So this is how it ends. The Royals play their final series of the 2016 season against the AL Central Champion Cleveland Indians. There won’t be any baseball after this, which is kind of a weird feeling after the last two years, but I think it’s important for the Royals to finish strong in this series. The Indians aren’t playing for a ton as they are locked into a series with the Red Sox in the ALDS, but who gets the home field advantage could change, so they have some motivation. The Royals have struggled with the Indians, going just 5-11, but they are 4-2 at home against Cleveland, so that’s a good thing.
This team can hit, which is kind of a surprise. They were expected to be okay offensively, but they’ve been one of the best offenses in the American League this season, and they’re doing it with an incredibly balanced attack. No one player has been lights out good for them. Tyler Naquin has been the closest to that, but he hasn’t even played a full season. They’ve gotten great contributions up and down the lineup. That’s not to say there aren’t holes in the offense, but they’re harder to find than in many.
Indians Offense the Last Month:
The strength of their team is battered and bruised. Danny Salazar is out. Carlos Carrasco is out. Corey Kluber is even out for a few days with a quad strain. He’s expected back for the postseason, but you never know with muscle strains. So now they’re relying on Trevor Bauer, who has been solid this season along with Josh Tomlin, who has been not so good. They’ll add in Mike Clevinger and Cody Anderson, but that’s not the same as Kluber, Salazar, Carrasco in a postseason series.
Indians Starters the Last Month:
The bullpen is excellent, and as we discussed during the last series between these teams, Andrew Miller has been everything they could have hoped for and more. I know I’ve harped on this, but I love the way Francona has used Miller because he’s using him everywhere. Cody Allen is a very good closer, Dan Otero is a solid setup man, Bryan Shaw has been good, Zach McAllister is a nice weapon out of the bullpen and has even made a couple starts this year. The list goes on. They have some weapons.
Indians Relievers the Last Month:
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Game 1, Friday: Yordano Ventura vs. Ryan Merritt
Merritt was a 16th round pick of the Indians in 2011 and is making his first career big league start. He made 24 starts in AAA and was 11-8 with a 3.71 ERA. He doesn’t strike many out at all, but he does limit walks well, holding opponents to less than two per nine innings for the majority of his minor league career. He has the looks of a middle reliever or back of the rotation starter. He’s obviously never faced the Royals.
Three things to watch for against Merritt:
- Merritt has a fastball, curve and changeup and seems to have added a cutter into his repertoire this season. The fastball isn’t anything special at 87-91, but he throws strikes with it and pitches with some smarts. I have a feeling his changeup could be a problem for the Royals, as they tend to struggle with that at times.
- In the minors, Merritt struggled a bit with older hitters, allowing 14 of his 15 home runs, so that may come into play in this game as he’s facing more major leaguers than he typically would in a minor league game. The Royals are likely running out a fairly split lineup, though, so he can find some success.
- He’s been better against lefties this season, which makes some sense as he’s a lefty, but not by a ton with an OPS allowed of about 40 points higher against righties than lefties. Maybe this is the day we see the first Dozier homer.
Ventura is hoping to finish the season strong after a weird start against the Tigers last week. He went just four innings and gave up three runs on 10 hits. He limited walks to two and struck out six, so there was some good in the outing, but he just didn’t go deep enough. If and when he records his 10th out in this game, he’ll set a new career high for innings pitched, so that’s theoretically a good thing for him moving forward, although he threw more innings in 2014 with the extra postseason work. He’s 4-2 with a 3.13 ERA in nine career starts against the Indians, but is 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in two starts against them this season. He’s allowed two homers to Santana (and a .958 OPS in 28 plate appearances) and one to Kipnis, though he’s held Kipnis down pretty well. Ramirez has hit him well too in 18 plate appearances.
Game 2, Edinson Volquez vs. Trevor Bauer
Bauer has a similar story to Danny Duffy this season as he started the year in the bullpen before coming into the rotation to fill a need. Bauer, like Duffy, has fallen off a bit over the last few weeks, but has still had a solid season. Overall as a starter, he’s 10-8 with a 4.35 ERA in 167.2 innings. His strikeouts are down, but he has shown the lowest walk rate of his career to this point, so that’s probably a good tradeoff for him. He’s still difficult to hit, but he’s prone to mistakes here and there too. He is 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA in six career starts against the Royals, but hasn’t pitched against them this season. Last year, he was 1-1 with a 2.91 ERA in three starts.
Three things to watch for against Bauer:
- There’s a lot going on when Bauer pitches. He has a really good 94-95 MPH fastball that he throws about 22 percent of the time. He has a sinker that’s just a touch slower that he throws just under 30 percent of the time. He has a changeup, a curve and a cutter. He’s really upped his cutter usage this season, and it’s been a good pitch for him. No one pitch is getting hit especially hard, but he’s allowed some pretty decent power on his fastball, sinker and changeup.
- Bauer has some excellent stuff, but he really struggles once a lineup has seen enough of it. The first two times through the order, he’s allowed an OPS below .700 in each trip, but the third time through, he’s allowed a .279/.337/.475 line. He’s allowed less runs that third time, but that’s mostly because he gets pulled fairly quickly and he has a good bullpen to clean up his mess. Interestingly enough, his control does improve as the game goes on, so maybe that makes him a little easier to hit. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it would stand to reason.
- He doesn’t have a huge platoon split this year with righties hitting .254/.329/.399 against him and lefties hitting .242/.310/.390. He’s really shut down Kendrys Morales and Salvador Perez, but Alex Gordon has a homer against him, as does Eric Hosmer and both have hit him very well.
Volquez is probably going to be happy to have this season come to an end. He was given a 7-0 lead in his last start against Detroit, and couldn’t get out of the third inning. It was just another in a line of disappointing outings. I’ve used this timeframe before, but since his amazing first four starts, he’s gone 7-11 with a 6.03 ERA in 29 starts. There’s value in taking the ball every fifth day, and this will be his 34th start, a career high, but man has he been bad. The Indians aren’t a welcome sight for him either as he’s 3-6 with a 5.84 ERA in his career against them in 12 starts. Though this year, he’s been okay against them, going 1-2 with a 3.73 ERA in five starts, so who knows? Santana, Kipnis, Lindor, Napoli, Ramirez and Naquin have all taken him deep, but really only Santana and Kipnis have hit him especially well.
Game 3, Sunday: Ian Kennedy vs. Josh Tomlin
It’s been sort of a weird year for Tomlin, who started off great and it made no sense, and then he got hit hard, and that made more sense. Now he’s pitched great in September with three straight starts allowing just one earned run and he hasn’t allowed a home run in any of them. Of course, he hasn’t struck out very many. But he also hasn’t walked anybody. It’s a formula that you don’t see much these days, but it’s worked off and on for him this season. He’s given up 35 home runs this year, so if the wind is blowing right in this one, between him and Kennedy, we could see some big flies to end the season. He’s 8-4 with a 4.46 ERA in 20 games (16 starts) against the Royals in his career and is 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four starts this year with just two homers allowed in 26 innings.
Three things to watch for against Tomlin:
- He will not dominate with his fastball. It comes in at 88-89 MPH and he throws it about 30 percent of the time. His big pitch is his cutter, but it’s only 86-97 MPH. He throws that nearly 41 percent of the time. He also has a good curve, a sinker and a changeup. The cutter is his number one, but it’s also been hit the hardest, with a .327 average and .571 slugging percentage against it.
- It’s hard to gameplan for Tomlin. It’s good to get ahead in the count against him, but he doesn’t fall behind often with his great control. So if you swing early and the at bat ends, that’s a good thing. He allows a .318 average and .694 slugging percentage on the first pitch. But, of course, if you swing and the at bat isn’t over, he’s ahead in the count where he’s allowed a .216 average and .351 slugging percentage. What I’m saying is that hitters better guess right or they’re in trouble against him.
- Tomlin has been crushed by righties and has handled lefties well. Righties are hitting .299/.325/.523 against him with 21 homers while lefties do have 14 homers but just a .233/.251/.445 line. Perez, Merrifield and Hosmer have homers against him, and Perez has destroyed him with a .577/.577/1.577 line in 26 plate appearances.
Kennedy will have the last word for Royals starters, which is kind of fitting as he’s been the most consistent to have been there from day one. Unless he does something heroic, he won’t reach 200 innings, but he’ll almost certainly get over 190, which is a solid mark. He’s gotten his strikeouts and he’s limited hits. The homers have been a bit of an issue, but not as much after that terrible stretch in the middle of the year. All in all, it’s been a good season for Kennedy, and he’s likely to finish with his best ERA+ since 2011. He’s 2-3 with a 5.48 ERA in seven starts against the Indians in his career, with five of those coming this year. He has a 5.76 ERA in those starts, but all his decisions. Hopefully he can close out the year strong. Naquin has crushed him in 11 plate appearances, but Chisenhall and Davis aren’t far behind in their handling of Kennedy.
This series is eerily similar to the Royals series against the Twins to end the 2015 season in that the playoffs were wrapped up, but seeding was at stake. You might recall the Royals swept the Twins in Minnesota to end the year. I think the 2016 Royals are better than the 2015 Twins and the 2016 Indians are way more banged up than the 2015 Royals were at the time. I think the Royals finish the year on a high note and win two of three in this series and head into the offseason feeling as good as they can.