Series Preview: Royals vs. Detroit Tigers, September 2-4

After a disappointing start to the home stand, the Royals try to get back on the winning track against the team they’re now chasing in the Wild Card race (and the division), the Detroit Tigers. This is the biggest series of the year. And yes, that’ll be true of the next series unless the Royals completely wet the bed during this one. It might be easy to look at 51-58 and say their backs were against the wall then, but we saw what having time can do. That time has been cut drastically, so I’d say their backs are really against the wall now. This team has historically performed well in those situations. Last time they faced these Tigers, in Detroit, no less, they swept them. They’ve gone 9-4 against them this year. But now Detroit is hot, so this’ll be a tough series.

Tigers Offense

This is a really good offense, but in spite of their hot stretch, they’re not clicking as well as you might expect. They’re averaging just over four runs per game over their last 16, and that includes beating up on a Twins pitching staff and team that we know firsthand can make some offensive troubles look like things of the past. In the last series between these two teams, the Royals allowed three runs in the three games played. That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous. Of course a lineup with Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and a suddenly hot Justin Upton is dangerous. It’s just to say that they haven’t been as great as you’d expect.

Tigers bats over the last month:

Erick Aybar 23 93 .289 .312 .456 2 10 11 1
Miguel Cabrera 26 110 .333 .391 .566 5 15 13 0
Tyler Collins 24 71 .230 .324 .311 1 4 5 0
Jose Iglesias 13 48 .143 .213 .143 0 1 1 0
JaCoby Jones 2 8 .500 .500 .875 0 2 3 0
Ian Kinsler 27 118 .229 .314 .400 4 13 13 3
J.D. Martinez 27 112 .404 .446 .712 7 15 21 0
Victor Martinez 26 109 .297 .349 .535 6 15 15 0
Cameron Maybin 9 37 .333 .444 .567 1 8 5 1
James McCann 20 68 .258 .324 .452 3 11 5 0
Andrew Romine 19 50 .217 .265 .283 0 6 4 1
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 19 53 .136 .264 .273 2 6 6 0
Justin Upton 27 104 .223 .298 .415 5 13 12 2

Tigers Pitching

As talented as the offense is, the Tigers will go as far as their pitching will take them. Their starting staff has rounded out nicely after struggling early in the year. Justin Verlander is back to being really good. Michael Fulmer has been the best pitcher on the staff, though the Tigers have pushed him back, and I wonder if it’s because he’s starting to show the wear of a long season. Daniel Norris has had a lot of success since coming back to the big leagues, and Matt Boyd has been very good, too.  He was sent to the minors in a procedural move, but he’ll be back soon, just not for this series. With Mike Pelfrey and Jordan Zimmermann both on the DL, they’re scrambling a bit for depth, but they’ve been solid.

Tigers starters over the last month:

Michael Fulmer 5 33.1 1 3 3.24 24 4
Daniel Norris 5 26.2 1 2 3.38 17 11
Anibal Sanchez 6 37.2 2 2 4.30 28 7
Justin Verlander 6 40.2 3 1 2.43 43 6

The bullpen is still the Tigers bullpen, but a slightly better version of it. Francisco Rodriguez doesn’t have the stuff he once did, but he’s gotten the job done for them at the back end. They’ve got some guys like Alex Wilson who have been reliable for them. Still, though, if you get into the bullpen early enough, there’s a good chance you’re going to score some runs against them. They haven’t turned into the Royals bullpen overnight or anything.

Tigers relievers over the last month:

Shane Greene 10 11.1 1 1 0 8.74 12 3
Blaine Hardy 2 4.0 0 0 0 2.25 5 1
Mark Lowe 8 9.1 0 0 0 4.82 15 3
Francisco Rodriguez 11 10.1 1 2 8 3.48 5 6
Bruce Rondon 9 9.0 1 0 0 2.00 12 1
Kyle Ryan 12 12.1 0 0 0 2.19 6 3
Alex Wilson 9 14.1 0 0 0 1.88 8 3
Justin Wilson 13 12.0 2 1 0 6.00 11 5

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Game 1, Friday: Danny Duffy vs. Anibal Sanchez

On one hand, the Royals get to face Sanchez, so that should be good. But on the other hand, he’s actually been decent at times lately, including a great outing against the Royals in Detroit a couple weeks ago. Sure his team lost, but he looked like the old Sanchez in shutting down the Royals. It’s been a tough year, though, with an ERA approaching six, more walks than he had since he was in his mid-20s and 10 hits per nine innings. In his six starts in August, he allowed one, one, eight, zero, three and five runs. So yeah, you just don’t know what you’re going to get against him. You know of his Royals dominance. In total, he’s 6-4 with a 2.56 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) against KC, but if you take out his 1-2 with a 6.40 ERA against the Royals last year, those numbers look terrifyingly good. Hopefully he pitches like it’s 2015 in this one.

Three things to watch for against Sanchez:

  1. He doesn’t have the velocity he once did, throwing his four-seamer and his sinker a bit more than 55 percent of the time. They average a shade under 92 MPH. He also has a changeup, slider and a curve. His sinker has been the pitch that he’s gotten outs on with a .216 average against it and just a .363 SLG. The rest of his pitches have all been hit with varying degrees of success, but there’s plenty of success on all of them.
  2. I always find home/road splits interesting, even if they probably shouldn’t be. But it’s worth noting that he’s put up a 4.26 ERA in Detroit and a 7.65 ERA everywhere else. He’s given up less hits, struck out more batters and walked less at home. This game will not be played in Detroit, so that right there is a reason for some optimism against him.
  3. Righties have tattooed him this year with a .312/.349/.530 line against him. Lefties have hit him well (.262/.349/.438), but that line by righties is pretty telling. Eric Hosmer, Drew Butera, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain have all homered against him, but only Hosmer and to a lesser extent Alex Gordon have had any real success against him among players with at least 20 plate appearances.

Here’s the test for Duffy that I wasn’t sure we’d see this year. How does he respond from a bad start? He gave up a season-high seven runs last weekend in Boston to push his season ERA back above 3.00 and probably take his chances of being in the Cy Young conversation back to the starting line. It was the first time he’d allowed more than three runs in a game since a start against Detroit in mid-July. In fact, Duffy has allowed three or more runs in just seven of his 20 starts, and two of those are against the Tigers. Of course, he also went 7.2 against them in Detroit a couple weeks ago and gave up just a run on three hits. He’s 5-6 with a 3.24 ERA in 17 games (14 starts) against Detroit in his career. Saltalamacchia has tagged him for two homers in his career, as has Victor Martinez and Kinsler. J.D. Martinez has added a homer as well, but he’s really held his own against everyone but VMart.

First Pitch Temperature: 73 F
Wind: E at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 0%

Game 2, Saturday: Yordano Ventura vs. Michael Fulmer

The Royals get to see the rookie sensation again. This will be their third shot at him, but there’s no sign that seeing him multiple times actually helps as only the Red Sox and Angels seem to have fared better against him in a second chance among teams he’s faced twice. That said, he has allowed nine runs over his last 10.2 innings after throwing a complete game against the Rangers. He could potentially be hitting a wall. He’s now at 146 innings between Triple-A and the big leagues, which is about 21 more than his career high set last season. It’s not a huge increase, so it may be nothing, but it’s worth watching if you’re a Tigers fan. He’s 0-1 with a 1.98 ERA in two starts against the Royals, so he’s done well but let KC hang around.

Three things to watch for against Fulmer:

  1. He has a good fastball/sinker combination with both pitches coming in at above 95 MPH and both with good movement. That accounts for about 56 percent of the pitches the throws. He also has a slider that I think can improve but is already good. And he finishes things out with a changeup that has been just outstanding. He’s allowed just a .105 average on that changeup with one extra base hit this season.
  2. While Fulmer is a strike thrower for the most part, the first pitch route is not the way to go against him. Opponents are hitting just .238/.250/.413 on the first pitch. So I guess there’s more power than typically, but the success rate isn’t what you’d call high. Of course, there’s no time that’s been good to him the way he’s thrown this year. I guess early is the answer. His worst inning is the first with 13 runs allowed in his 21 starts. He really settles in after that before starting to wear down as the game goes on.
  3. Like Sanchez, he’s had a reverse platoon split this year, but unlike Sanchez nobody hits him well. Lefties have a .601 OPS against him while righties are sitting at just .665. Kendrys Morales is 3 for 5 against him and Salvador Perez has a homer against him. I guess Paulo Orlando and Cheslor Cuthbert each have two hits against him, so considering the sample, those are your bets to hit well if you believe in those tiny hitter/pitcher AB samples, which you probably shouldn’t.

Like Duffy, Ventura is coming off a bit of a clunker in his last start, but his didn’t seem as bad, and would have been a lot better if his defense didn’t let him down. Fortunately, the Royals found eight runs in an inning in their back pocket, so Ventura’s struggles ultimately didn’t matter. He’s still allowed three earned runs or less in 10 straight starts now, though he allowed four total on Sunday night. In that time, his ERA is 3.03 and he’s averaging better than six innings per start. That’s solid. If he can get back to those ways, the Royals should be just fine. He’s basically owned the Tigers in his career, going 6-0 with a 2.98 ERA in 10 games (nine starts). This year, he’s 2-0 with a 1.82 ERA, so this has been a good matchup for him. Victor Martinez has dinged him for three homers and hit well with J.D. Martinez also hitting well. Other than that, the guys with more than a handful of PAs against him haven’t been anything special.

First Pitch Temperature: 77 F
Wind: SE at 4-8 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 0%

Game 3, Sunday: Dillon Gee vs. Daniel Norris

There isn’t much of a sample in the career of Norris, but he’s been remarkably consistent. This year, he has a 3.86 ERA in nine games and has a 3.89 ERA in 27 career games. It’s too soon in his career to determine that this is who is, but this is definitely who he is right now, and that’s more than okay. Since coming back to the big leagues, he’s made five starts and posted a 3.38 ERA, which is exactly what the Tigers have needed. He’s not getting deep into games, pitching past the sixth just once, but the quality is certainly there. He’s made two career starts against the Royals and is 0-1 with a 3.090 ERA in them. The loss came a couple weeks ago in Detroit when he gave up two runs (one earned) in 5.1 innings.

Three things to watch for against Norris:

  1. He throws a 93 MPH fastball a bit less than half the time and supplements it with a sinker, slider, changeup and curve, so he throws a lot at hitters. The sinker has been crushed this year. Opponents are 12 for 20 against it with two doubles and a homer. The slider and curve have been hit pretty hard too, so the fastball/changeup combination are the key for Norris. That’s a combination that has given the Royals trouble in the past, so watch out.
  2. In his career, Norris has crumbled as the game has gone on. The first PA has been tough for opponents with a .210/.283/.358 line against him, but the second time through has brought a .293/.333/.533 line and the third time has meant a .324/.385/.521 opponent’s line. So the moral of this story is that if the Royals don’t get to him early, there’s still time.
  3. Norris has a reverse platoon split as well in his career with an OPS of .890 allowed to lefties compared to just .731 for lefties. The Royals don’t have much experience against him, of course, but Gordon, Cuthbert, Cain and Escobar all have two or more hits against him in no more than five at bats.

Gee has been a perfectly acceptable number five starter, and at times far more than that. In fact, he’s gone 18.1 innings in his last three starts with a 2.45 ERA and is 2-1 in that time. You can’t ask for much more from that spot in the rotation. He seems to be doing better and better and looking sharper each time out. I do think Ned Yost needs to be a little quicker with the hook on him as so many of his runs have come when it was pretty clear he was running out of steam but was left in anyway to maybe help save a somewhat tired bullpen. Hopefully Duffy and Ventura are good enough in this one and the expanded rosters being there will mean Gee can get his five or six good innings in and then hit the showers. He’s 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA against the Tigers in two games and one start. His start was in 2013 and his relief appearance was earlier this year when he allowed three runs in just an inning of work. He hasn’t faced many Tigers often, but Upton does have a .310/.375/.586 line against him in 32 plate appearances, so watch out for that matchup.

First Pitch Temperature: 80 F
Wind: SSE at 5-10 mph
Cloud Cover: Mostly Sunny/Clear
Precipitation: 0%

The Prediction

I think the Royals get back on track, but not in the way that many are hoping for. Instead I think they take two of three from the Tigers to stay relevant in the Wild Card race and head into a stretch of 14 games against sub-.500 teams where they can really make some noise.

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