Jeff Francoeur Freddie Freeman

Series Preview: Royals vs. Atlanta Braves, May 13-15

The Kansas City Royals return home looking a little better, but still needing to climb out of the small hole they dug themselves. They get the opportunity to do so against the Atlanta Braves, who are the odds on favorite to end the season with the worst record in baseball (though the Twins appear to be giving them a run for their money). The Braves are 8-25 and just aren’t very good. But it’s all part of a long-term plan that better come to fruition or else they will end up like the 1995-2010 Royals. The Royals are 4-6 all-time against the Braves. A quirk of interleague is that of the 10 times they’ve matched up, eight of those games were played in Atlanta, so this home series helps to even that out.

Braves Offense

The Braves offense is bad. We think the Royals have a struggling offense, but it’s not even close. The Braves have nine home runs as a team. It’s May 13. Their slugging percentage as a team is under .300. There are only two players worth worrying about on the entire team: Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. Freeman has six of the nine home runs, if you were wondering how they even have as many as nine. Markakis doesn’t have any of them, but he is a doubles machine with 11 and he gets on base at a nice clip. Other than that, the offensive cupboard is impressively bare. I will say that I like Ender Inciarte. He recently returned from an injury, so the Braves might actually have three guys worth worrying about, even if Inciarte’s numbers aren’t great to start.

It’s not just that the Braves are bad. It’s that they’re bad and old offensively. Their catcher is A.J. Pierzynski, who had a surprisingly good season last year, but now is playing like a catcher pushing 40 years old. Their second baseman is Kelly Johnson, who has somehow not been a Royal in his career. Their shortstop is Erick Aybar, who is having a terrible season to date. They’ve given regular at bats to Jeff Francoeur, who is playing about as well as you’d expect. They have also given a lot of playing time to Mallex Smith, who has a chance to be decent. Pair him with Inciarte and Freeman, and the Braves do have a young trio who could be a part of the next good Braves team.

On the bench, they have Royals-killer Tyler Flowers, so that’s something to watch out for over the weekend. They also have Gordon Beckham, who seems to hurt the Royals for some reason, but he really doesn’t. Reid Brignac and Chase d’Arnaud round out their bench. Daniel Castro is there too, but he gets more at bats than a typical bench player. He’s young too, so there’s that. It should also be noted that while the Braves have nine team home runs, two are no longer on their roster, which isn’t ideal. Yeah, this offense is bad.

Braves Pitching

Their pitching, though, is also not great. However, there are some bright spots, and this is where they actually are young. The rotation is led by Julio Teheran, who is a solid pitcher. I think some were expecting even more from him, but the guy is pretty good. Plus he’s young and has a long-term deal, so he’s a good piece to have. Matt Wisler has been really good for them this season. He doesn’t strike out enough batters to sustain what he’s doing, but I think he can be a good arm for their staff. Williams Perez doesn’t profile as anything special to me, but he did have a nice outing on Wednesday against the Phillies. And Aaron Blair came from the Diamondbacks in the Shelby Miller deal and has shown small flashes of why he’s been a top-50 prospect in the past. They’ve gotten starts from Bud Norris, but he’s in the bullpen now. His rotation spot has been turned over to Mike Foltynewicz, who is young, but maybe not so good. Although he has a much better strikeout to walk ratio than Perez, Blair or Wisler, so maybe that’ll even out.

The bullpen, my friends, is not good. Arodys Vizcaino is their closer and he’s having a pretty nice start to the season. He strikes out a lot of batters, but walks too many. Still, he’s got good stuff and I think he has a chance to be a decent closer in time. He’s set up by Alexi Ogando, who is having a good season by ERA, but given his high walks, high hits and low strikeouts, I’d guess that’ll jump soon enough. They have three lefties – Hunter Cervenka, Eric O’Flaherty and Ian Krol – none impress me, but Cervenka has been good this year. Krol just came up, but I’ve never been a fan. And they also have Jason Grilli, who is now in middle relief for them. It’s not that they can’t have a good game because there are some solid arms, but they just don’t strike much fear into opponents.

If this is all upsetting to Braves fans, don’t worry. At least your defense is one of the worst in baseball too.

Game 1, Friday: Edinson Volquez vs. Julio Teheran

I mentioned Teheran is the Braves ace, and he unquestionably is. This is his fourth full season, and while last year was disappointing, he’s thrown two seasons of 200+ innings already. He has a career 3.44 ERA in 674.2 innings and is only 25. I wouldn’t be too surprised if he’s on a new team within the next few months and really takes off when he gets to pitch for a team with a chance again. He seems to have rediscovered the strikeout this year, which is a good step to getting back to where he was in 2014 when he had a sub-3.00 ERA. He’s never pitched against the Royals in his career.

Three things to watch for against Teheran:

  1. He throws a four-seam fastball about 43 percent of the time, and it comes in at 91 MPH or so. That velocity is down, which is a bit of a concern given the velocity decrease has coincided with a decrease in the pitch’s effectiveness. He also throws a sinker a touch slower than the fastball, but not terribly often. He mixes in the occasional changeup, but his money pitch is his slider, which he throws about a quarter of the time. It’s the pitch that’s responsible for most of his strikeouts. He throws it a lot to righties and sometimes to lefties. He shows a curve to lefties in place of the slider at times.
  2. You can get to Teheran if you wait. The first time through the order, he allows just a .437 OPS, but he’s allowed a .915 OPS the second time through. It might be the decreased fastball velocity makes him much easier to hit once you’ve seen him. He does fare better the third time, but if you look at the numbers against him based on pitches thrown, it gets progressively worse with each set of 25 pitches. The Royals offense looks better lately. If they don’t get him early, I wouldn’t fear that.
  3. He’s been nails against right-handed batters this season, but has been absolutely brutal against lefties, allowing a .250/.347/.516 line and four of his five home runs allowed. That should be good for the Royals, though it would be better if Mike Moustakas was in the lineup. The only Royal he’s faced in his career are Dillon Gee and Kendrys Morales. I doubt he’ll face Gee in this one, and Morales is 0 for 2 with a walk against him.

Volquez is coming off the second bad start in his last three games. Hopefully, he at least follows up the bad start with one as good as he did against the Nationals last week. The key for Volquez is, not surprisingly, throwing strikes and limiting walks. Against a weak offensive club like this, Volquez should have no problem, but baseball is weird, so you really never know. One thing that plagued his last start was the home run ball, which you’d hope wouldn’t be a problem in this one given the Braves lack of power. He’s 3-3 with a 3.18 ERA in seven career starts against the Braves, and was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in 2013/2014, which are his last two starts against them. Flowers is 5 for 10 in his career against Volquez, and Johnson has four hits, including a double. Inciarte, Francoeur and Markakis have all homered against him in the past.

Game 2, Saturday: Dillon Gee vs. Mike Foltynewicz

Foltynewicz was a first round pick of the Astros in the 2010 draft and came to the Braves in the deal that sent Evan Gattis to Houston. He’s had major league time in each of the last three seasons, but has never really had much success. He just gives up a lot of hits. I did mention a shiny strikeout to walk ratio, and it is pretty darn good at 12:2, but in two starts, it’s hard to make much of that. When you’re rebuilding, you see what sticks sometimes, so maybe Foltynewicz will be that guy for the Braves. He, like Teheran, has never faced the Royals in his career.

Three things to watch for against Foltynewicz:

  1. He throws hard, averaging nearly 96 MPH on a fastball that he mixes with a hard sinker. Those two pitches are thrown almost 60 percent of the time. Both are also getting destroyed in the early part of the season. There’s just not much deception there. His slider has been the strikeout pitch. He hasn’t allowed a hit on it all year, but in watching a couple of his outings last season, it can definitely get flat and hang when it’s not on. He also throws a curve and a changeup.
  2. He’s around the strike zone, especially on the first pitch, so swinging away isn’t a bad idea. Plus, the slider is actually a good pitch when it’s on, so it’s not a terrible plan to swing early against him. On the first pitch, he allows a .370 average with a .778 slugging percentage in his career, which includes six of the 24 home runs he’s allowed in his career. Swing early, swing often. He’ll give up hits.
  3. As you can probably guess, Foltynewicz hasn’t been especially good against anyone, but he’s been absolutely destroyed by lefties in his career. He’s allowed a .333/.374/.620 line to them compared to .284/.347/.457 to right-handed bats. The point is, the Royals need to do some damage in this one. He’s faced his mound counterpart once and that’s it among Royals who have faced him. Again, I don’t think Gee is getting an at bat in this one. Just a hunch.

Gee will be making his first start for the Royals, taking Chris Young’s spot in the rotation. He did go 5.1 innings in his last relief appearance and threw 68 pitches, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he was good to go for 85 to 90 pitches in this one. You hope that gets you through six, but even if it’s five, you take what you get from a spot starter. Gee has been bitten by the home run ball a bit this season, but has done a nice job of getting outs, so hopefully this is a good start to get his feet wet and he can help give the Royals some much needed innings. He’s made 17 career starts against the Braves, going 6-5 with a 3.68 ERA. He did have an ERA of 8.62 against them in three starts last year, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Freeman has two home runs against him, but he’s the only Braves hitter who has seen him more than 14 times and hasn’t even been that good against him.

Game 3, Sunday: Danny Duffy vs. Matt Wisler

Wisler was acquired by the Braves last season in the deal that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton to the Padres right before the start of the season. He was a top-50 prospect prior to the trade and made a nice showing for the Braves in his rookie season. There were obviously some ups and downs, but he had the looks of a guy who could be a rotation mainstay for awhile. He’s shown a really good ERA, but he hasn’t improved his strikeout rate like I figured he would in year two. He’s still hovering below six whiffs per nine, which is lower than you’d like. He has been very difficult to hit this year, though, with just 29 hits allowed in 41.1 innings pitched. He’s gotten a ton of weak contact this season. He’s obviously never faced the Royals before.

Three things to watch for against Wisler:

  1. He throws a 93-94 MPH fastball about one-third of the time and a 93-94 MPH sinker a little more than a quarter of the time. He lives with the hard stuff. But, like so many Braves pitchers seem to have, he has a slider that is very good. He throws that about a quarter of the time as well, mixing in the occasional change and curve, mostly to lefties.
  2. Like so many young pitchers, Wisler fades as the game goes on. He actually faded last year as the season went on, so it’s not that surprising that he begins to tire. The first time through the order, he allows a .692 OPS. After that, he allows a .849 OPS the second time through, .774 the third time and .726 the fourth time, but he doesn’t get to the fourth time very often. Wisler will give up his hits and runs, but sometimes they just come later.
  3. He has a huge platoon split in his career, having allowed a .644 OPS to righties and a .879 OPS to lefties. I think the Royals can have success against him. He’s never faced any Royals hitters, not even Gee.

Ned Yost said Duffy will be on a pitch count of about 50 for this game, so that could be anywhere between two and four innings for him, given his pitch count inconsistency as a starter throughout this career. I think this is a great opportunity to get Duffy stretched out as this is a team without much punch offensively and they have five regulars who bat from the left side, so I like the look he gives. I imagine Flynn will be the piggyback for this start, so the Royals can taunt the Braves with two lefties back to back. Duffy has never faced the Braves, but he has faced a few guys on the team and has held those players down pretty well.

The Prediction

The Braves aren’t very good. The Royals are way better. That’s not even debatable. That said, the Royals aren’t playing their best baseball. Still, I think the Royals take two of three and have a decent shot at getting a sweep in this one. This is a nice opportunity for the pitching staff to get right against a bad offense. Hopefully they take advantage.

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