The Royals struggled at home again, all but completely ending their playoff chances in 2016, but they’re not technically dead yet after taking the last three from the White Sox. They have the opportunity to play spoiler as well, so that’s the storyline as they’re in Cleveland to play the Indians this week. Cleveland is essentially a lock to win the division, but they’re dealing with their own problems with injuries to two of their top three starting pitchers, so they’re likely somewhat vulnerable right now. The Royals have struggled in Cleveland this year, going just 1-6. They’re 4-2 against the Indians in Kansas City, though, and it seems they’ve swapped road woes for home woes, so maybe that’ll transfer in this series as well.
Up and down the lineup, they can hit. And if you’ll recall, their offense was supposedly a question heading into the season. Well, asked and answered. They’ve barely even missed Michael Brantley, even though his injury was what had people concerned. Instead, Jose Ramirez has filled in and basically provided exactly what Brantley provides, which is a bit surprising. Add in Tyler Naquin becoming their best player and it’s clear they’ve gotten there with a few surprises, but I think Royals fans know that you need some surprises to become great. Although, Naquin has been sitting more recently as he’s slumped late, so maybe the Royals are catching him at a good time. He’s killed the Royals this year.
Indians Offense the Last Month:
The starting rotation was supposed to be the strength of this team. And it still is, but it’s not to the extent that I think most imagined. Corey Kluber is having a Cy Young caliber season once again, and Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have both had very good years, but Carrasco has a broken hand now and Salazar is out with elbow troubles, which leaves Kluber on an island with other capable starters, but nobody as good as the two they’ve lost. Trevor Bauer has done some solid work in the rotation this year, but he’s still been up and down. Add in Josh Tomlin and a few others who just aren’t very good and you can see why there might be some trouble in paradise.
Indians Starters the Last Month:
The bullpen, on the other hand, is firing on all cylinders. When they acquired Andrew Miller from the Yankees, I think most believed he would slot in as the closer, but he’s been used by Terry Francona in a way I wish all managers would use their best reliever. He’s been the fireman. He’s gotten saves, sure, but he’s been put in the game when he was needed the most and not saved for the ninth inning. It helps that they have a very good closer already in Cody Allen to hold down that ninth inning, but I love the way they’re using Miller. Add in Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship, and you can see that this is a very good bullpen that should do just fine protecting leads in the postseason.
Indians Relievers the Last Month:
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Game 1, Tuesday: Edinson Volquez vs. Josh Tomlin
I was skeptical of Tomlin’s success last season when he posted a 3.02 ERA with a home run rate that would fit in on the Royals staff. Then this season, he started doing it again. He had a 3.27 ERA after his 12th start of the year on June 14th and even had a 3.34 ERA after his 17th start on July 17th. His 1.8 HR/9 rate at that point wasn’t quite Chris Young bad, but it was the kind of rate you’d expect from a guy with an ERA around 5.00, not in the low 3s. It wasn’t just the homers, but I didn’t buy his strikeout rate because I just didn’t see the stuff there to get it done. Now, he does have fantastic control, so that part is legitimate and a big reason why he does allow so many homers, but everything else always seemed pretty pedestrian to me. In his last 10 games (nine starts), he’s posted an ERA of 8.08 with a HR/9 rate of 2.6. Yikes. He’s 8-4 in his career against the Royals with a 4.66 ERA over 19 games (15 starts). This year, he’s 2-0 with a 2.79 ERA and just two homers allowed in 19.1 innings.
Three things to watch for against Tomlin:
- Tomin’s number one pitch is his cutter that he throws nearly 42 percent of the time at about 86-87 MPH. So no, it’s not overpowering, but when it’s on, he can get hitters to hit into some weak contact. When it’s not, look out. He also has a fastball that he throws about 31 percent of the time at 88-89 MPH. He mixes in a curve, change and sinker as well. The cutter has been responsible for 20 of his homers allowed, and opponents have hit .332 with a .590 SLG against it. While it can be good, it’s been a problem.
- Another big problem for Tomlin has been working with runners on. He’s allowed 20 of his 35 homers with the bases empty, which is sort of helpful, but he’s allowed just a .257/.272/.449 line with nobody on. When runners reach, he’s allowed a .318/.358/.631 line. It’s a bit better with runners in scoring position with a .298/.339/.596 line, but better is definitely just a relative term.
- Tomlin’s been much better against lefties than righties this season, allowing a .715 OPS to lefties compared to .874 against the right-handed bats he faces. Righties also have 21 of the 35 homers allowed, though they also have just under 60 percent of the plate appearances, so that part makes sense. Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifeld all have homers against Tomlin, but I think if Hunter Dozier goes in this one that he gets his first in this game. Perez, in particular, has been amazing against Tomlin, going 14 for 23 with eight extra base hits.
Volquez continues to do everything he can to make us forget that he was reliable and good enough to start the first game of both the ALCS and the World Series for the Royals last year. After starting the year 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA in his first four starts, he’s gone 7-11 with a 6.11 ERA in 27 starts since. In 24 starts last season, Jeremy Guthrie went 8-8 with a 6.10 ERA. So there’s that. He’s now given up four or more runs in nine out of his last 10 starts and has a 6.83 ERA in his last 17 starts. He’s 3-6 with a 6.38 ERA in 11 career starts against the Indians, but hasn’t been that bad this year, going 1-2 with a 4.38 ERA in four starts. Still, I don’t have high hopes. Santana, Kipnis, Lindor, Napoli, Ramirez, Naquin and Almonte all have homers against Volquez with Napoli, Kipnis, Chisenhal, Naquin and Santana hitting him especially well.
Game 2, Wednesday: Ian Kennedy vs. Corey Kluber
Just as I lament being terribly wrong about Jose Quintana, I pat myself on the back for liking what I saw from Kluber late in 2012 and in early 2013 before he broke out. Now he’s one of the best in baseball, and, as I said above, might be heading to his second Cy Young. It wasn’t always smooth sailing this year for Kluber, though. After allowing six runs in seven innings on May 31, his ERA stood at 4.15 and he was just 4-6. He’s been on some kind o ftear since then, going 13-3 with a 2.54 ERA in his last 19 starts. He’s averaging more than a strikeout per inning and going nearly seven innings per start. He’s really good. He’s 6-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 17 career starts against the Royals, which includes a 1-1 record this year with a 2.50 ERA in three starts.
Three things to watch for against Kluber:
- He throws a heavy sinker and a good fastball, both at about 93-94 MPH. Those take about half his pitches. He also has a cutter at about 90 MPH that can give hitters absolute fits. Add in an excellent slider and the occasional changeup and he’s a tough guy to guess against and also a tough guy to hit in general. He’s allowed a.311 average on his fastball and a .481 slugging percentage. On the sinker, he’s allowed a .494 slugging percentage, so I guess if you’re going to get to him, it’ll be on those pitches.
- If you’re going to get to Kluber, you’re going to get to him early, but even that’s just relative. The first time through the lineup, he’s allowed a .229/.281/.390 line. That doesn’t seem especially good for hitters, but he has allowed nine of his 19 homers in that time through the lineup. And also, It’s better than the .210/.278/.329 he allows the second time through (with three homers) and the .195/.249/.336 line the third time through. So yeah. Good luck, guys.
- Kluber’s been dynamite against everyone, but a little better against righties. He’s held them to a .605 OPS compared to .649 against lefties. Hosmer has fared well with three homers against him and a .596 SLG. But that’s really about it for Royals success stories. Gordon has homered twice against him and Perez once, so that’s something, I guess.
When the Royals signed Kennedy to the big deal in the offseason, I imagine they were looking for something like 200 innings with an ERA 10-15 percent above the league average and a steadying influence on the rotation. To date, he’s on pace for 195 innings and an ERA that’s 23 percent above the league average. He’s had his issues with home runs, but he’s continued to strike hitters out, even without the pitcher to pick on and he’s just been generally very good. The only thing I’m a little disappointed in is the innings because I figured he’d average well over six per start, but he hasn’t. He’s been especially good over his last 11 starts, going 5-1 with a 2.51 ERA and averaging better than six innings per start. That timeframe is relevant because the start before that was a disaster against these very Indians, so we’ll see how things go here. He did throw seven shutout innings in Cleveland in early May. He’s now 2-2 with a 5.59 ERA in six career starts against them with nine homers allowed in just 37 innings. Martinez, Naquin, Davis, Napoli, Gimenez, Kipnis and Santana have all gone deep against him. Most have them have good numbers against him aside from the homers too.
Game 3, Thursday: Jason Vargas vs. Mike Clevinger
Clevinger was a fourth round pick of the Angels back in 2011 and found success the last two seasons in the high minors with a 2.73 ERA last year in AA and a 3.00 ERA this year in AAA. He’s gotten enough strikeouts and limited walks well enough to be successful in the minors, but the control part hasn’t really translated to the big leagues, and it’s gotten him in trouble. He’s still allowed less hits than innings and has struck out almost a batter per inning, but he’s walked five per nine, which is just too many. He’s been very good in his last two starts, and part of it is that he hasn’t been forced to go more than four innings. In his eight innings in those two starts, he’s allowed just two runs on five hits. If the Indians stick with that plan, he could be trouble. He’s never faced the Royals in his career.
Three things to watch for against Clevinger:
- He throws a fastball about 57 percent of the time. It comes in at 94-95 MPH and when it’s moving like he likes it to, can be very good. His changeup gets him some grounders, but his slider gets more fly balls than you’d probably like because it doesn’t have the depth you’d prefer to see. He throws both of them 16-17 percent of the time. He also has a curve and a cutter. The fastball and the curve are the pitches hitters have done damage on this season.
- The sample isn’t huge, but not falling behind on Clevinger is a good idea. When ahead in the count, opponents are hitting .306/.533/.551 against him, but when he’s ahead in the count, that plummets to .193/.193/.316. He does throw a lot of first pitch strikes, maybe in an effort to not fall behind in the count. With that in mind, I think Royals hitters should go first pitch fastball hunting and if they don’t get it, let him make his own mistakes later in the count.
- He’s massacred lefties to the tune of a .171/.281/.237 line, but right-handed hitters have done quite well with a .274/.361/.516 line. No Royals have faced him, but I think this could be a good matchup for Perez if he doesn’t get stuck having to hit a slider.
Vargas will make his second start of the year, and looked really solid in his first outing against the White Sox the other day. His changeup seemed to have good depth to it and he was keeping hitters fairly off balance for the most part. This is a much tougher test for him, and I imagine he’ll be limited to something like 65 pitches and four innings, if even that long, but it’s good to see him back on the mound. If he can be counted on for next year, the rotation suddenly looks a lot deeper and like there’s one less piece of shopping necessary for the Royals in the offseason. He’s 6-3 with a 4.70 ERA in 12 career starts against the Indians. He was 3-0 with a 3.18 ERA last year and is 4-1 with a 4.20 ERA in seven starts in his Royals career against them. Napoli has four career homers against him and Crisp has two. Both have hit him well, but Napoli takes the cake with a .375/.474/.813 line against him. Maybe Vargas should pitch around him in this one.
I don’t think you can say the Royals have the pitching edge in any of the games in this series, but I do think the Royals can do damage against either of Tomlin or Clevinger. I really want to say that they can take two of three by beating one of the pitchers they should and stealing another game, but it’s just hard for me to predict that right now, so I think they take one of three and turn their focus on finishing above .500 rather than making a miracle run to the postseason.