The Royals return home for their final series before the All-Star break to take on the Seattle Mariners. Both these teams have taken similar paths in a way in that they’ve both gotten to their slightly above .500 record and hanging around the wild card race by being wildly inconsistent. The good thing about an inconsistent team is that the highs are pretty high. Of course, the lows are about as low as you can feel as a fan of a team that’s actually pretty decent. The Royals lost two of three to the Mariners in Seattle earlier this season. Last year, the Royals won four of six from the Mariners, so the hope is that there’s a correction in store.
Seattle can hit a little, which is not typical for that team in recent years. They have some big time power up and down their lineup. It’s led, of course, by Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. Both are having their typical seasons, which isn’t much of a surprise in Cruz’s case, but after a rough start to last year for Cano, there was a question if he was in decline. It turns out he’s just fine. They have help, though. Kyle Seager continues to be one of the more underrated players in baseball. He has power, works a walk, doesn’t strike out and plays very good defense at third base. He’s a really good player. And they have Seth Smith, who has been really good for the Mariners this season.
One guy who has been sort of a surprise is Dae-ho Lee, who has hit for some power in his first season in the USA. For awhile, he had an odd line of 10 home runs and no doubles, but he’s added a few doubles to his game since then. That may only be interesting to me. Oh well. Some of the lineup hasn’t been great. Adam Lind has hit for power, but has struggled to do much else. Ketel Marte didn’t follow up his nice 2015 season with much so far this year, but he still looks like a menace for years to come. Nori Aoki has been hurt and was optioned to AAA recently, so he hasn’t been what the Mariners hoped for.
One guy who doesn’t have fantastic overall offensive numbers but has been really good is Leonys Martin who retooled his swing and now has some very real power. He still doesn’t hit for a great average, which leads to a lower OBP, but with his defense and that power, he’s a good player. Chris Iannetta is doing his usual act of walking enough to have a respectable OBP and hitting for enough power to be playable. He’s a better player than I think the numbers suggest. The bench is rounded out by Franklin Gutierrez, Shawn O’Malley, Dan Robertson and Jesus Sucre.
The Mariners rotation doesn’t look the same without Felix Hernandez, who is on the DL for another couple weeks or so probably. In his place, they’ve survived. Taijuan Walker has been solid this year for them, but his record doesn’t reflect it (Kill the Win?). He’s shown fantastic control, an ability to get a strikeout and has just been really good. Unfortunately, Hisashi Iwakuma hasn’t been as good as the Mariners were hoping when he fell into their laps after a deal with the Dodgers fell apart. He hasn’t been bad necessarily, but they need better from him. He is giving innings, so that’s a plus. Wade Miley has not been good this season either after a trade with the Red Sox brought him to Seattle. He’s just been too easy to hit. Nate Karns has been okay, getting a lot of strikeouts with a lot of walks allowed, but he’s been moved to the bullpen for now, it seems, in favor of Wade LeBlanc. LeBlanc has done a nice job. And James Paxton has stepped into the rotation. He throws very hard, has great stuff, but is somehow extremely hittable. I think we know that story well in Kansas City.
The bullpen has been okay, but a little top heavy. Steve Cishek was brought in to close, and he’s actually been really good for the Mariners after a tough season last year. A familiar name has also been really good for the Mariners – Mike Montgomery. He works multiple innings at times, can get lefties out and has been a really solid reliever for them. Of course, now he’s starting a game in Walker’s absence. Vidal Nuno has also done a nice job for them with good control and lots of strikeouts. One of their better prospects, Edwin Diaz, was called up to help the bullpen a few weeks back, and he’s also been excellent, striking out nearly two batters per inning and limiting walks. He’s electric and looks like a real weapon. The rest of the bullpen includes a struggling Joaquin Benoit, Karns and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Game 1, Thursday: Danny Duffy vs. James Paxton
If you like lefties who throw hard, this is the game for you. Paxton has always been pretty successful in the big leagues, but has had some trouble staying healthy in the past. This year, he started the season in AAA and was really just okay, but was called up when the Mariners had a need. He’s been kind of a different pitcher than his previous stints in the big leagues. He’s getting more strikeouts now, but he’s also been very hittable, as I mentioned in the open. 56 hits in 40.1 innings doesn’t look right for a pitcher with the kind of stuff he has. He’s 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA in two career starts against the Royals. Last year, his start against them lasted 1.1 innings and he gave up two runs on five hits. He left that start with a torn fingernail on his hand.
Three things to watch for against Paxton:
- I mentioned he throws hard. He averages between 96 and 97 MPH with his fastball, which he throws more than 60 percent of the time. It moves too, so I’m surprised he gets hit like he does. He also has a changeup, a cutter and mixes in the occasional curve and sinker. The fastball has been hit decently, with a .333 average against it and .471 slugging percentage, but the curve and changeup have been absolutely rocked. The sample is small, but the results are rough.
- I think the fact that his off speed stuff hasn’t been effective is really holding him back. Okay, I don’t think that. I know that. When he’s behind in the count, he doesn’t have anywhere else to turn but the fastball, and if a hitter knows it’s coming, he can sit on it. And, not surprisingly, he’s allowed a .447/.557/.681 line when he’s behind in the count.
- Paxton has had a reverse split this year, allowing an OPS of .801 to righties, which isn’t good, and an OPS of .932 to lefties. That’s really not good. No Royals have much experience against Paxton, but Eric Hosmer does have two hits and a double in four at bats. Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar all have hits as well against him, but nobody has more than four at bats against him.
It seems like we’ve reached the point in the season where Duffy is unquestionably the Royals best starter. He almost threw his first career complete game in his last outing against the Phillies, and he now has thrown 16.2 innings over his last two games, allowing just four runs. Since becoming a starter, he’s 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA in 10 starts. He’s up to 57.1 innings in those 10 starts, which is pretty impressive considering he went 7.1 in his first two while he was ramping up pitch count. Since the start of June, he’s gone six or more innings in five of his seven starts with 53 strikeouts and just nine walks. He may give up some home runs because he’s around the plate so much, but he’s been really, really good. He’s 0-1 with a 1.69 ERA in five games (three starts) against the Mariners in his career. Iannetta and Zunino both have hit him well in limited at bats while Cano has four hits in 11 at bats against him.
First Pitch Temperature: 89 F
Wind: SW at 8-12 mph
Cloud Cover: Partly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 20% chance of showers/thunderstorms from 5 PM CDT – 8 PM, then 40% from 8 PM – Midnight.
Game 2, Friday: Yordano Ventura vs. Hisashi Iwakuma
When Iwakuma’s physical nixed his deal with the Dodgers, the Mariners were thrilled they were able to get him back, and rightfully so. His contract is built for a guy who is a good pitcher, but also failed a physical, essentially giving him a one-year deal with an option and then another option. Like Paxton, though, Iwakuma has been extremely hittable this season, allowing 121 in 107.2 innings, which is four more hits than he allowed last year in 22 less innings. His control, while still quite good, has taken a small step back, and he’s also striking out less hitters than he ever has before. Maybe the Dodgers were on to something. He’s 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA in four career starts against the Royals and has been downright dominant for the most part. He threw seven shutout innings against the Royals last year, striking out 10 and walking just one.
Three things to watch for against Iwakuma:
- He was never a hard thrower, but his velocity continues to drop and he now averages between 88 and 89 MPH on his fastball and his sinker. He throws the sinker about 25 percent of the time and the fastball about 22 percent of the time, so they’re important pitches for him. He also throws a splitter at about 84 MPH and a cutter slightly harder than that. He mixes in a slider and a curve as well, so you definitely can’t sit on a pitch against him. The sinker and cutter have been the problem pitches this year, both getting hit pretty hard.
- It looks like Iwakuma is just simply fading and fading quickly this year. In the first plate appearance, he holds hitters to an OPS of .674 and has a 4.3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. The second time through, hitters have a .943 OPS and the third time through, they have an .840 OPS. The strikeout to walk ratio plummets as well. Wait him out and it looks like he’ll become hittable.
- He’s held righties down okay this year with a .254/.290/.464 line (that SLG is pretty darn high, though), but lefties have hit .325/.368/.508 against him. It would be nice if the Royals had Mike Moustakas for this one. Only Hosmer has hit him well among Royals player, though Perez does have a homer against him. It’s his only hit in nine at bats.
And now we get to the enigma that is Ventura. He looked so good in his two starts prior to his suspension, but then got hit hard by the Cardinals and gave up two home runs to the Phillies before leaving due to a sprained ankle from running on the bases. It’s hard to have any idea what to expect from Ventura at this point, and I imagine that’s running through his head as well. This doesn’t look like a great matchup for him as the Mariners can really hit a fastball and a changeup. They struggle with curves, though, so hopefully he has that working in this one. He’s 0-3 with a 4.34 ERA in five career starts against the Mariners and has already allowed five runs in four innings against them this season. Of course, that was back when he was walking the entire world, so maybe he’ll fare better in this start. Cruz, Seager, Smith and Zunino have all homered against him and Marte is 3 for 4 in his career against him.
First Pitch Temperature: 83 F
Wind: Variable at 3-6 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 20% chance of showers/thunderstorms
Game 3, Saturday: Edinson Volquez vs. Wade Miley
When the Mariners traded for Miley, I believe they saw an opportunity to acquire a good middle of the rotation starter, who had a couple rough seasons but the peripherals showed that would be corrected. He’s always been a guy who you could get a hit off and score a couple runs against, but he’d give innings and keep teams in the game. This year, that hasn’t been the case. His strikeout rate has dropped (as has his walk rate, to be fair), but he’s allowing more hits than at any time since his rookie year and has given up home runs at a much higher rate than ever before. He’s done well against the Royals, going 4-1 with a 2.91 ERA in five career starts, which includes a complete game shutout earlier this season.
Three things to watch for against Miley:
- This season, Miley has started throwing his fastball more than his sinker, so maybe that’s part of his problem. He throws the fastball about 32 percent of the time and it comes in around 91 MPH. The sinker is thrown about 20 percent of the time at a similar velocity. He also has a good changeup, a slider and a curve. That changeup is probably why the Royals struggle against him. The fastball and sinker have been hit pretty darn hard this year, so maybe they can pick on that.
- I wonder if Miley works extra hard to try to establish his fastball early because he struggles on both the first pitch, the first batter and the early part of games. That would explain a lot of his struggles. Maybe he should pitch backwards a little more than he has.
- He’s been hit hard by righties, to the tune of an .833 OPS and held lefties a little better to a .747 OPS. That could bode well for the Royals with only two big lefty bats in the lineup now. Really only Perez and Morales have hit him well in their career with Perez having the only homer among Royals hitters.
Volquez hasn’t been nearly as confounding as Ventura, but it’s close. He has pitched better of late, and his final line against the Blue Jays on Monday is not indicative of his performance. Even so, he’s carrying a 6.02 ERA since his fourth start of the year. If the Royals want to win this season, that has to get better because he’s one of the best they have. The good news is that he’s 4-0 with a 2.37 ERA in seven games (six starts) against the Mariners in his career, though the last time he faced them was 2013. He hasn’t faced too many Mariners too many times. Lind has hit him okay, but he’s faced him the most of anyone, just 11 times.
First Pitch Temperature: 86 F
Wind: SE at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny
Precipitation: 30% chance of showers/thunderstorms
Game 4, Sunday: TBD vs. Mike Montgomery
The Mariners are pulling Montgomery out of the bullpen to make this start against his former organization. He’s pitched really well out of the bullpen this year, going 50.1 innings in 30 games with a good amount of strikeouts and decent enough control. As a starter last year, he stormed out of the gates but really slowed down once the league caught on to him, so it’ll be interesting to see how he performs in this one. I imagine he’ll be on a pitch count of sorts, so even if he’s good, he won’t be in that long to face the Royals. He threw a shutout in one of his first starts last year against the Royals and pitched one inning of scoreless relief against them earlier this year, so he’s had a nice start to his career against KC.
Three things to watch for against Montgomery:
- As a starter last year, Montgomery’s fastball was in the 91-92 MPH range and he used it about one-third of the time. As a reliever, it’s jumped to 94-95 MPH and he uses it about 45 percent of the time. He also throws a sinker that’s gained significant velocity in the bullpen, a curve, a cutter and a changeup. When he’s been hit, he’s been hit on that fastball.
- As a starter, Montgomery has actually gotten better as games have gone on, which is why it’s a little surprising that he’s been so good as a reliever. You can’t let him settle in or else he’ll get in a groove and have a great game against a team. That’s what happened to the Royals against him last year. They didn’t strike early when they had a chance and then he didn’t give anything up the rest of the way.
- Montgomery has had basically no platoon split in his short career, allowing a slightly higher OPS to righties than lefties, but not enough to really even think about. Escobar has two hits in his career against him, but only Gordon, Morales and Perez even have one.
This is supposed to be Chris Young’s spot in the rotation, but he’s on his way to setting some home run records, so I imagine he will not get this start, though you never know. Kris Medlen was pulled from his rehab assignment, so the options are likely to make this a bullpen game or to go with Young. We’ll update once we know.
First Pitch Temperature: 85 F
Wind: SE at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Partly Sunny
Precipitation: 30% chance of showers/thunderstorms
I don’t love the way the Royals are playing and I feel like the Mariners could give the Royals fit. That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Royals actually win three of four heading into the break to give themselves something good to think about while they’re off.