The Royals begin their annual home and home series with the St. Louis Cardinals with two games at The K before heading to St. Louis for the final two games of the series. After posting the best record in their respective leagues last season, the Missouri rivals have identical records heading into this four-game set. Both teams are looking up in their divisions this year, though, so this series is very important for both as they look to keep pace with the leaders. In 86 regular season matchups, the Royals are just 36-50 against the Cardinals, though they do hold the postseason edge, four games to three. The last time the Royals won the season series was in 2014 when they won three of four in this same home and home format.
The Cardinals can hit. And they’re hot. They’re coming off a game in which they recorded 13 extra base hits, which is the first time they’ve done that as a team in over 76 years. Where were you 76 years ago? They walk a lot. They don’t strike out. They hit home runs. About the only thing they don’t do is they don’t steal bases. They have some places where they can be pitched around, but overall this is a solid lineup.
The offense is led by Matt Carpenter who has taken his game to another level this season and now he’s moved back to playing second base with Jhonny Peralta returning to the lineup. He’s having a fantastic season. The reason Peralta didn’t just slide back into his regular shortstop position is because Aledmys Diaz took over the shortstop job and has been absolutely fantastic this year. He’s fallen off from his early season pace, but I don’t think anyone is too surprised he isn’t a .450 hitter. Matt Adams has bounced back from a rough 2015 to have a nice season so far. Stephen Piscotty has been good too, hitting for a high average with a good OBP and enough slug. I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Moss who leads the team with 16 homers. This is just a good offense.
They aren’t without their weak links. Peralta has struggled since returning. They had to send Kolten Wong down and now he’s spending a fair amount of time in the outfield. Matt Holliday hasn’t been bad by any stretch. He’s been a fair amount above average this season but you expect so much more from him. That’s the unfair expectation he’s set for himself. Yadier Molina can still really play defense, but the offense isn’t where it once was for him. Jed Gyorko, Greg Garcia, Eric Fryer and Tommy Pham round out a solid bench for the Cardinals. It does appear that Brayan Pena will be activated from the disabled list for the first time this year to serve as the backup to Molina, so the bench will get a shakeup.
The bread and butter of the Cardinals seems to usually be their pitching, but it’s been a problem this year, specifically the rotation. Adam Wainwright has been WAY better of late, but he still isn’t having the type of season he’s used to having. They signed Mike Leake to a big deal this offseason, and he hasn’t lived up to the contract by any stretch, though he’s gotten much better after a brutally bad start to his season. Michael Wacha hasn’t become the star I think we all thought he was going to be after the great start to his career. You can do worse if he’s in the back of your rotation, but he just hasn’t been anything special. And then there’s Jaime Garcia, who is really up and down. He has a great chance to destroy an opponent’s lineup, but he can be destroyed almost as easily. If it wasn’t for Carlos Martinez, this rotation would be a real problem, but he’s been excellent for them this season. He’s really saved their bacon.
The Cardinals bullpen looked like it had a stalwart at the back to close games in Trevor Rosenthal, but he’s been so bad lately that he’s lost his job to Seung-hwan Oh, who has been incredible this season. It’s hard to believe that Rosenthal has just completely forgotten how to pitch, but it was a necessary move for the Cardinals at this moment. Beyond those two, Kevin Siegrest has been good from the left side for the Cardinals. After that, it’s kind of up and down. They’re relying heavily on Jonathan Broxton, which might make Royals fans laugh a little bit. Matthew Bowman has been okay. Tyler Lyons has been okay. Seth Maness has been bad. This Cardinals team can be beat. It’s just not easy to do it in a low scoring affair.
Game 1, Monday: Danny Duffy vs. Adam Wainwright (Kansas City)
Wainwright is currently 6-4 with a 4.73 ERA, which isn’t great, but as I mentioned above, he’s been much better lately. After his eighth start of the season, Wainwright’s ERA sat at a robust 6.80. He’s pitched to a 2.72 ERA in his last seven starts, so things do look a lot better for him. Of course, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last few seasons, so I feel safe thinking that he’s back to being that, even with the small sample of just seven starts of much better pitching. He’s also 34 and it’s very possible that he isn’t the pitcher he once was, so I think he can be beat. He’s 4-1 with a 3.07 ERA in 10 games (seven starts) against the Royals in his career. His last two starts against KC have been eight inning outings, so it would be good to not have that happen again.
Three things to watch for against Wainwright:
- Wainwright mixes pitches really well. He uses a fastball/sinker combination with velocity sitting about 90-92 MPH. As typically happens as pitchers age, that’s down from a few seasons ago, but he seems to be adjusting well. His curve has always been his bread and butter, and it’s still the pitch he throws more than anything. And yes, it’s still been fantastic. He also throws a cutter and the very occasional changeup. The common thread with his pitches is that the curve is still hard to hit, but the hard stuff has been crushed this year.
- It’s worth mentioning that he’s been decent enough at home, but has been abysmal on the road with a 5.74 ERA in eight starts. He’s gotten rocked on his first pitch this season, allowing a .464 batting average and .661 slugging percentage on the 58 batters who have seen their at bats end on the first pitch. That’s some high numbers right there. When he’s ahead in the count, though, he allows a .459 OPS, so that’s still working.
- This year, he’s had a reverse platoon split with a .687 OPS allowed vs. lefties compared with a .785 OPS against righties. No Royals have homered off Wainwright, but Alex Gordon has an .899 OPS against him in his career. Lorenzo Cain has had success as well with a double and a triple in six at bats. Everyone else has really struggled.
In his return to the rotation, Duffy has been good, but he seems to have fallen back on some bad habits over his last couple starts. He’s needed a lot of pitches to get through a limited number of innings. One of the things that made me believe this change was for real was how different he looked on the mound. I’m not saying he isn’t the same guy he was in his first few starts, but it’d be nice to see that again in this one, though the opponent is quite difficult. He’s 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA in two career starts against the Cardinals with his last coming in 2014 when he went six innings and gave up just one hit. The only Cardinals hitter he’s faced more than four times is Peralta, but in that tiny sample, nobody has hit him hard.
First Pitch Temperature: 88° F
Wind: E at 3-6 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Game 2, Tuesday: Yordano Ventura vs. Michael Wacha (Kansas City)
When Wacha came up in 2013, he really took baseball by storm, and he posted a 3.21 ERA in his first three seasons with a 3.48 FIP. He looked for all the world like he was going to be a fantastic number two pitcher and maybe even an ace if he continued to develop a little bit more. This year has been a struggle for him with a 3-7 record and a 4.41 ERA. His walks are up and he’s allowing more hits, though his home run numbers haven’t climbed. I have a feeling he’s going to be one of those guys who is tough on the Royals no matter how he’s pitching. He’s 1-1 with a 1.80 ERA in three career starts against KC with his last one coming last year when he went seven innings and gave up just an unearned run.
Three things to watch for against Wacha:
- His fastball velocity is down more than a mile per hour from last season but it’s roughly what he was throwing in his first two big league seasons. He uses that fastball more than half the time and it’s been hit decently. He also throws a good changeup, a quality curve and a cutter. The cutter has been good, but it’s been hit for extra bases when it’s been hit.
- One of the biggest issues for Wacha, and a reason why his FIP is so much lower than his ERA, is that he has been awful with runners on base. With the bases empty, he’s allowed a .212/.274/.343 line, but with runners on, that jumps to .328/.389/.504. With runners in scoring position, it’s even higher – .319/.418/.542. That’s not good for him.
- Wacha has amazingly no platoon split, allowing a .731 OPS to lefties and a .732 OPS to righties. That’s quite remarkable. Cain has three hits in nine at bats against Wacha in his career while Salvador Perez has two hits in six at bats. Nobody else has had much success, but the sample is tiny.
Ventura makes his return from suspension, so it’s hard to say exactly what we’ll see out of him in this one. If you’ll recall, though, he’s been fantastic over his last two starts, which was so good to see after all the struggles he’d been through this season. After walking just about everyone possible in his first few starts, the control has gotten better lately for Ventura. He’s walked less than a batter per nine innings over his last five starts, and has struck out 15 while walking one in his last two starts. He’s 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in three career starts against the Cardinals, which includes an 0-2 record last year. Carpenter and Moss both have homers against him in their careers.
First Pitch Temperature: 82° F
Wind: NE at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Game 3, Wednesday: Edinson Volquez vs. Carlos Martinez (St. Louis)
Man, Martinez has been good this season after he was really good last year. The strikeouts are down for him this year, but so are the hits, so it seems like he’s changed something that’s worked for him. He’s had a bit of an up and down season, carrying a 2.61 ERA through his first six starts before posting an 8.40 ERA over his next three. Since then, though, he has a 1.24 ERA in five starts, so he’s going very well right now. He’s only faced the Royals once in his career, throwing two scoreless innings in relief in 2014.
Three things to watch for against Martinez:
- Martinez throws very hard. He throws his fastball about 36 percent of the time at just under 97 MPH. He also throws a power sinker at about 95-96 MPH to go along with a changeup and a slider. This season, nothing has been hit hard, but when opponents have done some damage against him, it’s usually been on the sinker. Three of the six homers he’s allowed have come on that pitch.
- Unlike Wainwright, Martinez has benefited from leaving St. Louis. He has a 4.21 ERA at home compared with a 1.70 ERA away from Busch Stadium. This is an amazing number. Martinez has allowed a .160/.356/.160 line when he’s behind in the count. Unreal. Typically if you’re going to get to Martinez, it’ll be the second time through the order. He’s been outstanding in the first time through this season, which is not usual from great pitchers.
- He has held righties to an incredibly low .405 OPS compared with a much more reasonable .700 OPS against lefties. Ian Kennedy, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer are the only Royals to have ever faced Martinez. It’s good that Gordon is back, though, because they’ll need all the lefties they can get.
Volquez is coming off the worst start of his career, going just one inning and allowing 12 runs. Of course, only 11 were earned and Dillon Gee allowed three of them to score in the second. So, you know, it must not be bad. In all seriousness, Volquez’s struggles haven’t gone unnoticed, and they came to a disturbing head on Friday night. He has a 6.62 ERA in his last 12 starts. Obviously a ton of that is due to his last start, but it’s bad no matter how you slice it. He’s 5-6 with a 4.58 ERA in 16 career starts against the Cardinals. He got a win last season against St. Louis in giving up two runs over six innings. Peralta and Holliday have crushed Volquez, but he’s held down most Cardinals in his career.
First Pitch Temperature: 78 F
Wind: NE at 3-6 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Game 4, Thursday: Chris Young vs. Mike Leake (St. Louis)
Leake is a guy who the Royals have liked for some time, given that they were rumored to be interested in him in the draft years ago and in free agency this past season. Ultimately, he ended up in St. Louis on a five-year deal worth $80 million, which is a lot more than I believe the Royals were comfortable with. This year, Leake has exhibited his typical low strikeouts but actually is walking even less than he had in the past. Of course, he’s also been way more hittable this season, so maybe he’s finding the strike zone a little too much. He’s never faced the Royals in his career.
Three things to watch for against Leake:
- Leake relies heavily on a sinker, throwing it more than half the time at about 91-92 MPH. His number two pitch is his cutter, which he throws a bit more than 30 percent of the time at a bit under 90 MPH. His other pitches that he throws sparingly include a changeup, slider and a curve. The sinker has been hit somewhat hard with a .282 average against it and a .442 SLG. Amazingly, the changeup is responsible for two of the 14 homers he’s allowed in just 35 at bats.
- Leake has a fairly common game progression, but it gets way worse the second and third time through than you’d expect for a big money starting pitcher. The first time through the order, he’s allowed a .232/.269/.312 line. That’s quite good. By the time he faces hitters a third time, that jumps to .323/.358/.576 with six homers allowed. He’s also allowed six homers the second time through. The moral here is to not worry too much if the Royals haven’t scored early. There’s still time.
- He’s allowed a very typical platoon split with a .715 OPS allowed to righties and a .765 OPS to lefties. The only Royals hitters to face Leake are pitchers, Kendrys Morales and Drew Butera. Only Ian Kennedy has a hit against him. I think this might be a good matchup for Gordon as Leake throws a lot of pitches in his swing path.
Young is also coming off yet another bad start – it wasn’t as bad as Volquez – but was part of a terrible trend this season. He gave up two more homers in just 2.1 innings. In total, he allowed seven runs, raising his season ERA to 6.54. I suppose Dillon Gee could make this start for Young, but for now, I think Young is the guy. I do think that with Kris Medlen’s rehab assignment getting closer to completion that Young’s job is in jeopardy if he doesn’t pitch well. Maybe it’s in jeopardy even if he does pitch well. He’s 1-4 with a 3.74 ERA in seven career starts against the Cardinals after going 1-1 with a 4.00 ERA in two starts against them last year. Moss has four homers against Young in 19 career at bats. Carpenter also has a homer against him while Holliday has hit him very well.
First Pitch Temperature: 82° F
Wind: SE at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 30% chance of showers/thunderstorms
I fear the Royals pitching staff against this offense, but I like Duffy and Ventura going for the Royals. I think they split the four games, but I’m not really sure how I see the order of the wins shaking out.