Monday, July 20, 2015

Next Up: The Kansas City Royals

"Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher."

That quote, attributed to Hall of Fame Orioles manager Earl Weaver, sums up one of baseball's appeals to me. The game is played almost every day of the week for six months straight. If you lose today, there's a game tomorrow, starting with a score of 0-0. The idea of one game or a handful of games that turn around a team's entire season is hard to justify in a sport in which the season consists of 162, rather than 16 (NFL) of 82 (NHL and NFL) games.

Just as a demoralizing loss can be put in a team's rear view mirror in 24 hours, so is the impact of a dramatic win limited and, as far as I'm concerned, often overstated. A come-from-behind or walkoff victory is exciting, but there's still a game the next day, starting at 0-0. If you think the positive vibes carry over for the victor (or harm the loser), consider the Pirates, winner of back-to-back extra-inning walkoff victories against the Cardinals prior to the All-Star break, cutting St. Louis's lead in the Central Division from 4.5 games at the start of their four game series to 2.5. Now, three games into the second half of the season, the Cardinals are back to leading by 4.5 games, having taken two out of three from a Mets team that's on the periphery of the National League wild card race, while the Pirates were swept in Milwaukee by the team with the worst record in the National League Central. Just as I'd caution against reading much into the Pirates' two victories against the Cardinal before the break and what they say about the two teams, so I don't read much into the three games since the break. It's a long season, and momentum is the next day's starting pitcher.

The next day's starting pitcher for the Pirates to begin a three-game series against the Royals in Kansas City are their two All-Star starters, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole, as the team tries to turn things around against the best team in the American League.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Royals are one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball this year. Yes, they lasted until the seventh game of the World Series last October, but they made the postseason only as a wild card team, kind of lucked their way past the A's in the wild card play-in, and lost a couple key players (starting pitcher James Shields, DH Billy Butler) over the winter. They were picked by many (including me) to miss the postseason this year, finishing behind the Tigers, Indians, and, in the opinion of some (including me), White Sox in the American League Central. Of the predictors I track (Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, ESPN), I had them with most wins: 79, a sub-.500 season. Instead, they have the best record in the American League, 55-35, six games ahead of the even more surprising Minnesota Twins.

Over the last 30 days, the Royals are also the best team in the league at 17-9. They've scored the eighth most runs per game, 4.35, and given up the eighth fewest, 4.00, suggesting they've been a little lucky over the stretch (a team with that run differential is most likely to go about 14-12), but this is no fluke team: they've scored 67 more runs than they've given up this year, tied with the Dodgers for the biggest run differential in baseball after the Cardinals.

What's Going Right? The Royals' bullpen is a key strength, as the relievers are fourth in the American League in ERA and strikeout rate, fifth in ground ball rate and avoiding hard contact on batted balls, and the lead the American League in both holds and saves (but also blown saves) over the past 30 days. They've worked a lot, though, as their 87.1 innings pitched tops the Junior Circuit during the period. 

On offense, they're second in the league in batting and on base percentage over the past 30 days but ninth in slugging. If you followed the Royals' postseason run last year, you got familiar with their offensive storyline: Not a lot of walks, strikeouts, or homers, but plenty of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. They've been true to form over the last 30 days: fifth-lowest walk rate, lowest strikeout rate, sixth fewest home runs, most stolen bases, sixth-most sacrifice hits. Basically, they've gotten on base enough that the lack of power hasn't prevented them from scoring runs, though again, their runs per game are exactly in the middle of the American League.

What's Going Wrong? The starting pitching has been shaky, with a 4.23 ERA over the past 30 days, along with the second-lowest strikeout rate and the fourth-highest walk rate in the league. Though the starters' control is good--they lead the league in percentage of pitches in the strike zone over the past 30 days--they're not fooling batters, who've swung at only 29% of pitches outside the zone, the second-lowest percentage in the league. 

Who's Hot? The three workhorses in the bullpen are Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. The trio's combined for 1.88 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 38.1 innings over the past 30 days. The rest of the bullpen's been pretty good too, with a 2.94 combined ERA. (As an aside, here's a fun fact: Wade Davis's career ERA as a reliever, 1.40, is more then three runs better than his career ERA as a starter, 4.57).

The Royals have three batters with on base percentages in excess of .400 over the past 30 days: center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who's been absolutely on fire (.429/.500/.753 slash line with a team-leading seven stolen bases), shortstop Alcides Escobar (.346 batting average, .409 on base percentage, though only four extra base hits) and left fielder Alex Gordon (.298/.420/.474 but unfortunately disabled until September with a groin pull).

Who's Not? The only Royals starter with an ERA below 3.70 over the past 30 days is Danny Duffy, whom the Pirates won't face. Instead, they'll go against Yordano Ventura (in only his second start since June 12 as he's dealt with hand and elbow issues), Jason Vargas (coming off the disabled list; he last pitched on June 8), and former Pirate Edinson Volquez. Volquez has a 3.71 ERA but--sounds familiar, Pirates fans?--not enough strikeouts (14.2% of batters faced, the league average is 18.9%) and too many walks (8.1% of batters faced, the league average is 6.7%).

It's easy to make fun of Royals hitters, since the team's fans voted five of them to the All-Star team. Over the past 30 days, two of them have been bad. (The others are Cain, Escobar, and Gordon). Catcher Salvador Perez has hit five homers but has a .179 batting average, .198 on base percentage, and only one walk over the past month. Manager Ned Yost has a reputation for overworking his young (Santana turned 25 in May) backstop, but unlike last year, when he caught nearly 130 more innings than any other American League catcher, he's only tied with Seattle's Mike Zunino for the most innings behind the plate this year in the American League, and those two trail St. Louis's Yadier Molina, who's caught 7% more innings. Third baseman Mike Moustakas, who got off to a hot start, has a decidedly un-hot .224/.287/.355 slash line over the past 30 days. Almost-got-voted-to-the-All-Stars second baseman Omar Infante is hitting .240/.262/.280. For a frame of reference, the American League average slash line over the past 30 days is .254/.312/.411.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates enter the series with a 53-38 record, 4.5 behind St. Louis and 2.5 behind Kansas City. Add to that the fact that the Royals play in the better league, and it's hard to conclude anything but that the Royals are the stronger team so far. But that doesn't mean they're unbeatable. The Pirates will face two pitchers with a lot of rust on them and one whom they know very well. And the rotation is the Royals' weak spot. If you can run up the score against the Kansas City starters, you're in a good position to win. You just want to keep them from handing the ball to that bullpen in late innings with a lead.

No comments:

Post a Comment