Francisco Lindor and Yan Gomes

Series Preview: Royals at Cleveland Indians, June 2-5

No rest for the weary as the Kansas City Royals hit the road for 10 games, beginning with a big series against the Cleveland Indians. The Indians are now the closest competitor to the Royals for American League Central supremacy, so this series is pretty important. It’s interesting that the Royals have seven games scheduled in Cleveland before the Indians come to Kansas City, but it might help the Royals if they can steal some wins in Cleveland. The Indians won two of three from Kansas City last month in their first series of the year. The two teams were 19-19 against each other the previous two seasons prior to their first meeting this year, so they’re clearly a good matchup for each other.

Indians Offense

The Indians can hit and score some runs. What’s sort of scary is that they’ve done it without one of their best hitters, Michael Brantley. He came back from the disabled list too quickly last month, aggravated his injury, and is now back in the trainer’s room. In his stead, they’ve been buoyed by a strong performance from Jose Ramirez. He’s shown an improved eye at the plate, an ability to not strike out, and just a solid bat. Francisco Lindor has continued to be a very solid hitter and a fantastic defender at shortstop. Those two are leading the offense, but they have some help.

Mike Napoli has been a great source of power for the Indians, and he plays a very good first base as well, so that’s been a boost. Carlos Santana continues to work a lot of walks and hit for power when he actually gets hits. Marlon Byrd has been a big help to this team with some power as well, but now he’s suspended for PED use (his second suspension). It’s safe to say, though, that the Indians are disappointed in the production so far from Jason Kipnis. It looked like he might be taking the next step after last season’s .303/.372/.451 performance, but it’s pretty clear that it was driven by his insanely hot months of May and June.  He hasn’t done that this year. Yet.

Juan Uribe has been subpar offensively at third. Rajai Davis has been okay enough in center field, but still below average. Lonnie Chisenhall has been similar. Just okay. But his defense is good in right field, so they’re getting something out of him. The biggest disappointment has to be Yan Gomes. The Indians weren’t counting on him to carry the offense or anything, but they had to be hoping for better than he’s given them, because he’s been awful. The only thing making him somewhat useful offensively is the occasional home run. The Indians bench is rounded out with Chris Gimenez backing up Gomes and Michael Martinez backing up, well, everybody. This is a good offense, and what’s scary is they have potential to be better than they have been.

Indians Pitching

You know the strength of this team is the rotation. Their ace, Corey Kluber, continues to have numbers that don’t match the peripherals. The defense behind him is better, so I don’t know what the excuse is this year, but he’s given up way more runs than you’d expect. Danny Salazar, though, has come through and been unbelievable. Josh Tomlin has stepped up to be a solid starter. He’s nothing great, but gives quality innings and typically keeps the Indians in the game. They’ve had to mix and match a little in the rest of the rotation with Cody Anderson struggling and Carlos Carrasco on the disabled list. He’ll be off the DL to start the first game of the series. Before his injury, he was having a fine season. In their place, Trevor Bauer has rejoined the rotation and been okay. Mike Clevinger has filled the other rotation spot. He hasn’t been okay, so he’s the guy to move out to make room for Carrasco.

I still like the Indians bullpen more than most, and I think I say in every preview that it’s because I like Cody Allen a lot. He’s walked way too many batters this season, though, which you just can’t do as a closer. His ERA has taken a hit and his FIP is even worse. I liked what I saw from Zach McAllister out of the bullpen too, but he hasn’t backed it up this season. Bryan Shaw is another guy who should be better, but just hasn’t been very good this season for him. Luckily for the Indians, Dan Otero has stepped up in a big way, but I’m not sure I buy how good he’s been. Jeff Manship has been good, as has Austin Adams in limited innings. Tommy Hunter has also been there, but he hasn’t been anything special either.

Game 1, Thursday: Yordano Ventura vs. Carlos Carrasco

I mentioned that Carrasco would come off the disabled list for this game, which could be good or bad for the Royals. It looks like he’ll be on a pitch count of about 80, which is good news for the beginning of a four-game series as it could get the Indians bullpen involved early. It took longer than expected, but Carrasco has turned into a fine starting pitcher, and was having a great start to the season before going down with a hamstring injury. Carrasco used to have a bit of a temper, and I’d bet he actually still does, but he’s done a nice job of controlling that since the early days of his career. He’s 6-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 16 games and 11 starts against the Royals in his career, but was 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts against them last year.

Three things to watch for against Carrasco:

  1. Carrasco throws hard with a fastball/sinker combination. The fastball averages around 95 MPH and the sinker is a tick or so slower. He also throws a slider, a curve and a changeup. All his pitches can be good, but his best offerings are actually the off-speed stuff, which isn’t that surprising as sometimes the good fastballs can make the off-speed pitches look even more difficult to hit.
  2. It’s hard to glean much from Carrasco’s four starts he’s made this season, but last year, the story was what you see in a lot of really good pitchers. Hit him early or don’t hit him at all. In the first inning, Carrasco allowed 22 earned runs, which was nine more than his second-worst inning, the fourth.
  3. This year, Carrasco has been hittable to lefties, but right-handed hitters have been impotent against him. In his career, the split is there, but it isn’t nearly as drastic. Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer are the only Royals hitters who have hit Carrasco well. Hosmer has an OPS of .898 against him while Morales has a homer and a double. Alcides Escobar has been pretty bad against him, so I’m going to guess he’ll be happy whenever Carrasco leaves the game.

I feel like I say this a lot, but this is a big start for Ventura. In his last outing, he gave up seven runs, which is bad, but went seven innings, which is good. The Royals ended up scoring seven runs in the bottom of the ninth, which overshadowed Ventura’s performance. It sure seems like he’s working in the middle of the zone an awful lot lately. This is an Indians team that will punish mistakes, but they also aren’t great against fastballs, so if Ventura can find that command, he could do well here. Ventura is 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight career starts against the Indians. He gave up five runs in four innings against them earlier this year, though, so that’s the recent track record. Santana has hit him well and Kipnis has a homer against him, but that’s about it for any real success against him among Indians hitters.

Game 2, Friday: Edinson Volquez vs. Danny Salazar

Salazar has been the Indians best pitcher this season, and it isn’t particularly close. It would be hard to classify Salazar as a traditional ace because he doesn’t really give you the innings you need for that, but inning-for-inning, he’s been one of the best in baseball this year. He’s striking out a ton of hitters, but walking a lot, too. Of course, he isn’t giving up many hits at all, so the WHIP all evens out. He’s 5-5 with a 4.05 ERA in 10 starts against the Royals in his career, which is somewhat notable because he has a decision in all 10 starts. He threw 7.2 shutout innings in a win against the Royals earlier this season.

Three things to watch for against Salazar:

  1. Salazar throws very hard, averaging nearly 96 MPH with his fastball that he throws almost half the time. He also throws a hard sinker and a changeup that can sometimes flatten out and become hittable. He also mixes in a slider and a curve. The curve has been hit hard this year and the sinker has been hit for extra bases more often than Salazar would like. For the most part, all his pitches have been effective.
  2. This season, if hitters aren’t ahead in the count against Salazar, they’re basically toast. When he’s behind in the count, he allows a .338/.538/.569 line. When he’s even in the count, that drops considerably to .135/.145/.176. When he’s ahead in the count, he’s somehow even better. The line against him is .117/.115/.156. The moral of the story? Hope he throws ball one.
  3. Salazar actually has a reverse platoon split in his career, and it’s been fairly pronounced this season, so righties have had better luck against him than lefties. Hosmer has absolutely crushed Salazar in his career while Lorenzo Cain has an OPS of .800, which is the second best among current Royals hitters. Maybe they’re just due.

Volquez is having another very solid season, but he just hasn’t seemed as sharp to me in his last few starts. I feel like I had the same thought about him around this time last year, so it’s nothing to worry about or anything. He’s gone at least six innings in each of his last four starts, so he’s still giving innings for his team, which is a big part of his value to the rotation. Volquez is an unsightly 2-5 with an 8.31 ERA in eight career starts against the Indians, which includes a 5.85 ERA in four starts last year and a 4.1 inning, five runs allowed performance earlier this season. Chisenhall, Santana, Napoli and Kipnis have all hit Volquez well. Now might be a good time to turn around his fortunes against the Indians.

Game 3, Saturday: Ian Kennedy vs. Josh Tomlin

Tomlin becoming a good starter is a bit of an surprise. I just never saw anything in his profile that suggested he’d be able to be as good as he has been since coming off the disabled list last season. Of course, throwing strikes always helps, and Tomlin does that like crazy. It’s also fair to note that he’s been knocked around a few times this season and has a 4.40 ERA in his last seven starts. Even so, he’s been a pleasant surprise for Cleveland. He’s 7-4 with a 5.17 ERA in 17 games (13 starts) against the Royals in his career. He struggled against them last year and even though he got the win against them earlier this season, he gave up four runs in six innings to an offense that was struggling at the time.

Three things to watch for against Tomlin:

  1. He gets it done with movement and deception because he doesn’t throw hard. His fastball averages about 88-89 MPH and will occasionally touch into the low-90s. He throws his cutter more than he throws any other pitch, and that only comes in at about 86 MPH, so he’s a nice change of pace from all the Indians hard throwers. He also has a sinker, a changeup and a curve that he uses intermittently. Considering it’s his go-to pitch, it’s a little surprising that the cutter has been hit as well as it has this year, but that’s a good thing for the Royals.
  2. Like Carrasco, your best bet against Tomlin is to get him early. He’s allowed an .881 OPS the first time through the order, which includes eight of the 23 runs he’s allowed this year coming in the first inning. That OPS drops to .684 the second time through and .538 the third time through. He gets tougher as the game progresses.
  3. This year, Tomlin has been much better against lefties than righties, and he’s given up a lot of power to the right-handed bats. That reverse split has been there throughout his career, so I guess it’s here to stay. Salvador Perez has absolutely destroyed Tomlin, but I’m not sure if he’ll be ready to go by the time this game comes around. Cain and Jarrod Dyson have also hit him well, though, so they should get their chances to add to their numbers against him.

Kennedy wasn’t very sharp his last time out, but he got the job done, going six innings and allowing just one run. He didn’t get the win because of an uncharacteristic run allowed by Kelvin Herrera, but it’s always good to see a pitcher be able to give a good start even when he doesn’t really have it. It’s surprising, but Kennedy is averaging less than six innings per start this year (barely, but still is), which is not what the Royals were hoping for, but I think he’ll find himself going deeper into games as the season progresses. That short start interrupted by the rain delay didn’t help matters. He’s 1-0 with a 3.15 ERA in three career starts against the Indians, including seven shutout innings in a win against them earlier this season. Byrd has faced him a lot in their careers and crushed him, so Kennedy will be happy to not have to deal with him. He’s also allowed a homer to Gimenez and Lindor was 2 for 3 against him last month.

Game 4, Sunday: Chris Young vs. Corey Kluber

The 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner sure looks like basically the same pitcher he was when he won the award, but the results just aren’t there. For whatever reason, he just can’t live up to his FIP, which sits at 3.11. His ERA is at 4.15. Something probably has to give because he’s still limiting walks and striking out a ton of hitters. He’s not allowing noticeably more hits or more home runs, but the results just aren’t there for him. It’s kind of a mystery. He got hit around pretty good against the Rangers in his last outing. Up until last season, Kluber owned the Royals, but he went 1-4 with a 4.36 ERA against them in five starts last year to bring his career numbers against KC to 5-5 with a 3.38 ERA in 14 starts.

Three things to watch for against Kluber:

  1. His velocity is down a fair amount from his Cy Young season in 2014, so that could explain some of this. It’s still a good fastball averaging a bit more than 93 MPH, and he throws it about a quarter of the time. He throws his sinker nearly a third of the time, and it has a similar velocity. The thing is, though, that both those pitches have been crushed this season. He also throws an excellent slider that’s been nearly unhittable this year, a good cutter and a changeup that he flashes when he needs it.
  2. The big issue for Kluber has been when runners reach. His strand rate this year is just 64.7 percent, which is well below his career average of 72.3 percent. The numbers back it up. With nobody on base, he’s allowed a .214/.263/.313 line, but when runners get on, he struggles. The batting line jumps to .281/.320/479 and then gets worse yet with runners in scoring position (.333/.392/.533). That’s something that likely will regress to the mean, but it could also be a mechanical issue that may take some time to correct.
  3. Kluber is much tougher on righties than lefties, and that’s continued to be true this season. Hosmer has had no trouble with Kluber in his career, knocking him around for three homers and five doubles. Omar Infante has performed well against him too, with a homer of his own and a career .855 OPS. Nobody else in the Royals lineup has even come close to hitting him well, though. The third best OPS among current Royals hitters is .492 by Perez.

After Gee struggled for a second straight start and Young relieved him for three innings, you could sort of see the writing on the wall. I didn’t expect Gee to go to Omaha after the start, but this is the world we live in. Young has looked really sharp in his two outings in the bullpen since returning to the rotation, but now he has to work on lowering that insane home run rate he had as a starter. If he’s healthy, I’m confident he can do just fine. He was an important piece of last year’s rotation, and I think he can remain that vital. Young is 3-1 with a 2.89 ERA in nine games (six starts) against the Indians in his career. He was 1-1 with a 3.32 ERA in six games last year with three of those starts. Kipnis is 6 for 14 with two doubles and a homer against Young in his career, but the big righty has been solid against the rest of the Indians bats.

The Prediction

The Royals are playing great and the Indians are kind of up and down lately, but the Indians pitching is always scary. I think the two teams do end up splitting. For a division leader on the road, that isn’t a bad thing against one of their top pursuers.

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