After five straight series wins, including the most recent sweep of the previously first place White Sox, the Royals take on the Tampa Bay Rays for the first time this season. The Rays have had their moments, but overall, 2016 has been pretty frustrating for them. Since the end of their window from that surprising 2008 World Series run, the Rays have had a hard time getting back to the consistency they showed in those seasons. The Royals went 6-1 against the Rays last year, which included a four-game sweep in Kansas City.
The Rays offense isn’t what you’d call typical. They hit a ton of home runs, which is kind of unusual for the Rays as a franchise. So they hit all these home runs, but they don’t score. They’re in the bottom half the AL in run scoring. It doesn’t make a ton of sense until you see that basically all they do for offense is hit home runs. They don’t hit for average. They don’t get on base by other means. They strike out a ton. They also don’t steal bases and they get caught way too often. It’s a really weird offense.
It doesn’t help that they’re without their best player, Logan Forsythe, who is out with a fracture in his left shoulder blade. They’re aiming for him to come back in mid-June, but that’s obviously after this series. They’re also without Kevin Kiermaier for a few weeks after he fractured two bones in his hand. He’s out for a couple months.
The Rays really use their roster, though, so they’ve gotten a lot of help from two guys who you wouldn’t consider every day guys, but they’ve played a lot this year. Brandon Guyer and Steve Pearce have both been fantastic. Guyer hardly ever walks, but he gets hit by so many pitches that he actually has a really good OBP. He’s hit for power this year as well. Pearce has been an excellent pickup for the Rays, providing average, patience and power for a bargain deal. They’ve also gotten some really contributions from Steven Souza, with power and a ton of strikeouts.
Evan Longoria has been okay. He’s above average, but it seems like he should be better than that even though it seems like that’s what his career has become. Brad Miller has provided a decent amount of value at shortstop, but he isn’t hitting for much of an average. One of their big offseason acquisitions was Corey Dickerson, who has been fine. He’s hit for big power, but has been an average and OBP sinkhole. Curt Casali and Hank Conger handle the catching Casali is, by far, the better catcher of the two defensively and he also hits a little better, which still isn’t much.
To wrap up this offensive talk, Desmond Jennings has been horrible, Mikie Mahtook was called up when Kiermaier went down, so we’ll see if he can get going in this trip to the majors. And Taylor Motter has been good in limited plate appearances. Logan Morrison, the Kansas City boy, is having a rough overall season, but he’s really turned things around after a brutal start. He was hitting under .100 as late as May 1, and that’s with basically every day at bats. The numbers still aren’t there, but they don’t tell the whole story.
The Rays were counting on their starters being great in order to win. The starters have been good, but not great. It starts at the top with Chris Archer, their ace. He’s been much better recently, but a 1.51 WHIP, 4.62 ERA and 4.75 FIP is not what the Rays were hoping for as the followup to Archer’s breakout season. You could make an argument that Jake Odorizzi has been the Rays best starter this year, which would be pretty upsetting to Royals fans if not for winning two pennants and a World Series. If not Odorizzi, you could make an argument for Drew Smyly as the Rays best starter. He’s given quality innings, kept runners off base and been generally very good. If not him, then maybe Matt Andriese has been their best in four starts this year with a 2.63 ERA. One guy who has definitely not been their best is Matt Moore, who just hasn’t progressed in year two after Tommy John surgery like they’d hoped. The stuff seems to be there and the control isn’t bad, but it’s just not clicking for him.
The bullpen gets a big boost as Brad Boxberger is expected to be activated from the disabled list for this series. Manager Kevin Cash indicated that he’d be eased back into the closer’s role that is currently held by Alex Colome, who has been absolutely outstanding. It’d be hard to move him from that role, even if Boxberger had the job last year. Erasmo Ramirez has also been great, so the Rays have a dynamic late inning duo. Ramirez can give you multiple innings too. He’s quite the weapon. The rest of the bullpen is fairly pedestrian. Enny Romero has been okay as a lefty, but nothing special. The same can be said for Xavier Cedeno. Ryan Webb has also been pretty much just okay. Tyler Sturdevant and Ryan Garton haven’t thrown enough to make a judgment, but Dana Eveland has. He’s been all sorts of terrible. He might end up the guy to go when Boxberger is activated. So the Rays bullpen can be very tough, but they can also be hit.
Game 1, Monday: Ian Kennedy vs. Matt Andriese
The Rays picked up Andriese in the same deal they acquired Forsythe and Boxberger, which makes a guy who has been solid in the big leagues as a starter the third best piece in that deal (for now). That’s a darn good trade. Andriese got his first big league action last year and spent most of his time in the bullpen, but he gave the Rays some decent starts even though he wasn’t really stretched out to give big innings. This year, he has one complete game and has been strong in his four starts. He had a 1.17 ERA in 7.2 innings against the Royals in one start and one relief appearance.
Three things to watch for against Andriese:
- He relies heavily on a four-seam fastball that averages nearly 93 MPH. He throws it a little under half the time, so hitters can be on the lookout. He also throws a cutter about a quarter of the time at 86-97 MPH, a good changeup and a quality curve that he doesn’t flash often, but makes it work. All his pitches have been tough to hit this season, but last year, the fastball and the changeup got hit hard.
- I like Andriese, but I don’t think he’s an elite talent or anything like that. I know that’s not a controversial statement, but that’s okay. There’s some regression coming for him. One thing I noticed is that he’s allowed a .048/.250/.048 line when he’s behind in the count. That’s not normal. He’s been really good in all situations, but that one stuck out to me. His stuff simply isn’t good enough to get away with being behind in the count like that. That will change and maybe fast.
- This year, Andriese has been great against everyone, but especially lefties, holding them to a sub-.500 OPS. Last year, he struggled with lefties a bit, so there’s another possibility for regression. He’s allowed a .095/.240/.095 line to the Royals hitters he’s faced, which probably doesn’t surprise you given what I told you his line against the Royals was last season.
Kennedy gets an extra day of rest from the rainout on Thursday, which should be good for him. He had a weird start against the Twins last week, coming back after the rain delay and losing his pitch efficiency, having to exit before he finished the fourth. The Rays absolutely destroy fastballs as a team, so this kind of looks like a bad matchup for Kennedy, but it’s at Kauffman Stadium at least, so hopefully he can get through it with minimal damage allowed. Kennedy is 1-4 with a 6.46 ERA in six career starts against the Rays, but his last start against them came in 2013 and five of his six starts came from 2010 and earlier. Morrison has crushed him, but he’s really held down Dickerson and Longoria.
Game 2, Tuesday: Dillon Gee vs. Drew Smyly
I was a big fan of Smyly when he came up with the Tigers and was pleased when they included him in the deal to acquire David Price. He’s had some injury issues but has done nothing but pitch well in his time with the Rays. He strikes guys out, limits walks and doesn’t give up many hits. He does have a bit of a problem with the home run ball, but that’s not so much the Royals game, especially with Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez out, so that may not hurt him in this one. He’s 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 13 games (five starts) against the Royals in his career and was 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA in three starts against them in 2014, the last time he faced them.
Three things to watch for against Smyly:
- Smyly relies heavily on a fastball that isn’t great with velocity but has some impressive movement when it’s on. It only comes in at 91-92 MPH, but he still fools plenty of hitters. The fastball works to start at bats and to put hitters away, as he has his most strikeouts from it. He does have a good curve that he uses to put hitters away as well, and it’s tough to hit when he’s on. He also throws a cutter that hasn’t been so good this year and has been the cause of a lot of his troubles when he has them. He shows a change-up that has been hit for a lot of power this year.
- Smyly loses something when he gets into the stretch. With nobody on, he’s allowed a .173/.239/.293 line. That balloons to .308/.321/.603 with runners on and .244/.244/.561 with runners in scoring position. Getting the guy on base isn’t easy, but once they get there, Smyly struggles a little bit.
- Smyly has actually been better against right-handed batters than lefties this season, but he’s been death to lefties throughout his career, so it’s hard to assume that’ll continue this season. The Royals lineup skews pretty right-handed these days, so that probably works out well. Eric Hosmer and Omar Infante both actually have home runs against him in their careers while Jarrod Dyson has three hits in seven at bats, but a lot of Royals have struggled against him.
Gee was really solid for the Royals in his first two starts, but just couldn’t stay away from the home run ball in his last outing and gave the Royals very little. With guys starting to get healthy, Gee is pitching for his rotation life in his next couple starts, so this is big for him to determine whether he goes back to the bullpen or gets more shots. Gee has never faced the Rays before in his seven years in the big leagues. He’s only faced Morrison, Pearce and Dickerson in his career and has allowed a homer to Dickerson.
Game 3, Wednesday: Danny Duffy vs. Chris Archer
Archer started last season looking like he had a great shot to win the Cy Young. He had a 2.18 ERA through 18 starts with great peripherals. Then he came to Kansas City. He went six innings, gave up nine runs on 12 hits and it seemed like he was rocked even harder than that. It’s not that Archer was all bad after that, but including that game, he finished the year with a 4.48 ERA in 16 starts. It’s continued this year. He has a 4.62 ERA in 11 starts and he’s not going especially deep into games either. He’s shown signs of coming out of it, but he just hasn’t shown much consistency this year. He’s 0-2 with a 6.35 ERA in three career starts against the Royals. Other than last year’s clunker, he’s thrown one great start against them and been hit hard in the other.
Three things to watch for against Archer:
- Archer’s velocity is down this year from just over 96 MPH to just under 95 MPH this year. He throws that fastball a lot, more than half the time. His slider has been a difference for him this year too. It’s still an excellent pitch and gets a ton of strikeouts, but it’s just not quite as dominant as it was a year ago. His change-up has been hit hard this year too, but it was never one of his top pitches.
- Archer has been the opposite of Smyly, getting tough once runners get on in scoring position, so hopefully the Royals can keep up their strong hitting in those situations. He’s also had an interesting conversation of getting lit up early in games before settling in when he sees a lineup the second time through and then getting hit hard again the third time. It’s been a really weird season for him.
- This year, right-handed batters have crushed Archer, while he’s done a nice job of getting lefties out. That hasn’t been the case in his career with lefties hitting him a little better than righties. No Royals hitters have more than 11 plate appearances against Archer, but based on last year’s results, it should be no surprise that a couple have really good numbers against him. Kendrys Morales has a homer and three doubles in 11 at bats. Lorenzo Cain has a double and a homer. Alcides Escobar is 7 for 9 against him. In all, Royals hitters who have faced him are hitting .471/.500/.765 in 54 plate appearances.
For 5.1 innings in his last start, Duffy didn’t allow a single base runner. Though three innings, he had thrown just four pitches out of the strike zone. Then it sort of unraveled, but not as badly as the box score would lead you to believe. That’s my opinion anyway. He gave up three fairly soft singles before leaving a pitch up to Melky Cabrera. Then he unraveled and gave up another bomb to Todd Frazier. It was interesting because I’ve been curious how he would fare seeing a lineup a third time. The answer in the first time it happened was not so good. Duffy is 0-1 with a 3.75 ERA in two career starts against the Rays. No Rays have more than seven plate appearances against Duffy, but Guyer is 3 for 3 with a homer while Jennings and Miller each have triples against him.
Something about this series is worrisome to me. I’m not really sure why because even as a team full of replacements, I think the Royals are the better team. I’m going to say that the Royals win two of three and get their sixth straight series win. Hopefully my worries are unfounded.