The Royals return home for a battle with the New York Yankees, one of the teams lumped in the jumble that is the American League Wild Card race. It’s quite amazing that the Yankees are where they are after they were in sell-mode at the deadline. They traded two of their three big relievers, along with Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova. They also released Alex Rodriguez and lost Nate Eovaldi for the season (and next) with an injury. Similar to the Royals, after the trade deadline passed, the Yankees have surged. This is a big, big series with huge postseason implications. As you might recall, the Royals didn’t fare so well against the Yankees earlier in the year, losing three of four in New York.
On the whole, the Yankees offense hasn’t been very good. Their best hitter was Beltran, so losing him should have theoretically turned their offense from bad to worse. Of course that was before the Yankees turned to their farm system and found the greatest hitter in the history of the game, Gary Sanchez. Now, it’s fair to be skeptical that Sanchez’s numbers will take a tumble. He was just a .282/.339/.468 hitter in 313 minor league plate appearances with less homers than he’s hit in the big leagues. Hopefully for the Royals case, he’s gotten it all out of his system. Aside from Sanchez, they added Aaron Judge, who hasn’t been quite as good as Sanchez, but he’s had some moments. Other than that, this is a lineup of some pretty mediocre hitters that can score some runs at times, but other times will look overmatched.
Yankees lineup over the last month:
The rotation is, uh, interesting. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, there really isn’t much to like here. C.C. Sabathia is still capable of throwing a nice game, but after a good start to the season, he’s struggled a bit, though he was very good in the series finale against the Orioles. Michael Pineda is as capable of anyone of throwing a gem, but he has a 5.02 ERA in 25 starts. That’s a big enough sample to look past the peripherals. They have turned to two young guys, Chad Green and Luis Cessa, who haven’t been awful. It would be great for the Yankees if Luis Severino had continued his excellent rookie season, but he’s had to be sent to the minors because of how awful he’s been.
Yankees starters over the last month:
And the bullpen, which was once a massive strength is a little different now. With no Aroldis Chapman and no Andrew Miller, they still have talent, but it’s just not as daunting late in games. Dellin Betances is still dominant, but the crew behind him isn’t what it once was. Tyler Clippard has been a big help, and re-acquiring Adam Warren has been good too, but you just can’t replace two of the best relievers in baseball.
Yankees bullpen over the last month:
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Game 1, Monday: Dillon Gee vs. Michael Pineda
Pineda has some of the best stuff in the game…at times. He gets a ton of strikeouts and he limits walks, but in spite of having swing and miss stuff, he gives up a ton of hits. He’s allowed 327 in just over 300 innings over the last to season. It really doesn’t make a ton of sense. And he doesn’t even really give innings as he isn’t even averaging six innings per start this season. Game to game, it’s just too much of a crapshoot for the Yankees to know what they’re going to get out of him. He’s 3-4 with a 3.40 ERA in seven career starts against the Royals after giving up six runs in 5.2 innings against KC earlier this season.
Three things to watch for against Pineda:
- He’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher using a 94-95 MPH cutter about half the time and a slider a bit more than 40 percent of the time. He does have a changeup that he throws occasionally to give a different look, but the top two are used the vast majority of the time. The issue is that his cutter has been mashed to the tune of a .336 average and .615 slugging percentage. He gets all those strikeouts because the slider is great, but when he can’t get to it, he gets crushed.
- It stands to reason that first pitch swinging makes sense as he throws the cutter to start the at bat more than 60 percent of the time. The numbers show that strategy is a good one as opponents have a .400 average with a slugging percentage of .867 when the at bat ends on the first pitch. It’s risky because he throws strikes and if he has it working, you could keep him in the game a long time, but it’s probably worth that risk.
- Lefties have an OPS of .808 against Pineda compared to .780 for righties, so there’s a small platoon split, but nothing to write home about. Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer have homered against Pineda while Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando have also hit him well. That said, it’s all in pretty limited at bats, so we’ll see.
Gee is coming off one great start and one start where he was okay enough until he ran out of gas in the sixth inning. Really what he’s done as the fifth starter lately is pretty much what you’re always going to be okay with from that spot in the rotation. When he’s good, he’s limiting walks. When he’s not, he’s not, so that’s something to watch for early in this game. Gee faced the Yankees in long relief earlier this year and was very good in 5.1 innings. For his career, he’s 1-2 with a 3.04 ERA in four games (three starts) against them. He’s allowed a homer to Teixeira, but has really held down the Yankees lineup in his career.
Game 2, Tuesday: Edinson Volquez vs. Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka can really pitch. He has fantastic control, so he doesn’t hurt himself, and he gets enough strikeouts combined with the low walk rate that he’s just very tough. He’s sort of had to reinvent himself as a big leaguer with a declining strikeout rate, but he’s just always good. This year, he’s limited home runs better than ever in the past, which is obviously a good thing when you play half your games in Yankee Stadium. This is a tough matchup for the Royals, but they did get to him the one they’ve faced him, and it was earlier this year. he gave up six runs in seven innings, and that included three home runs.
Three things to watch for against Tanaka:
- He really focuses on three pitches, using a sinker, slider and splitter for the majority of what he throws. His sinker comes in around 90-91, and the splitter is about four miles per hour slower. He also throws a four-seam fastball, a curve and a cutter, but all are used fairly sporadically. His cutter is really the only pitch that’s been hit hard, so I guess the Royals should look for that.
- Tanaka has been really good on the road with a 2.09 ERA in 13 starts, so that’s not great. He’s also a guy you really have to get to early in the at bat because if you let him get ahead, he’s likely to get you out. When he’s ahead in the count, he’s allowed a .175/.182/.214 line. That’s just silly.
- He has almost no platoon split with an OPS of .629 allowed to righties and .622 to lefties. Lorenzo Cain has two homers against Tanaka while Cheslor Cuthbert has one. The sample is really limited, but that and a Gordon double are the big damage the Royals have done against Tanaka in their careers.
Volquez has just been so up and down this season that it’s hard to know what you’re going to get. His last time out, he only gave up two runs on three hits in five innings. The runs weren’t earned, so that’s good. He probably would have gone longer had it been an AL game where he didn’t need to be pinch hit for, so it’s not as bad as it looked from an innings perspective. But the start before that, he was bad. He’s given up four or more runs in 10 of his last 16 starts, so that’s not ideal. But he has looked a little better lately, I guess. He’s 2-1 with a 3.10 ERA in three career starts against the Yankees, which includes seven shutout innings against them last year. Gregorius, McCann, Teixeira, Gardner and Castro have all homered against him, so he’s had some trouble against some of the guys.
Game 3, Wednesday: Ian Kennedy vs. Luis Cessa
Cessa was actually sent to the Tigers as part of the Fulmer deal, but then was traded to the Yankees this past offseason in the deal that sent Justin Wilson to Detroit. He was converted to pitching after being signed out of Mexico, and has been successful. He throws a lot of strikes, but I haven’t been terribly impressed in the little I’ve seen from him. He’s not that hard to hit because he does spend a lot of time around the strike zone, which is a good thing for the Royals, but sometimes they struggle with guys like him. He’s never faced the Royals before.
Three things to watch for against Cessa:
- He has good velocity on his fastball that he throws about half the time. It comes in at around 95 MPH. He has a slider, curve and a changeup that he complements it with. The secondary pitches are a work in progress, though, so if the fastball isn’t working, there’s a good chance he’s going to get lit up. The fastball has been lit up pretty well this year, with a .593 SLG against it.
- There’s not much to go off here, but he’s been way better with the bases empty than with runners on. With nobody on, he’s allowed a .165/.233/.354 line, but when they find a way on base, that jumps to .343/.395/.657. That’s a huge difference. I guess getting him into the stretch is good.
- Cessa’s been better against lefties than righties in his brief career, but, again, there is very little sample. No Royals have faced him, but I have a hunch this is a good matchup for Kendrys Morales and maybe Alex Gordon, so that’s worth watching.
Kennedy continued his strong pitching last time out against the Red Sox, though he was in trouble basically the entire game. But he got out of the trouble and picked up another victory. He’s 3-0 with a 1.14 ERA in his last six starts. Somehow the Royals are only 4-2 in those games, but that’s another story for another day. The former Yankee has been as good as he’s been all season over the last few starts, and the Royals need that to keep up in order to keep them winning and heading toward a playoff spot. He got rocked by the Yankees earlier this year in New York, and is 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA in two career starts against his former team. Headley and McCann each have two homers against him while Castro and Gregorius have a home run each.
I think the Royals quiet the hot bats of the Yankees this weekend, in spite of not having the best match-ups on the mound during the series, and take two of three from the Yankees. I could actually see a few scenarios where they find their way to a sweep, so I’m fairly confident in this series. Getting Sanchez out of small parks should help at least. So yeah, two of three.