The Royals are coming off a successful homestand that saw them get some of their mojo back. It was just in time for a trip to Chicago to face the current AL Central leaders, the White Sox. I think it’s safe to say that this is the biggest series of the year so far. I thought the White Sox would be improved from last season, but I’m surprised they’re currently the class of the division. They’re working through a bit of a rough patch right now, and it’s worth noting that they are just 16-16 when Chris Sale does not start. The Royals don’t have to face him in this series, so that’s a plus.
The White Sox have also beat up on the Twins, winning all six of their meetings with them. The Royals are 3-0 against the Twins as well, but I thought it was worth noting. Last year, the Royals went 12-7 against the White Sox, including 6-4 in Chicago. It would be a pretty good plan to win this series.
White Sox Offense
The White Sox improved a unit from last year that just wasn’t very good, both through acquisitions and getting more from players they should have gotten more from last season. Everyone knows about Jose Abreu, but he’s had kind of a slow start to the season. He’s still been fine, but there’s definitely more in his bat. Their big off-season acquisition was third baseman Todd Frazier, and while he’s off to a bit of a slow start in the average department, he’s provided a legitimate power bat to pair with Abreu. The other player who has turned into a star this year, much to the chagrin of Royals fans (and many Royals players), is Adam Eaton who has shifted to right field and has been an on base machine while playing outstanding defense.
The White Sox are entirely new up the middle. They acquired another Royals fan favorite in Brett Lawrie to play second base. He’s been decent enough defensively while providing a solid bat for them. It’ll be interesting to see if anything happens on a double play ball if he has to cover second. That might be a quiet storyline of this series that won’t be so quiet if something happens. They also picked up Jimmy Rollins to hold down the fort at shortstop. He’s 37 now and isn’t especially great with the bat or the glove, but he’s a veteran presence who the White Sox seem to love having around. And in center field now is Austin Jackson. The problem with Jackson is that he’s not an especially good center fielder anymore and he can’t hit. So that’s not great for them. They also completely revamped their catching situation with Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila now handling the position. Neither is a great hitter, but both have their moments.
Melky Cabrera is still there, and he’s continued his solid hitting after coming around in the last three or four months of the 2015 season. He’s been good for them. The biggest surprise offensively has probably been Avisail Garcia who still isn’t what you’d call a good hitter, but he’s looked much better lately. The bench includes Tyler Saladino, Jerry Sands and Carlos Sanchez in addition to whoever is backing up at catcher that night. All in all, this is a pretty solid offense. They’re not world beating, but they can put up some runs here and there.
White Sox Pitching
The White Sox pitching has been the catalyst to their great start. And it all starts with their ace, Sale, who is having an outstanding season. He’s giving them loads of innings, allowing very few hits and very few base runners in general. He’s been really impressive to watch this season. What’s amazing is that Jose Quintana might be having an even better season. He’s not giving the same innings Sale is, but he’s walking almost as few and giving up almost as few base runners while actually limiting the home run ball even better. From there, the rotation does get a little iffy. Carlos Rodon is young and insanely talented, but those pitchers sometimes find themselves in trouble. He has great stuff, but has given up more than a hit per inning this season and he doesn’t have elite control, so there are quite a few base runners. Mat Latos had a great start to the season, but has a 7.84 ERA in his last four starts and has come by it honestly. With such a low strikeout rate, I think regression was obvious, but I’m not sure anyone expected it to hit this hard. Fortunately for the Royals, the last spot in the rotation is no longer filled with John Danks who got designated for assignment earlier this season. Right now, Miguel Gonzalez is filling that role, but Erik Johnson is a candidate for later in the season. Neither is anything special.
The White Sox bullpen has some good arms, but I think they pitched over their heads to start the season. David Robertson is solidly in the second tier of closers in baseball, which is in no way a slight. He’s very, very good and has been excellent in the early part of this season. Nate Jones is one of my favorite non-Royals relievers to watch, and I can’t put my finger on why, but I just like the way he pitches. Zach Duke gives the White Sox a good lefty out of the bullpen. He’s been someone they’ve used as a LOOGY, but he can also stretch out a little if needed. Matt Albers is a veteran who I think is ripe for some big time regression this year due to the strikeout rate and just how hittable he is. Zach Putnam is someone who I like as well. He has good stuff and the results will likely match by the end of the year. And then there’s Dan Jennings, who is another lefty, but he’s counted on for more than an inning quite often. His stuff is fringe to me, but he gets outs with it.
Game 1, Friday: Dillon Gee vs. Jose Quintana
As I do every year when the Royals face Quintana, I’ll admit how wrong I was about him. I thought he was a 5 starter at best. It turns out, he’s quite good. And he’s having a strong start to 2016, so good for him and good for the White Sox for picking him up as a free agent back before the 2012 season. He’s become a reliable lefty who will give you 200 or so innings every year at an above average level. This year, he’s taken that up a notch, but I also don’t see him as a 1.54 ERA type pitcher, so there’s some regression to come for him. One thing he’s done this year, he has been far more difficult to hit, dropping his hits per nine innings by 2.5 from last season. Quintana finally got his first career win against the Royals last season, and is now 1-6 with a 4.27 ERA in 18 career starts against Kansas City. For whatever reason, the Royals have always done pretty well against him.
Three things to watch for against Quintana:
- Quintana added velocity after his rookie year, and that’s maintained. This year, his average velocity on his fastball that he throws a bit more than 40 percent of the time is near 93 MPH, the highest it’s been in his career. He also throws a sinker about a quarter of the time at around the same velocity. He mixes in a really good curve along with a changeup and he appears to have thrown a few cutters this year as well. The changeup is really good at times, but has been hit this year a little bit.
- There’s been no real good time to attack Quintana this year. He starts off games strong and he finishes them strong. This season, he’s been even better at home with an ERA down below 1.00. Not that pitchers can’t change, but in his career, he’s suffered from the third time through the order penalty, so you have to assume that if the Royals can just see some pitches (seriously, stop laughing), they might be able to get to Quintana in the sixth inning or later if they don’t get to him before then.
- In his career, he’s been slightly better against lefties than righties, but this year, he’s upped that game. He’s been great against everyone, but has allowed a .591 OPS to righties compared with a .453 OPS to lefties. That’s impressive. It’s too bad Mike Moustakas won’t be back until Saturday’s game because he’s done well against Quintana. Luckily he’s not the only one. Paulo Orlando has a couple doubles against him, Salvador Perez has four doubles, a triple (!) and two home runs in 45 at bats against him. Kendrys Morales has three extra base hits against him as well, so some Royals have seen him well in the past.
Gee is making his second start for the Royals after a solid showing his first time out against the Braves over the weekend. The White Sox are a tougher test, but I’ve been impressed enough with Gee this season to think this start could go well for him. His stuff is okay and he’s a pitcher who I think the Royals can expect to get six innings out of him. I could see, however, this White Sox offense paper cutting him to death and then finding one big blow to make his line look far worse than he actually pitched. Gee has never faced the White Sox before, but he has faced Rollins who has hit .452/.500/.710 against him in 34 plate appearances. Frazier and Navarro also each have homers against him.
Game 2, Saturday: Danny Duffy vs. Miguel Gonzalez
The Orioles, a team turning over every rock for starting pitchers, decided that Gonzalez wasn’t good enough to be a part of their rotation. Gonzalez was impressive for them for about three years with no great explanation why before having a really tough season last year, giving up a lot of hits and too many walks for a guy who doesn’t strike out that many hitters. He’s made three starts for the White Sox and hasn’t been especially good, giving up a lot of hits, a lot of walks and pretty much looking like the same pitcher who struggled so much last season. He’s 1-3 with a 5.09 ERA in four regular season starts against the Royals, but did pitch well against them in the 2014 ALCS in a loss.
Three things to watch for against Gonzalez:
- Gonzalez uses a low-90s fastball about a third of the time, and it has been crushed this season. He also throws a sinker at about 92 MPH and has gotten a few more ground balls in limited innings this season. The split is his number two pitch, but has been anything but this year. It’s not a hard splitter at about 84-85 MPH, but it’s been really effective. He also throws a curve, slider and a cutter.
- With Gonzalez, you don’t have to worry about swinging early. You can get deep into a count against him because he doesn’t have the stuff to put hitters away all that often. In fact, his first pitch is often one that hitters aren’t that successful on. This year, he’s actually been pretty good early in games too, but once the lineup turns over, he’s gotten rocked. It was a little different last year as he struggled from basically the first pitch on. The hits should come against Gonzalez. If they don’t, there’s no reason anyone should accept anything about how “he pitched great” after the game.
- This year, Gonzalez has “held” righties to a .804 OPS compared with lefties putting up an OPS of .881 against him. In his career, he’s been better against righties, but the split is a little smaller. Perez and Morales have each homered against him, but there hasn’t been a ton of rousing success among the Royals offense against him in the past.
Duffy, like Gee, will get his second start as a member of the rotation. Unlike Gee, he’s only set to go about 60 pitches or so, which means some combination of Chien-Ming Wang and Brian Flynn will need to be available to eat up some innings to save the bullpen. Duffy was outstanding against the Braves in the first two innings, before he hit a bit of a wall in the third that saw him walk a couple batters. But he got out of it and made it through three scoreless. It would be great if he could build on that and pitch into the fifth, but pitch efficiency isn’t a hallmark of Duffy’s, so I think we’d all accept four solid innings with a big smile on our faces. Duffy is 3-2 with a 3.64 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) against the White Sox in his career. Abreu and Jackson have hit him well with those two along with Saladino and Navarro having home runs against him.
Game 3, Sunday: Yordano Ventura vs. Carlos Rodon
Rodon has a big future, but he’s still figuring things out at this moment. He was quite solid his rookie year, posting a 3.75 ERA and a 3.87 FIP while striking out a batter per inning. This year, he’s added a few strikeouts and subtracted some walks, but the added control has made him a bit easier to hit, which has been a problem for him. That’s the life of a young pitcher. He has fantastic stuff, so when he puts it together, watch out. I would be okay with him putting it together later, though. Amazingly, he never faced the Royals last season in any of his 26 games, but the Royals have seen him in spring training before and were shut down pretty well if I remember correctly.
Three things to watch for against Rodon:
- Rodon is a fastball/sinker guy, throwing each of those pitches about a third of the time. They’re both at about 93 MPH with some good movement and he gets a lot of grounders. The fastball has been hit well, but the sinker has been mostly effective. His ace pitch is his slider. That’s how he gets so many of his strikeouts and the pitch that confounds hitters the most. He uses it in all counts, but it’s obviously the most dangerous deep into the count. He also throws the occasional changeup to right-handed batters, but he’s thrown it less this year than last.
- Rodon is a large man, and sometimes it takes some time to get going. In his career, he’s allowed 13 stolen bases with only three men getting caught attempting to steal on him. He’s been working on his pickoff move, but it’s not great, so the Royals should do what they can to run on him and whichever catcher is behind the plate for him. It’s also worth noting that he has been rough at home, with a 4.83 career ERA compared to a 3.32 ERA on the road. It’s been even worse this year at home with a 5.68 ERA in four starts at U.S. Cellular.
- Rodon has shut down lefties this year, holding them to a .543 OPS, but right-handers have knocked him around the park with an OPS of .828 and seven of the eight home runs he’s allowed this season. He’s never faced any Royals hitters in a regular season game, but I think Morales and Perez could have big games in this one.
Ventura is coming off an encouraging start against the Red Sox. The line wasn’t great, but his velocity was mostly back to where it needs to be, and he had pretty solid command for the most part. I noticed that when he’d lose his fastball command on Tuesday, he went to his off speed stuff for multiple pitches in a row to find his fastball again, which is an interesting strategy. The White Sox hit changeups pretty well as a team, but they struggle with a good fastball and a good curve, so Ventura better have those two pitches working if he wants to build upon his last start.
I like the way the Royals are playing right now, and they’re catching the White Sox at the right time, outside of Chris Sale starts. Chicago is just 4-8 in their last 12 games not started by their ace. The Royals have taken two consecutive series and have now won five of eight, which is not world-beating, but it’s a start. I think the Royals begin the journey to taking back what’s theirs and take two of three this weekend against the White Sox.