Last season, the Kansas City Royals trip to Yankee Stadium to play the Yankees didn’t go so well. They were swept in three games and gave up a seemingly endless barrage of home runs. This year’s Yankees are a similar cast and crew (with a couple additions), but they’re just having a tough time of it so far in the 2016 season. As we all know, the season is young, so they can still turn things around, but there’s a lot of hand wringing in the Bronx. I mentioned the three-game sweep in New York, but the Royals did win two of three against the Yankees in Kansas City, so it wasn’t all trouble.
I mentioned some struggles, and a lot of it comes from their offense. It’s mostly a lot of below average play, but they’ve had a couple guys really stink it up. Their best offensive performers this season have been Brian McCann, Starlin Castro and Brett Gardner. Alex Rodriguez had begun to get going before he went on the disabled list a few weeks ago, so that’s sort of a blow to them. He wasn’t having a great season as a whole, but he brings big power potential. Acquiring Castro from the Cubs had a chance to be a pretty underrated move, and it still can if the Yankees can get back in contention and make his at bats count.
I mentioned a lot of below average. Mark Teixeira fits that mold well. He’s working a ton of walks, but just isn’t driving the ball. He missed the end of last season with a leg injury, so I’m not sure if that could be weighing him down. I doubt it, but you never know. Jacoby Ellsbury has been okay enough. He’s at least hit a few extra base hits this season. And Carlos Beltran has given the Yankees a few home runs this season, but not a ton else.
The left side of the Yankees infield has been downright bad offensively. Didi Gregorius ended the year pretty well for the Yankees in 2015, but just hasn’t picked that up to start the season. Of course, his struggles have nothing on Chase Headley, who does not have an extra base hit yet this season. He is working a few walks, but yikes. Aaron Hicks was acquired in the offseason after a strong year with the Twins last year, but he hasn’t really done much with his chance. With ARod out, he’ll have a chance to play a little more, so maybe he can get going soon. Dustin Ackley has been downright awful so far this season, but at least Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine have hit a little. In all, this is not a good offense, but they have the potential to explode.
As we all know, starting pitching problems can absolutely doom a season. The Yankees have starting pitching problems. Their best starter is Masahiro Tanaka, and he’s having a really great season so far. C.C. Sabathia was actually pitching decently enough, especially for a number five starter, but he’s on the disabled list now, and the Yankees have big questions beyond Tanaka. Luis Severino was supposed to be the next big thing for the Yankees, but things just haven’t gone as he’d like to this point. Nathan Eovaldi is perpetually disappointing because the stats never seem to match up to the ability. That’s true again this year. Michael Pineda is kind of the same. Both of these guys have great stuff, but just don’t seem to be able to put it all together. And now that Sabathia is on the disabled list, Ivan Nova has been pressed back into rotation duty. Nova has had some really solid seasons in the past, but he’s not so good anymore.
The Yankees made a big trade in the offseason to acquire Aroldis Chapman to be their closer. He was suspended for 30 games to start the year, but is expected to be in uniform for the Yankees as their closer for this series. He joins an already deadly duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances to give the Yankees as strong a back three as there is in the game today. As good as Herrera-Davis-Holland was in 2014, this trio has a chance to be even better. Betances has had some home run issues lately, but the strikeouts are really eye popping. The rest of the Yankees bullpen is pretty good, but not great. I actually like Chasen Shreve, but he’s given up some runs this season. Johnny Barbato has shown some flashes of looking really good, but has struggled a bit this year as well. Nick Goody and Kirby Yates round things out and have been pretty solid to start the season.
Game 1, Monday: Chris Young vs. Ivan Nova
Nova gets his first start of the season in this one, and I mentioned that he just hadn’t done much in the last few seasons. In 27 games (21 starts) over the last three seasons, he has a 5.60 ERA with a lot of hits allowed and not a lot of strikeouts. He looked like he was about to really break out, but then injuries sort of derailed everything and here we are. He’s 2-1 with a 6.67 ERA in three career starts against the Royals, but the last time he faced them was in 2013, so while many of the players are the same, it’s a very different team now.
Three things to watch for against Nova:
- Nova relies heavily on a sinker that he throws nearly 2/3 of the time. It comes in at around 93 MPH and can be a good pitch when it’s on. He throws a regular four-seam fastball at times as well. It’s a similar velocity to the sinker, but I kind of feel like it would not be very effective if he threw it more. He throws a lot of curves as well, but it’s gotten absolutely destroyed this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can use it regularly over the course of five or six innings and be effective with it.
- When Nova last started in 2015, he was at his absolute worst early in the game. He allowed a .327/.377/.507 line when seeing batters the first time in a game. The second time through, the OPS dropped to .676. It came up again the third time through, as can be expected, but not to the level of the first time, through. One thing about Nova starting game one is that it has the potential to really put the Yankees in a bullpen hole if he struggles to get through five in his first start of the year.
- Nova has basically no platoon split throughout his career, but he hasn’t exactly been elite at getting either side out. Eric Hosmer is 4 for 9 against Nova in his career with a homer. That’s pretty good. Alex Gordon is 1 for 8 with a pair of walks. That’s not so good. Alcides Escobar has a triple against him, which would be pretty good to see.
Chris Young in Yankee Stadium is the kind of imagery that makes you want to hide the children from being able to see the television. Young has been much better in his last three starts. He’s still not giving innings, but he’s keeping the Royals in the game, which is pretty much what you want from Young. I just don’t know, though, about him pitching in that tiny ballpark. Young is 3-2 with a 4.67 ERA against the Yankees in seven starts in his career. He’s 1-0 with a 6.23 ERA in two starts in New York. Hicks, Ellsbury and Gardner have limited plate appearances against Young, but have all hit him well. Teixeira, Beltran and McCann all have homered against him.
Game 2, Tuesday: Kris Medlen vs. Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka is the Yankees ace, and there’s really no question about that at all. He had a partially torn UCL that many believed would ultimately lead to him needing Tommy John, but he hasn’t had the surgery yet and continues to pitch well. This season, he’s giving the Yankees innings, control and strikeouts, all while being really difficult to hit. It’s a bad combination for opposing hitters, but a welcome sight for Yankees fans. Tanaka is in his third big league season and has never faced the Royals.
Three things to watch for against Tanaka:
- This year, Tanaka has begun to rely more heavily on a sinker that is really good. He throws it at a touch under 91 MPH. With that, he’s upped his ground ball rate a ton, and he’s now getting a nearly 60 percent ground ball rate. That’s crazy. His signature pitch has always been his splitter. It’s still ridiculous. He’s allowed a .103 average and .205 SLG on it this season. He also throws a slider and a cutter. Both can be really good, but those are the pitches you’re likely to hit if you’re going to hit Tanaka.
- Tanaka has good control. He throws a lot of first-pitch strikes. His strikeout stuff can be really nasty. Take all those three things into account, and it might stand to reason that opponents should swing early against Tanaka. Well, the numbers agree. He’s allowed a .381 average and .571 SLG on the first pitch this season. The dangers of swinging early are that a guy might never be lifted for a reliever, but that seems to be the way to get to Tanaka.
- Lefties have actually fared much better against Tanaka, but still haven’t performed well. He’s allowed a .596 OPS to them and a .472 OPS to righties this season. The only Royals hitter he’s faced is Kendrys Morales, who is 0 for 3 against him.
Medlen is making a start here to both help with his perception and his standing with the team. He’s averaging less than five innings per start this season and is averaging even less than that over his last three starts. He’s walking a ton of batters. In fact, he’s walked just one less batter so far this season than he did last year, but he’s thrown 36 less innings so far. It hasn’t been a good start for Medlen. The Yankees have been bad against changeups, but really bad against fastballs, so that’ll be an important pitch for him. Medlen has four relief appearances against the Yankees with a 6.35 ERA in his career. No Yankees have had much success against Medlen, so that’s encouraging.
Game 3, Wednesday: Yordano Ventura vs. Michael Pineda
Maybe it shouldn’t, but it always surprises me that Pineda isn’t one of the game’s great starting pitchers. Maybe I just find myself thinking about some of his more dominating starts and wonder why he can’t do that every time. Of course, we used to have the same thoughts about Luke Hochevar. Pineda has given up a ton of hits and a ton of home runs this season, and even his control hasn’t been as pinpoint as the last couple seasons. He can be nasty, though, so there’s no guarantee the Royals offense can hit him. He’s 3-3 with a 2.52 ERA against the Royals in six career starts. He did give up 16 hits in 12 innings last year, so the Royals hit him decently.
Three things to watch for against Pineda:
- Brooks Baseball indicates that Pineda doesn’t throw a four seam fastball at all, but rather relies on a cutter at about 93-94 MPH. It’s also been absolutely crushed this season. He throws a ton of sliders, and when that pitch is good, it’s unhittable. He also mixes in the occasional changeup that he might want to see about using a little bit more.
- You want to talk about hitters having first pitch success? Check out the line against Pineda. Opponents are hitting .438 with a 1.125 SLG on that first pitch. That’s crazy. Early in the game, he’s been destroyed, but he has settled in a little better after the first time through, so the Royals might want to jump on him early.
- This year, everybody’s hit him well, but lefties have hit him a little bit better. In his career, lefties have hit him slightly better than righties. Hosmer has homered against him, but aside from Jarrod Dyson’s 2 for 4 against him with two walks, no Royals have really done much against Pineda.
Ventura has made two straight starts that can only be classified as awful. He’s walking too many hitters and that’s not allowing him to get anywhere near deep enough in games. He’d have to walk just 2.2 per nine to get to the same walk numbers he had last year in the same number of innings. This is a problem, and if he doesn’t get it under control, the Royals might have to consider an alternative to him. His fastball could destroy the Yankees, but only if he has any command of it, which he hasn’t really had all season. Ventura has faced the Yankees once in his career, in 2014, and threw six shutout innings. That game was played in New York, so he’s pitched well there before. Hicks and Ackley have hit him well, but that’s about it for the Yankees against Ventura.
Game 4, Thursday: Ian Kennedy vs. Nathan Eovaldi
The Royals get to face the other Yankees starter who always seems like he should just be better. He’s getting the strikeouts. He has the control. But he’s somehow very hittable. He was really good in his last 14 starts last season before an injury cut it short, but that hasn’t really carried over too much into this season. At least he gives a few innings for the Yankees. That’s a big boost, even if they’re just mediocre innings. He faced the Royals once last year, going seven innings and giving up just one run. That’s the only start of his career against KC.
Three things to watch for against Eovaldi:
- He throws very hard, averaging about 97.5 MPH with his fastball, which he throws about half the time. He allows a .290 average on it, so that’s a big part of the problem. He throws it hard, but it can really flatten out. He has a splitter that can be really good, but he hangs it sometimes, so it gets knocked around a bit. And then there’s his slider, which has been crushed this season.
- Eovaldi really struggles with runners on base. He obviously gives up some runners with nobody on to get there, but he gets really bad when there are men on. He’s allowed a .309/.328/.545 line with runners on and a .333/.364/.567 line with runners in scoring position. Get a guy on however you can and then you’re in business.
- Lefties have been a huge problem for Eovaldi this season, with a .910 OPS compared to .673 for righties. That’s huge. No Royals hitters have much of a sample against Eovaldi, but Escobar does have a double against him. That’s about the only highlight among hitters.
Kennedy returns to the team that drafted him and where it all began as probably the best pitcher on the Royals. He’s just been so good this season, but has been homer prone throughout his career, so him pitching in this park can be a concern. You’d think his fastball that gets so many swings and misses on it could be a problem for the Yankees, who struggle with fastballs. He’s faced the Yankees once in his career, in 2013, and went 5.2 innings and allowed just two runs. McCann, Beltran and Headley have all hit him very well.
The Royals look a little better out there the last couple games, and the Yankees are a team with some legitimate concerns. It is always tough to win on the road, and especially at Yankee Stadium, though, so I have my worries about this series. I’m going to say the two teams split the four games, but I don’t feel terribly confident in this prediction.