5/16 to 5/18 Series Preview: Kansas City Royals

An appreciation for the unconventionally successful Tyler Clippard
2017 Draft: Trevor Rogers
Vargas. (Brian Davidson/Getty Images North America)
Vargas. (Brian Davidson/Getty Images North America)

The result of the Yankees having so many days off through the first six weeks of the season starts now, as they will not be off again until June 5. That’s twenty games in a row without a day off; luckily, they will not have to travel all that far in that stretch with this week’s trips to Kansas City and Tampa Bay representing the furthest journeys. Given the heavy workload handled by the bullpen this weekend, though, it seems all but certain that the team’s depth and Joe Girardi‘s hand will be tested as soon as this evening.

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees visited Kansas City for a three-game series to close out last August, winning two along the way. They were outscored by one run in the series as a whole, with both of their victories coming by one run, and taking extra innings to sort out. Some other interesting bits:

  • The Royals tested Gary Sanchez‘s arm throughout the series, and largely got the better of him. They stole eight bases, and were caught just twice. Sanchez threw out 10 of 21 would-be base-stealers against teams that weren’t the Royals last year.
  • Chasen Shreve was one of the heroes of the series, which feels strange to see on the screen. He came into the second game with the bases loaded and one out, and struck out Kendrys Morales swinging (on three pitches) before retiring Salvador Perez on a flyball. Shreve chipped in two scoreless innings in the third game, with three more swinging strikeouts (Cheslor Cuthbert, Eric Hosmer, and Perez were the victims this time around).
  • The Yankees game-winning runs were scored on a weak infield single by Jacoby Ellsbury and a sacrifice fly by Brian McCann, respectively.
  • Seven pitchers were used by the Yankees in game two and, in what seems almost impossible, all seven are still in the organization. And of those seven, only Ben Heller is not on the active roster.

Check out Katie’s Yankeemetrics post for more details about this series.

Injury Report

Former Yankee Ian Kennedy is on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, and is scheduled to throw a bullpen session this week. There is no set return date as of yet, but he isn’t expected to be out too long (he could be in-line to face the Yankees when these teams meet again, in fact). Middle reliever Scott Alexander is out, as well.

Their Story So Far

The Royals are last in the majors in runs scored by a comfortable margin, and are scoring just 3.2 runs per game. They are currently 8-18 when they allow two runs or more, and that’s with them having won six of their last seven games overall. It doesn’t help that Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar both sport an OPS under .500, and it seems less than ideal that one of those two has batted first in 24 of the Royals 37 games (including their last seven). Their lead-off hitters are batting .176/.216/.248 as a group, which is about 72% below league-average.

All that being said, they have shown signs of life of late. They won six of their seven games last week, scoring 37 runs in the process. Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez have been heating up, and Lorenzo Cain has been playing well all season. The aforementioned duo of Escobar and Gordon went a combined 8-for-48 with one extra-base hit, but every other Royals regular seems to be righting the ship.

The other half of their story mostly revolves around Jason Vargas and his ludicrous 1.01 ERA – I’ll talk about him more a bit later.

The Lineup We Might See

Manager Ned Yost has been semi-responsive to the team’s offensive struggles, with five of the nine spots in the team’s lineup in constant flux. The Royals have used at least seven different players in the 6-through-9 spots (not including pitchers), and four lead-off hitters. That makes predicting their lineup a bit of a crapshoot, so here goes nothing:

  1. Alcides Escobar, SS
  2. Mike Moustakas, 3B
  3. Lorenzo Cain, CF
  4. Eric Hosmer, 1B
  5. Salvador Perez, C
  6. Brandon Moss, DH
  7. Whit Merrifield, 2B
  8. Alex Gordon, LF
  9. Jorge Bonifacio or Jorge Soler, RF

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Tuesday (8:15 PM EST): LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Jason Hammel

There was a stretch in the off-season where everyone was talking about the Cubs unceremoniously declining Hammel’s club option, and then Hammel waiting months upon months to be signed. There were several teams (and fans of teams) that were interested in his services, Yankees included, but he had to wait until February to sign on a dotted line. It was strange to see a pitcher coming off of a three-year stretch of slightly-above-average production on the market for so long, but his 5.97 ERA to-date and approaching 35th birthday make it a bit more understandable with the blessings of hindsight.

Hammel is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, working with a low-90s fastball (though he does use a four- and two-seam varieties) and a mid-80s slider. He’ll use a mid-70s curveball and mid-80s change-up to keep hitters honest, but 85% of his offerings will be a fastball or slider.

Last Outing (vs. TBR on 5/10) – 7 IP, 13 H, 7 R, 1 BB, 6 K

Wednesday (8:15 PM EST): RHP Michael Pineda vs. LHP Jason Vargas

Vargas underwent Tommy John Surgery in the Summer of 2015, and missed the Royals miraculous run to the World Series. He returned for three starts last September, and looked great (12 IP, 8 H, 3 BB, 11 K, 2.25 ERA). Nobody thought much of it, given the sample size and the fact that he was a known commodity, and he was penciled right back into the back of the rotation. He has followed that up by being one of the five-best pitchers in baseball by both incarnations of WAR, and he currently sports a 1.01 ERA (410 ERA+!) through 7 starts (44.2 IP). There are plenty of signs that this is a fluke (2.0% HR/FB, 3.70 xFIP, 88.7 LOB%, etc.), but his 22.9 K% and 4.7 BB% suggest that he could at least be better than most of us would have expected.

The 34-year-old southpaw has never been known for his velocity, but he has slid down into Jamie Moyer territory following the surgery. His fastball is sitting around around 86 MPH, and he throws it about 50% of the time. He also uses a change-up in the upper-70s and a low-70s curveball, the former of which has been his bread and butter throughout his career. His curve is a relatively new addition, and it’s working out quite well for him so far.

Last Outing (vs. TBR on 5/11) – 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K

Thursday (8:15 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. LHP Danny Duffy

The 28-year-old Duffy emerged as the Royals ace last season, after finally being moved to the rotation for good on May 15. He made 26 starts through the end of the season, putting together the following line: 161.2 IP, 3.56 ERA, 25.4 K%, 5.6 BB%, 1.13 WHIP. Duffy’s velocity did dip into the 93 MPH range after sitting around 96 in the bullpen, but that’s to be expected. And now, finally (seemingly) freed from bouncing between starting and relieving, he is sitting on a 3.38 ERA (3.32 FIP) through 8 starts.

Duffy uses four pitches on most nights – a low-to-mid 90s four-seamer, a low-90s two-seamer, a low-80s breaking ball that might be best classified as a slurve, and a mid-80s change-up. It’s top-of-the-rotation stuff when he’s getting it over the plate, which he has done fairly regularly over the last calendar year.

Last Outing (vs. BAL on 5/12) – 7 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 6 K

The Bullpen

The Royals bullpen has been kind of bad this season. They were the standard-bearer for great relief corps for several seasons, peaking with a 2.72 ERA in 2015, but closer Kelvin Herrera is the last man standing from those dominant units. And Herrera hasn’t been his dominant self just yet, with a 3.38 ERA (5.20 FIP) and career-low 7.31 K/9. Mike Minor, Joakim Soria, and the injured Scott Alexander all have strong run prevention numbers, but the bullpen as a whole sports a 4.72 ERA and six blown saves. Travis Wood, Matt Strahm, and Peter Moylan have combined to throw 37.1 IP of 8.44 ERA ball, with nearly as many walks (27) as strikeouts (34).

It is worth noting that the Royals bullpen was worked hard this past weekend, especially on Sunday when they were called upon for 5.1 IP. Herrera also pitched in three-straight games, so he may need a bit more than Monday’s day off to recover.

Yankees Connection

Ian Kennedy is the lone Royals players with a connection to the Yankees organization, unless you want to count Jason Hammel and Travis Wood for popping up in rumors this off-season. Also, pitching coach Dave Eiland held the same role with the Yankees from 2008-10.

Who (Or What) To Watch

The Royals swing at more pitches than any other team in the game, with a 49.4% swing rate as per PITCHf/x. They’re second in swinging at pitches outside of the zone, and first on pitches in the zone by nearly two percentage points. Yankees pitchers might be salivating at those numbers, though, as the Royals are in the bottom-ten in contact percentage, and in the middle-of-the-pack in strikeouts and hard-hit balls. They’re an aggressive bunch, which leads to a great deal of feast-or-famine outings.

A ‘buy or sell’ storyline will follow the Royals throughout this season, as well, with Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar, and Vargas all being in the final year of their contracts. If the Yankees ends up in a position to buy, this may be one of the first teams they try to match-up with.

An appreciation for the unconventionally successful Tyler Clippard
2017 Draft: Trevor Rogers