The Royals start their second half in a place they haven’t been yet this year, Detroit. No, that’s not a mistake. They haven’t visited Comerica Park and the Tigers yet, which means they have plenty of games in Detroit over the season’s final 74 games. I was worried about the Tigers as a threat in the AL Central before the season, and while they haven’t been great, they’re currently a half-game ahead of the Royals in the division and playing decent enough baseball. The Royals are 5-2 against them this season, but as I mentioned, all the games have been at Kauffman Stadium where the Royals are good. The Royals have actually won the season series in two of the past three years, but both times by the slimmest of margins, 10-9.
These Tigers can hit a little bit. They’re led by the same guy who has led them for years, Miguel Cabrera. In a “down” season, he’s hitting .293/.370/.507 with 18 homers through 88 games. It’s really amazing the career he’s had, and if this is his downturn, he’ll be a terror for a few more years. They’re missing J.D. Martinez, who hurt his elbow in Kansas City, and it looks like he won’t be back for a couple more weeks. Luckily for the Tigers, Steven Moya has been an adequate replacement. He hasn’t done much in the OBP department, but he’s kept the power game going in right field.
Victor Martinez has had a fantastic year after a terrible one last year. He’s become a force once again. Ian Kinsler is his usual steady self, but with more power than we’ve seen in recent seasons. And Nick Castellanos has had his breakout year for the Tigers, though he’s hitting .263/.309/.479 in his last 54 games. Sure that’s an arbitrary end point, but it’s also one-third of a season.
Two players have really surprised me from the Tigers. The first is a positive surprise for Detroit and that’s Cameron Maybin. He missed time early in the year with an injury, but since coming back, he’s hit like crazy with a .341 average. He’s had some luck on his side, but I think you have to in order to hit .341. He’s worked walks, limited strikeouts and just been a good contributor. On the other side of the coin is Justin Upton. He hasn’t hit for average, hasn’t worked walks and he’s struck out like crazy. He’s hitting just .235/.289/.381. If the Tigers really want to make a run, he’s going to need to step it up. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit a few home runs as the backup catcher, but after a scorching hot start, he’s hit just .172/.311/.273 in his last 122 plate appearances. Lots of walks, but not much else.
Jose Iglesias has had a rough go of it offensively this year, as has James McCann. The two of them were counted on to be solid contributors in a deep lineup, but neither has really lived up to that. On the bench, Mike Aviles has had a very poor offensive season while Andrew Romine has done the same.
The rotation is a little bit of a mess, especially with Jordan Zimmermann on the disabled list, though he hasn’t been all that great since a scorching hot start of his own. He had a 0.55 ERA through April, but has a 5.74 ERA since then, so the time off might actually do him some good. Justin Verlander has been pretty good this year, with an ERA a little higher than you’d expect, but he’s giving quality innings and looking a lot like a toned down version of his old self. The rotation has really been saved by Michael Fulmer, who has come up from Triple-A and been one of the league’s best starters ever since. He has a 2.11 ERA, striking out hitters and doing just about everything, except getting deep into games. Mike Pelfrey has been kind of exactly what you want out of a fifth starter, but he hasn’t had the luxury of being the fifth starter, unfortunately. Matt Boyd has been, well, bad again. And Anibal Sanchez is back in the rotation with Zimmermann’s injury and he has continued to be really rough.
The bullpen isn’t that bad, but it isn’t that good. Francisco Rodriguez has done well in the closer’s role. He’s not the shut down guy he once was, but he hasn’t been that for years. He gets the job done. Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson have set him up admirably, and Kyle Ryan has actually been solid in relief as well. A big free agent signee, Mark Lowe, has been about as awful as you can be. He has an ERA of 10.05 through 33 games and has given up more than 13 hits per nine innings. Shane Greene has been better as a reliever with great peripherals. Bruce Rondon and Dustin Molleken are currently rounding out their bullpen. Rondon has big potential. Molleken is basically a placeholder. In all, it’s not as bad as their bullpens of the past, but nobody will mistake them for the Royals.
Game 1, Friday: Ian Kennedy vs. Justin Verlander
Verlander’s season has come down to avoiding the meltdown-type start. He’s had three starts this season where he’s allowed seven or more runs. Unfortunately for him, they’ve been spaced out to the point where his season numbers have never had a chance to look sharp at any point even though, overall, he has provided the Tigers with some quality starts. That’s probably who he is at this point in his career, and I’d guess it’s because his margin for error just isn’t what it used to be, which happens when you’re 33 and have thrown more than 2,200 career innings. He’s made 39 starts against the Royals, the most against any team, and holds a 21-8 record with a 3.26 ERA. Things have changed, though. Through 2011, he was 13-2 with a 2.40 ERA against the Royals in 19 starts. Since then, he’s gone 8-6 with a 4.02 ERA in 20 starts. He got the win earlier this year in a game where he allowed four runs on eight hits in seven innings.
Three things to watch for against Verlander:
- His devastating fastball that once averaged better than 96 MPH isn’t what it once was, but it’s still good. He averages a shade under 94 MPH on it and can still reach back for more. He throws it a lot, more than half the time. He also throws a curve, a cutter and a changeup and the occasional slider. His fastball has been the pitch hitters have found success on, hitting .267 against it with a .507 slugging percentage. He’s allowed 11 of 16 homers on it.
- During the game, the announcers will spend a lot of time telling you how good hitters are on the first pitch against him. When the at bat ends on that first pitch, hitters have a .469 average with a 1.031 SLG. But way too often, they swing at the first pitch and the at bat isn’t over, so they’re down in the count and then he can go to work. When he’s ahead, hitters are hitting just .169 with a .230 SLG against him. I’m not saying swinging early can’t work. I’m saying that it’s a lot riskier than certain stats make it seem.
- This year, Verlander has been much better against lefties than righties, which is odd. He’s allowed a .641 OPS to lefties compared to .745 against the righty bats. Part of that could be that he attacks lefties a little more with his cutter, which has been a good pitch for him. Salvador Perez is a career .478/.469/.761 hitter against Verlander. Kendrys Morales is a career .324 hitter with two home runs against him. Brett Eibner has a home run against him. Paulo Orlando has a double and a triple in six at bats against him. Alex Gordon has a couple homers against him. Royals hitters have seen plenty of him and a few have even had some success, which is nice to see.
Kennedy has been good a lot of the time this year. He kind of has had a similar season to Verlander in that he just needs to avoid the really bad start. He’s given innings for the most part and kept the Royals in the game. Lately, he’s had the strikeout pitch working like crazy, getting 29 of them over his last three starts, spanning 18 innings. The home run ball has really plagued him, though, allowing at least one in seven straight starts and 10 of his last 11. This is after starting the year allowing just three through his first six starts. He faced the Tigers once this season and took the loss while allowing two runs on six hits over 6.1 innings. He’s 0-3 with a 4.94 ERA in four career starts against them. Kinsler has four doubles in nine at bats against him. Upton has a home run against him. Quite a few Tigers have hit him well in somewhat limited plate appearances.
First Pitch Temperature: 76° F
Wind: NW becoming N at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Cloudy
Precipitation: 20% chance of showers/thunderstorms
Game 2, Saturday: Danny Duffy vs. Mike Pelfrey
I have to admit that I wasn’t certain why the Tigers gave Pelfrey a two-year deal in the offseason, but in watching the Royals rotation this year, I wouldn’t mind having a guy like that. That says way more about the Royals than Pelfrey, but that’s where we are. He’s given up an incredible 130 hits in 98.1 innings pitched this year and has a 1.71 WHIP, so he’s pretty lucky to have an ERA hovering near average, but that’s what he’s done to start the year. He’s been good in two July starts, but yeah, he’s not a quality big league pitcher. I still wouldn’t have given him a two-year deal. He is 1-3 with a 5.35 ERA in seven career starts against the Royals, including giving up four runs on eight hits in five innings in a loss earlier this year. Somehow he had a 2.20 ERA in three starts against KC last year.
Three things to watch for against Pelfrey:
- He is going to throw you a sinker or two and maybe three. He throws it more than two-thirds of the time at around 93-94 MPH, so it’s a hard one, and he does get his fair share of ground balls. So that explains the hits to some extent, though the Tigers do have pretty sound defense up the middle. He also throws a slider, a splitter and the occasional curve. The sinker gets hit to the tune of a .336 average, but hitters have a .485 average against the slider with a .697 slugging percentage. That’s your money pitch if you’re batting against Pelfrey.
- The traditional thought is that guys who throw sinkers need to be a little tired, so they get stronger as the game goes on. Pelfrey kind of embodies that. On his first 25 pitches, he allows a .398/.455/.561 line and that drops significantly over his next 50 before popping back up. The same trends can be seen the first time through the order vs. the second time through. I think he just wears down fairly quickly, though, because the third time through and after pitch 75, he really, really struggles. He’s working on extra rest in this one, so if he needs to be a little tired to be effective, the Royals should be just fine.
- He’s allowed an OPS of .899 to lefties and .842 to righties, so pretty much everyone is hitting him well. Interestingly enough, he’s walked 19 lefties and struck out 23 while walking 19 righties and striking out 23. Maybe that’s only interesting to me. Eric Hosmer has hit him great, with a .417/.588/.500 line against him in 17 plate appearances. Gordon and Alcides Escobar have also done damage against him, but the rest of the lineup has struggled a bit.
Duffy was the Royals best starter in the first half, which is a good thing and a bad thing. He was legitimately great after moving to the rotation, but you’d like for a guy who started in the bullpen to not have to be the savior of the pitching staff. I feel like he really took a step forward in his last few starts. After the restrictors were taken off on the pitch count, he went 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 51 innings over eight starts. That’s giving the team innings and good innings. He struck out 60 and walked 10 in that time, so he’s basically doing everything well but limiting home runs. In his last three starts, he went 23 innings and struck out 23 while walking one with a 2.35 ERA. He’s been really fun to watch. He’s 3-6 with a 3.24 ERA in 15 games (12 starts) against the Tigers in his career. He’s faced them three times this year, but in his one start, he gave up three runs on four hits in five innings and threw 88 pitches. Saltalamacchia has a homer against him, Victor Martinez has two and Castellanos and Kinsler each have one. He’s really done a nice job against most Tigers actually, so that’s good to see.
First Pitch Temperature: 77° F
Wind: SSW becoming SSE at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Game 3, Sunday: Yordano Ventura vs. Michael Fulmer
The Mets made it to the World Series, largely because of their trade for Yoenis Cespedes that sent Fulmer to the Tigers, but with some of their injuries this year, how badly would they like to have him back? He’s been simply fantastic in the big leagues, posting a 2.11 ERA in 76.2 innings. As I said above, the one knock on him is that he hasn’t consistently gotten deep into games, but that’s to be expected. The crazy thing is that his 2.11 ERA is a little misleading. He had a 6.52 ERA through his first four starts. Since then? He’s 7-1 with a 0.63 ERA in nine starts. I mean, come on. He’s probably gotten a bit lucky with a .182 BABIP in that time, but part of that is getting weak contact. The Royals saw him once. He gave up just a run on five hits in 5.2 innings, but he did walk four batters, which is a career high for him. Yes, against the Royals, he walked more than he’s walked against anyone else. You can’t predict baseball.
Three things to watch for against Fulmer:
- He throws a fastball/sinker combo and both are thrown hard. The fastball averages just over 96 MPH and the sinker just under. The sinker has been hit , though, so that’s the one to look out for. He also throws a hard slider that has been murder on opposing hitters, account for 30 of his strikeouts this year in 77 at bats. His changeup has also been out of this world good with a .081 average against it.
- The way to get to Fulmer is pretty much to wait. He is just so good early in the games, but he does tend to tire out. On his first 75 pitches, he allows a .195/.269/.269 line. After that? It jumps to .245/.338/.509. He can be beat. It’s just not easy.
- He’s been much better against lefties, holding them to a .549 OPS compared to .647 against righties. He’s been so good against both, but lefties do have a bit more of a shot, I guess. Perez homered off him and Paulo Orlando picked up a double. Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield and Morales also had hits off him earlier this year.
This game is the latest edition of the Ventura roulette. Will the royals get the guy who went seven innings and gave up three runs in his last start or the guy who got lit up for 11 runs in eight innings over the two prior? Maybe they’ll get the guy who gave up one run in 13.1 innings in the two starts before those while walking one and striking out 15. It’s just so hard to say with him. The talent is obviously there, but you don’t know what you’re going to get. He was really good in the second half last year. He was really good in the second half in 2014. Maybe the break just agrees with him and he can come out of the gates pitching well like he has the last two seasons. That would be huge for the Royals. This is the team to do it against for Ventura. He’s 6-0 with a 3.27 ERA in eight games (seven starts) against the Tigers in his career. He’s already 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA against them this year in two starts. He’s given up two homers to Martinez and gotten hit hard by Cabrera, but he’s limited the Tigers he’s faced more than a couple times for the most part.
First Pitch Temperature: 82° F
Wind: SW at 10-15 mph, gusting to 20 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny
Who knows? I think the Royals are better than the Tigers, but they’re just so unpredictable on the road. I like the matchups in this series, though, and I’m feeling confident about this team. Maybe it’s the All-Star Game performances from the three who played, but I think they’re going to start playing much better baseball in the second half. I think the Royals take two of three and start the second half on the right note.