The Royals, fresh off actually winning a couple road games, travel to Philadelphia to take on the rebuilding Phillies in a three-game weekend series. At some point last year, the Phillies realized it was truly time to tear it all down and they’re now left with just a couple pieces from their 2008 championship team. A funny thing happened, though, on the way to tearing it all down. They started the season 24-17. It was pretty clearly an early season mirage as they’ve gone 11-28 since then to look much more like the team that most thought they’d be, but it was fun for a few weeks for Phillies fans. These two teams have only met nine times in their history with the Royals holding a 5-4 edge. They last played in 2013, and the Royals took two of three in an early season series.
It’s not good. The Phillies don’t have much power, they don’t work walks and they aren’t especially fast. They don’t hit for a good average. Simply put, they don’t really score many runs. It’s a big reason why they’ve allowed 95 more runs than they’ve scored. Their best hitter is undoubtedly Odubel Herrera, who they selected in the Rule 5 draft last year and he has absolutely blossomed. He is a guy who can hit for some average, work a walk and has a little pop, though his home park helps him out a lot on that. He’s a very solid player. Aside from him, Cameron Rupp has been pretty good behind the plate, showing some doubles power with a few homers. And Maikel Franco has struggled this year, but just a year ago, he was being talked about as one of the up-and-comers in baseball, so the talent is most definitely there with him. Cody Ashe hasn’t played a ton this year, but he actually has performed pretty well and has been starting in left a fair amount recently.
After that, it’s a real struggle for this offense. Ryan Howard doesn’t play nearly as much anymore. He is a source of home run power, but that’s about it these days. Tommy Joseph has gotten a lot of the reps at first base, and while he has also hit a few home runs, he carries a .235 OBP. That’s less than good. Peter Bourjos is also a guy who can be a threat with his speed. He’s decent enough, but doesn’t have much more than the speed. Cesar Hernandez has a decent average, but not much else. Freddy Galvis has been pretty bad for them at shortstop. Tyler Goeddel, another Rule 5 guy, isn’t having the same kind of impact Herrera did, so there are some issues, and is losing playing time to Ashe.
The rest of the offense is made up of two former Royals, Andres Blanco (yes, he’s still playing) and Jimmy Paredes. Blanco has carved out a nice career as a utility man and is actually hitting pretty decently this year. He has 16 extra base hits in 128 at bats. The Royals could have used him while they were unsettled at a few positions. Paredes was recently picked up by the Phillies and hasn’t been great for them, but he does provide some pop. And then there’s their former starting catcher, Carlos Ruiz. He can still work a walk and get on base, but there’s not much else in him.
This is where the optimism reigns for the Phillies. While the numbers aren’t really great, there’s a lot of young talent in their starting rotation that a team can dream to build on. Aaron Nola has a middling ERA, but has been really, really good this season, and at just 23 years old, it’s easy to think he can be a building block for the pretty near future. Jerad Eickhoff, who they picked up in the Cole Hamels deal, has also had a nice year. He has a better ERA than Nola, but definitely hasn’t been better. Vincent Velasquez was acquired from Houston in the Ken Giles deal and has definitely had his moments of greatness. He’s also been hurt, so there’s a give and take, but those three could make up the top of the rotation for a good Phillies team very soon. The rotation is rounded out by Jeremy Hellickson, who is the veteran of the staff even though he’s not yet 30, and he’s been pretty much exactly what he always has been. He’s serviceable. And Zach Eflin, acquired in the Jimmy Rollins trade, has worked as the fifth starter recently. It’s been a mixed bag, but they like the potential in him as well.
As is often true with rebuilding teams, the bullpen isn’t what you’d call great. Jeanmar Gomez has been really good for them as closer, but he doesn’t strike many guys out and just doesn’t have the feel of a closer. Hector Neris has been a strikeout guy for them, and has been very good. David Hernandez was brought in to anchor the bullpen and he’s been somewhere around below average, getting a lot of strikeouts, giving up a lot of hits and walking a fair amount of batters. Brett Oberholtzer has worked as a lefty out of the bullpen (their only lefty currently) and has not been good. Severino Gonzalez has been up for a bit and has struck out a lot while only walking one in 8.2 innings, but has given up a ton of hits. And it’s rounded out by Edubray Ramos, who has made four appearances and looked generally good in those. They’re missing Andrew Bailey, who is on the DL and Dalier Hinojosa, also on the DL. This bullpen is definitely one that can be beat.
Game 1, Friday: Ian Kennedy vs. Jeremy Hellickson
It’s been an odd career for Hellickson. As a rookie with the Rays, he posted a 2.95 ERA and won the Rookie of the Year award, but all his peripherals indicated he wouldn’t be able to keep that up. The next year, he went out and posted a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts with similar peripherals (though better). The next year, he upped his strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate and ended up getting absolutely rocked and hasn’t been what you’d call a good pitcher since. From 2013 through this year, Hellickson has a 4.73 ERA and a 4.32 FIP. It’s just kind of weird. Maybe he started throwing too many strikes. It’s an issue that sometimes afflicts his opponent on the mound, so that would make some sense. He’s 1-2 with a 5.45 ERA in seven career games (six starts) against the Royals with the last coming in 2014 when he gave up one run on six hits over 4.1 innings.
Three things to watch for against Hellickson:
- Hellickson started his career as really a fastball/changeup guy, then he added the sinker and now he’s mixed in his curve a lot more than he used to. Both the fastball and the sinker come in at around 90-91 MPH and actually have some similar movement on them, so they might be the same pitch, just classified differently as the technology gets better to differentiate. His changeup has always been his bread and better. It’s a really good pitch. And then there’s the curve, which is also really good. He’s thrown the occasional cutter this year, and it has gotten rocked to the tune of a .370 average and a .963 SLG. So that’s a pitch to target.
- You don’t necessarily have to wait to get to Hellickson until you see a him a third time because in the first plate appearance, he’s allowed a .271/.322/.526 line, but if you don’t get him, you certainly can expect to get to him that third time through. He’s allowed a .275/.323/.571 line in that time through the order. He doesn’t typically see a lineup a fourth time as he’s faced just one hitter four times in a game this season, so you can get him out of the game early. That’s one reason why he’s not a great guy to start the first game of a series. You might lose your bullpen early.
- Righties have hit okay against him with a .723 OPS, but lefties have crushed him with an OPS of .884 and half the homers he’s allowed in nearly 60 less plate appearances. That might be good news to help get Alex Gordon going, who is a career .500/.529/.563 hitter against him in 16 at bats. Given Hellickson’s struggles against lefties and the way Morales handled right field in St. Louis, I’d expect to see him out there again in this one, especially given the smaller dimensions in Philly. Other than Gordon, no other Royals have hit Hellickson well in mostly limited plate appearances.
Kennedy had been having a rough go of things, but turned in a fantastic start his last time out against Houston. Of course, that was in Kansas City where he’s been mostly very good. He’s 3-1 with a 2.11 ERA in six starts at home and 3-5 with a 5.36 ERA in nine starts on the road. And this is not a park that figures to be kind to Kennedy, so we’ll see what happens when a bad offense meets a guy who might struggle. He’s 3-3 with a 3.25 ERA in eight career starts against Philadelphia, but is 1-3 with a 4.76 ERA in Citizens Bank Park. Galvis, of all people, has a homer against him, but that’s really it among Phillies hitters, so that’s at least somewhat comforting.
First Pitch Temperature: 82 F
Wind: SW at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Partly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 50% chance of showers/thunderstorms from 2 PM EDT through 11 PM EDT.
Game 2, Saturday: Danny Duffy vs. Aaron Nola
I mentioned Nola being very good in the introduction above, and he has been. He posted a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts last year with solid peripherals and then has taken a step forward this year in his first 16 starts. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning and continuing not to walk too many batters. On the whole, he’s been really good. Of course, the last four starts have been a huge struggle for him. He’s gone just 13 innings in them and has a 15.23 ERA. He’s allowed a ridiculous 32 hits in those innings. No, that’s not a type. He’s allowing more than two hits per inning over his last four starts. The guy has talent, though, so it’s hard to bet against him for too long. He’s never faced the Royals in his young career.
Three things to watch for against Nola:
- His stuff isn’t great, but he does get some pretty nice movement. He throws a four-seam fastball at about 91 MPH and a sinker at a similar velocity. Both were much better for him before his last few starts, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts. His out pitch is a curve, which is a really good one. Opponents have hit just .174 on it this year with a .257 slugging percentage. The changeup he throws is a work in progress and has been much better this season than last year.
- As the game goes on, Nola has actually gotten better in his brief career. In the first inning, he’s allowed a .316/.352/.573 line and 23 of the 76 runs he’s allowed in his career. In fact, he’s allowed a whopping 54 of the 76 career runs in the first three innings. He obviously settles down after he’s seen a lineup once and can get his feet under him. If you can score early against him, things will be fine. If not, it could be a long day.
- In his career, he’s been really good against righties, holding them to a .242/.284/.371 line, but struggled a bit against lefties with a .276/.333/.435 line. It might be another opportunity for Morales, but I guess that might be a game-by-game type decision for the Royals. The only Royals player he’s faced is Ian Kennedy, who probably won’t get an at bat in this one.
Duffy has continued to show that he belongs in the rotation, and most recently twirled eight very good innings against a good Cardinals offense. There was just one blemish, a home run allowed in the first inning, but he was fantastic, going eight innings and giving up just the two runs with eight strikeouts and zero walks. The zero walks was nice to see after he’d kind of reverted back to some control issues with nine walks in his last 15.2 innings pitched. Overall as a starter, he has a 3.33 ERA in 48.2 innings with 58 strikeouts and 11 walks. It’s been very impressive. He’s never faced the Phillies, but has faced Blanco, who is 3 for 6 against him.
First Pitch Temperature: 82 F
Wind: WNW at 8-12 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Game 3, Sunday: Yordano Ventura vs. Vincent Velasquez
One reason why I didn’t like the Giles deal for the Astros was because I thought Velasquez was ultimately probably a reliever and one who could give the Astros at least 80 percent of what Giles did without having to give up additional players to get him. He’s shown that he may actually be a starter, though, which is a reason to dislike the deal even more for the Astros, but good for the Phillies for getting him in that deal. He’s struck out a ton of batters, but getting deep into games has been an issue for him. In his second start of the year, he threw a complete game shutout against the Padres with 16 strikeouts and zero walks. It was one of the best pitched games you’ll see. Since then, he’s made 11 starts with a 4.35 ERA, so he isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but he has great stuff. This will be his second start since coming off the disabled list, so I imagine the Phillies will be careful with him. Velasquez has faced the Royals twice in his career, once in relief and once in a decent start where he gave up four runs on five hits in 6.1 innings.
Three things to watch for against Velasquez:
- He throws hard and he throws a lot of fastballs. They average 95 MPH and they come in more than 61 percent of the time, so that’s the pitch to sit on for hitters. He throws the occasional sinker a bit slower than his four-seamer and mixes in a slider, changeup and curve. He’s had great success with the fastball/sinker, but the off speed stuff is where he’s run into trouble, allowing a .476 SLG on the changeup, .607 on the slider and .500 on the curve.
- He’s been an absolute beast at home, going 3-1 with a 1.24 ERA in six starts there spanning 29 innings. That does include the great start against the Padres when they couldn’t hit anything, so that skews the sample a bit, but it happened. One area where he’s really struggled is pitching with runners on and in scoring position. With the bases empty, he’s allowed a .219/.273/.338 line. That’s fantastic. With runners on, that jumps to .289/.363/.467. With runners in scoring position, it rockets to .298/.370/.574.
- He doesn’t have much of a platoon split, holding lefties and righties both to an OPS of just below .700. Morales has a homer in four at bats against Velasquez, but the other four Royals to have faced him have combined for just one hit in 11 at bats. Obviously the sample is tiny, but it’s all we have to work with.
Ventura will make his second start since he was suspended for eight games, and he has to hope this one goes much better after he allowed a career-high seven earned runs against the Cardinals on Tuesday. In his previous two starts, he was fantastic, going 13.1 innings and giving up just one run on 11 hits with 15 strikeouts and one walk. Perhaps you can chalk the start on Tuesday up to some rust, but we’ll see what happens in this one. There aren’t really better options and the upside is incredible, so Ventura likely isn’t pitching for his rotation life, but he does need to be better if the Royals want to have a chance to make the playoffs again. He has also never faced the Phillies in his career, but has given up a triple in four at bats to Bourjos and a hit in three at bats to Paredes.
First Pitch Temperature: 82 F
Wind: WSW at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny
Boy, it’s hard to predict the Royals on the road, isn’t it? The Phillies are just 16-22 at home and the Royals are clearly the better team, but I just don’t know. I think the Royals win two of three in this one in spite of all their issues. That would be a good series win.