued his success from last season and has pitched well so far this year too. They’re missing Carlos Carrasco who went on the disabled list after injuring himself covering first, but he was having a really nice start to the year as well. In his place, they put Trevor Bauer back in the rotation. Bauer had been shifted to the bullpen due to his inconsistency as a starter, but he was needed, so he’s back. And it’s all rounded out by Cody Anderson, a guy with good control but that’s about it. So the rotation is really good at the top and has potential to be bad at the bottom.

I’ve always liked the Indians bullpen more than most, and mostly because I like Cody Allen a lot as their closer. He hasn’t started the year especially well, but the stuff is most definitely there for him to turn it around. I really thought Zach McAllister could turn it around as a starter, but he’s been pretty good in relief. He’s walking too many batters this season while not striking enough out, but he’s shown that he’s a solid reliever. Bryan Shaw has been mostly good for the Indians in the past but he hasn’t had what you’d call the best beginning to a season. He’s struggling pretty good right now. The bullpen is rounded out by Jeff Manship, Kyle Crockett, Tommy Hunter, Dan Otero and our old friend, Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain has put up good numbers but in a weird way, getting so few strikeouts. The rest of the bullpen is kind of like the offense. They’re not great or even especially good, but they’re capable of stringing together some good appearances.

Friday – Yordano Ventura vs. Danny Salazar
When Salazar burst onto the scene in 2013, it looked like he was going to be a top of the rotation starter for years to come, but that hasn’t really come to fruition yet. He was way too hittable in 2014, but then put together a solid year in 2015. This season, he’s come out of the gates with everything looking great. The only concern I’d have as an Indians fan is that his control hasn’t been nearly as good, but I think that’s contributing to him being so hard to hit. He’s allowed just 14 hits in 30 innings this season, which is just unreal. He’s 4-5 in nine career starts against the Royals with a 4.64 ERA. He went 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA against them last year.

Three things to watch for against Salazar:

  1. He throws a really good fastball that averages 95-96 MPH and can touch a couple miles per hour more when he needs it. He also mixes in a sinker of similar velocity that has been insanely good this season. Better defense behind him helps on that. His split has held opponents to a sub-.100 average and has been responsible for about half his strikeouts this year. He also throws the occasional slider and curve, but that’s mostly to set up the splitter.
  2. There really isn’t a good time to face Salazar this year as he’s been strong from his first pitch to his last for the most part. One area where he has struggled a very little bit is with runners in scoring position. While he’s allowed an overall line of .139/.256/.208, with runners in scoring position, that’s jumped to .214/.353/.429. Getting them there is the hard part, but if the Royals can, that’s somewhat sort of encouraging.
  3. Salazar has actually been amazing against lefties this season, holding them to a .361 OPS compared with a .593 OPS against righties. He’s been a little better against lefties in his career, but not to this extent. Only one Royals hitter has really had much success against Salazar and that’s Eric Hosmer. He has two homers against him, and I believe they’re both to left center field, so take a look for Hosmer to go after that in this one. Salvador Perez has hit .160/.160/.240 against him. That’s not so good.

Ventura is coming off his worst start of the year by far. He only went four innings and gave up five runs while walking six and striking out just one. It was ugly. That’s coming off probably his best start of the year. The hope is that the up and down Ventura isn’t back and last start was just a blip on the radar, but we’ll have to wait and find out. The Indians struggle with fastballs a bit and also with the curve, but they’re a very good changeup hitting team. This might be a start to flash the 96 an awful lot. If he doesn’t, he could get himself into trouble. He’s 4-1 with a 2.62 ERA in seven career starts against Cleveland, but had a 6.10 ERA against them last year in two starts. Santana has hit him really well in the past, but he’s been able to handle the rest of the lineup pretty well.

Saturday – Ian Kennedy vs. Cody Anderson
Anderson was a bit of a surprise last year when he put up a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts for the Indians, but there was always a lot of fiction behind that shiny ERA. He struck out just 4.3 per nine, which is not typically a great way to make a living at the big league level these days. He did limit hits really well, but his 4.27 FIP was a lot more reasonable given his peripherals. This year, he has a 7.65 ERA through four starts, and even though he’s upped his strikeout rate pretty significantly, he’s been the anti-Salazar, allowing 34 hits in 20 innings. He faced the Royals once last year and gave up seven runs in 5.2 innings, so that’s encouraging. Of course, the Royals offense wasn’t in a funk like they are now, but still, it’s good to have had success.

Three things to watch for against Anderson:

  1. Anderson throws a fastball-changeup combo that has potential to be pretty good, but his fastball just always seems flat to me whenever I watch it. The numbers say it moves, but I just haven’t seen it in limited viewings. He throws it at 94-95 MPH, so he doesn’t throw junk up there. It’s just not very effective. Of course, neither is his changeup this year. It’s about at 86 MPH and it’s been knocked around the park this season in his four starts. He also throws a cutter and a curve, neither of which is all that impressive.
  2. You can get Anderson early and you can get him late. He’s allowed a .769 OPS in his career the first time through the order and an .806 OPS the third time through. I think there’s something to him settling in the second time through, though, before getting tired. It makes me wonder if maybe he should be a middle reliever. You could see the velocity spike and he wouldn’t have to see guys multiple times. But that’s a conversation for another day and by another writer.
  3. In his career, he’s held right-handed bats down pretty well, allowing just a .667 OPS. Lefties, though, have a nearly .800 OPS against him, including nine home runs in 203 at bats. Hosmer and Omar Infante (!) both homered against him last season while Kendrys Morales and Alcides Escobar both had doubles in the game last season. He sure seems like a pitcher the Royals should be able to hit, offensive woes or no.

Kennedy has been the Royals best starter to this point, doing everything the Royals had hoped for when they gave up the big deal over the winter. His last start didn’t go as long as we would have hoped, but he got out of it just allowing one run and helping the Royals to a much needed victory to end that treacherous road trip. Given his ability to get swings and misses on his fastball in the zone, the Indians might have some trouble with him due to their struggles with a good fastball. Of course, we’ve already seen a couple of Kennedy’s fastballs flatten out and get too much of the plate. This team doesn’t miss too many mistakes, so he’ll have to be careful. He’s made just two career starts against Cleveland with no decisions, but he does have a 4.85 ERA. Of course, the last one was in 2011. He’s only faced Byrd and Uribe a lot in his career. Byrd has crushed him and he’s crushed Uribe.

Sunday – Edinson Volquez vs. Josh Tomlin
Tomlin is such an interesting story to me. He was basically your run of the mill average, replacement-type starter. Then he got hurt and came back last year and in 14 starts since then, he’s 11-2 with a 2.05 ERA. He has given up 16 homers in 88.2 innings, so that’s clearly an issue he has that he’ll need to work out, but his game is being around the strike zone. He’s really good at it. He’s 6-4 with a 5.11 ERA in 16 games (12 starts) against the Royals in his career, and was 0-1 with a 4.97 ERA in two starts last season against them.

Three things to watch for against Tomlin:

  1. He throws a lot of fastballs and a lot of cutters. He doesn’t really throw anything above 90 MPH, so it’s a nice change of pace from the rest of this Indians pitching staff. He also throws a curve at about 75 MPH, so it’s pretty slow. I’ve seen him dip into the 60s on it before. The curve is the pitch that’s been hit this year, so the Royals should be on the lookout for it. I guess that’s not completely fair. The cutter has also been hit pretty hard. But the fastball has been good.
  2. The problem with Tomlin is that he throws a ton of strikes, so when he’s on, it’s hard to get him out of the game. This Royals team isn’t exactly known for pushing pitch counts. I mean Tanner Roark had 12 pitches through two innings the other day. But the flip side is that because he’s around the plate, the Royals first pitch hitters might be in good shape. In his career, he’s allowed a .316 average on the first pitch with a .584 slugging percentage. This year, only nine at bats have been decided on the first pitch, but he’s given up two doubles and a homer on them.
  3. Tomlin has actually been better against lefties in his career, but this year, he’s been slightly better against the righties. That’s probably because the cutter hasn’t been as good for him. Perez, Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have all homered against Tomlin while Perez, Moustakas and Jarrod Dyson have had good success against him in the past. I think the Royals could do some damage in this one.

Volquez has been everything the Royals could want this season, and is coming off the longest outing of the year by a Royals starter, 7.2 innings. He’s been a little shaky with command at times, but his walk rate is currently the lowest of his career. He’s pitching like a top of the rotation starter, which the Royals so badly need right now. He’s 2-4 with a 7.01 ERA in seven career starts against the Indians, and was just 1-2 with a 5.85 ERA in four starts against them last year with 16 walks in 20 innings. Chisenhall, Brantley, Kipnis, Uribe and Santana have all done their share of damage against him too, so we’ll see.

The Royals have their top three going against the Indians while they get to avoid the Cleveland ace in Kluber. I think the first game is going to be a tough one to win given the offensive struggles, but I really believe that they can hit both Anderson and Tomlin. I’m probably being way too optimistic here, but I think the Royals take two of three in this series. The off day should do them some good and they should get back on track in Cleveland.

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