Following a much needed day off after playing 16 straight games, the Yankees get back to business tonight at the Stadium for a three-game set against the Royals (18-16), who have probably been the second-biggest surprise in the American League save the AL Central-leading Indians.
Pretty much everyone expected the Royals would bring up the rear in the Central for at least one more season — and after all is said and done, they’ll probably still wind up there — before the highly touted quartet of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers were finally ready for the Majors, enabling the Royals to ideally pull something of a “2008 Tampa Bay Rays” and leapfrog into contention come 2012.
Except the Royals are somehow playing well now, with a Major League-high 15 home wins (though they’re only 3-8 on the road, which bodes well for the Yankees). A quick glance at the stat ledger reveals some outsized offensive performances from some unexpected sources, namely sabermetric whipping boy Jeff Francoeur (.400 wOBA) and Yankee castoff Wilson Betemit (.360 wOBA), the latter of whom was so ineffective in pinstripes that two years later is still seems inconceivable that the Yankees were able to trade Betemit to the White Sox for Nick Swisher. I don’t care that Betemit’s off to a better start this season; that’s still one of Cashman’s greatest heists of all time.
Additionally, after literally years of waiting for a breakout, it seems that Alex Gordon (.380 wOBA) has finally arrived; New York native Mike Aviles (.374) is healthy and raking; and Billy Butler, perhaps the team’s best pure hitter, is also mashing (.366 wOBA). Even old friend Melky Cabrera somehow hasn’t been a black hole (.331 wOBA), while the uber-hyped Hosmer was somewhat unexpectedly called up last week, and has already acquitted himself nicely in a small sample (.430 wOBA in 12 PAs). Whether or not you believe some of these individual performances to be sustainable — and in the cases of Francoeur and Betemit, it seems highly unlikely — it would appear that the Royals’ offense is semi-for real, as Kansas City’s team wOBA of .338 is good for third in the American League, right behind the Rangers’ .339.
The Royals’ pitching, however, has not been very good, and currently ranks 10th in the AL in ERA (4.23), 11th in FIP (4.49) and 11th in xFIP (4.14). Simply put, much like their fellow Central surprises in Cleveland, the Royals appear to be winning in spite of their pitching. Though in Cleveland’s case the situation is even more baffling, as the Indians’ staff actually boasts good numbers despite the fact that the rotation features approximately no one that any AL offense would lose any sleep over facing (except for Josh Tomlin and the Yankees). But we’ll have to wait to dissect Cleveland when they come to the Stadium in June — in fact, one month from today.
So just who the heck is pitching for the Royals, you may be asking yourself? Well, for starters, their leader in fWAR is Jeff Francis (0.4), who I was lobbying pretty hard for the Yankees to sign back in December. Francis’ numbers are far from overwhelming (only 4.50 K/9, with a 5.09 ERA and 4.28 FIP) but he doesn’t walk anyone (1.76 BB/9, 7th-best in the AL), gets his groundballs (50% GB%) and appears to have suffered through some bad luck (.323 BABIP and a 66.6% LOB%). For what it’s worth, xFIP sees him as a 3.73 ERA pitcher going forward, which is a better figure than any of the other members of the Royals’ rotation can lay claim to. But that’s enough on Francis; the Yankees don’t even have to face him.
Instead, they get Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen and Sean O’Sullivan, while the Yankees counter with Freddy Garcia, A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova. With Greinke having departed in the offseason, Davies (7.32 ERA/5.01 FIP/4.49 xFIP) is perhaps the closest thing the Royals have to an “ace,” except he pretty much sucks. He somehow managed to be worth 2.0 fWAR last season despite uninspiring numbers across the board; he just happened to throw 184 innings. Davies faced the Yankees twice last year and both times managed to not particularly embarrass himself (5.1 innings, 4ER in the former; 5IP, 3ER in the latter) but he wasn’t exactly great, either. For whatever reason I had gotten it in my head that Davies has historically struggled against the Yankees, but a quick review of his game logs shows that’s not entirely true. Still, there’s nothing in his pitching profile that suggests anything other than a pitcher the Yankees should tee off of (92mph average fastball; three of his four pitches have been worth negative runs; 1.51 HR/9!), and I’d like to see them go to town on Davies tonight, especially being back at home.
The journeyman Chen (3.59 ERA/4.93 FIP/4.51 xFIP) has been around for a long time, but has settled in with the Royals the last few seasons and hasn’t been terrible, though he hasn’t exactly been inspiring either. Like rotationmate Davies, Chen has also had issues with the longball this season (1.48 HR/9), which, for a flyball pitcher (only a 33.8% GB%) in Yankee Stadium should spell trouble for ol’ Bruce. Chen faced the Yankees twice last season and gave up eight runs over 11 combined innings. Despite being the archetypal junkballing lefty the Yankees seem to often have so much trouble against, there’s no excuse for the Yankee offense to not pummel Chen.
And you may remember Sean O’Sullivan (3.41 ERA/3.87 FIP/4.68 xFIP) from last July, when he started against and stymied the Yankees as an Angel and was subsequently traded to the Royals, and faced the Yankees yet again a mere four days later, only they rightly pounded him the second time out. O’Sullivan faced the Yankees again in August, and gave up three long balls in a 5.1-inning, four-run effort. Despite some reasonably impressive numbers in the early going, O’Sullivan’s 2011 starts have come against the following teams: Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, Minnesota and Oakland. He’s also due for some serious HR/9 regression (0.31), as reflected in his xFIP, and who better to send him on his regressed way than MLB’s best home run-hitting team?
I realize I haven’t even previewed any of the Yankees’ starters, but really, barring catastrophe, the Yankees have no business losing any of these games. I rarely feel confident predicting a sweep heading into any series, but simply put, these are three mediocre starters, and the Kansas City bullpen isn’t much better (8th-best fWAR in the AL). The Royals could certainly eke out a win given their bizarrely prolific hitting, but anything less than two of three against the Royals at home would have to be considered a pretty monumental failure.
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