The Yankees only get the Royals six times all season, and the final three of those games begins tonight at Kaufman Stadium. As you’ll recall, the two teams last played in May, as the surprising Royals — who came into that series with an 18-16 record — proceeded to take two of three from the Yanks at home, with the final game representing the Bombers’ biggest margin of defeat (six runs) on the young season. This was particularly embarrassing as it represented the first time KC had taken a series in the Bronx since 1999. The Royals have since gone completely down the tubes, playing to a 30-53 record after leaving Yankee Stadium and falling into their customary cellar-dwelling position in the AL Central.
However, the Royals’ 2011 campaign hasn’t been without its positives. Old friend Melky Cabrera broke out and is in the midst of his most productive season to date, emerging as the Royals’ second-best hitter with a 124 wRC+. The seemingly endlessly-gestating Alex Gordon is also enjoying his long-awaited breakout campaign, and is hitting to the tune of a 133 wRC+. Jeff Francoeur has also experienced something of a career renaissance in KC, with a 114 wRC+ that would be the highest since his rookie year. Billy Butler‘s also doing work (118 wRC+), and the team has successfully broken heralded prospect Eric Hosmer in quite nicely (102 wRC+) and also promoted Mike Moustakas, though Moose Tacos has had a rougher go of it than Hosmer thus far (28 wRC+). If that weren’t enough for you, the Royals currently employ two additional rookies in their everyday lineup — shortstop Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez, both just called up last week. I seem to recall Wil Myers being touted as the catcher of the future, but from what I’ve read on a couple of Royals blogs it appears that Myers has been shifted to the outfield. Anyway, it all adds up to a .319 wOBA (98 wRC+), which is 6th-best in the AL — pretty good for 2011′s depressed scoring environment.
So the Royals can hit a little; unfortunately as has been true of basically every Royals team for as long as I’ve been following baseball, their pitching stinks. Their 4.45 team ERA and 4.37 FIP are second-worst only to the Orioles, and they walk more hitters (3.52 BB/9) than any team in the AL. Their nominal ace is Luke Hochevar, currently the proud owner of a 4.89 ERA and 4.60 FIP, to go with striking no one out (5.12 K/9) and giving up a lot of home runs (1.14 HR/9). Jeff Francis — whom I advocated for pretty strongly over the winter — has been their most valuable pitcher (2.4 fWAR), although how he’s getting it done with a 4.64 K/9, .310 BABIP a slightly above-average GB% and the third-slowest fastball in the Majors (84.8mph) is beyond me. I suppose not walking anyone helps (his 1.67 BB/9 is actually third-lowest in the AL) and maybe other teams besides the Yankees also get stifled by lefthanded junkballers.
May acquisition Felipe Paulino has actually paid off pretty well for KC, as he’s tossed 74 innings of 3.65/3.45/3.67 ball. Paulino and rookie Danny Duffy are the only Royals pitchers in the rotation who not only have respectable K/9 rates, but also quite good ones. The rotation’s rounded out by good old Bruce Chen, who’s basically Jeff Francis but with even worse peripherals (4.73 FIP). Unfortunately for the Yanks, they will be seeing both Paulino and Duffy — unfortunate because they’ve never faced either (Pitchers-They’ve-Never-Seen-Before alert!), although Duffy hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire (4.97/4.73/4.37).
The KC bullpen’s been the far more respectable component of the team’s pitching corps, posting a 3.63 ERA/4.16 FIP/4.03 xFIP, thanks to the beastly middle relief work of Greg Holland and his 11.16 K/9, 1.56 ERA/2.47 FIP/2.45 xFIP (yeah, I don’t know who he is either), a slightly shakier-than-usual-but-still-good season from closer Joakim Soria, and strong work from Louis Coleman (42 ERA-) and rookie Aaron Crow (55 ERA-). I remember being infuriated that the Yankees appeared to be helpless against the KC ‘pen during those final two games in the Bronx — and in fact, the Royal ‘pen only gave up two earned runs over 12.1 innings during that entire three-game set — but now I know they’re the real deal.
Probable Pitching Match-Ups
In tonight’s opener, A.J. Burnett takes on Felipe Paulino. Paulino throws gas (95mph avg. fastball) and appears to be yet another Alexi Ogando-style fastball/slider guy. Unfortunately, unlike Ogando, Paulino’s fastball is eminently hittable (0.00 wFB/C), which presumably is why the Rockies were willing to dump for nothing but cash considerations. Despite the newness factor, the Yankees should really be all over a guy like Paulino. The Yankees counter with Burnett, whose string of middling performances — he doesn’t have a win or quality start since June — has many calling for him to be banished to the bullpen. Even though Hughes pitched admirably this past weekend, my hunch would still be on Phil getting sent to the ‘pen, given Burnett’s ability to hide safely behind his contract. On the plus side, Burnett had one of his best starts of the season last time he saw the Royals, coming up the hard-luck loser after the bullpen blew the lead in a 4-3 extra-inning loss.
In the Tuesday night game, Ivan Nova faces Danny Duffy. Duffy’s also a hard-thrower (93.5mph fastball), though unlike Paulino he’s a southpaw. He also throws a curve and change, although all three pitches are currently below average. I can’t say I love the idea of a lefty facing the Yanks for the first time, but at least he’s not a junkballer. Nova had arguably his worst outing of the season against the Royals back in May (at the very least, at 3 innings, it was his shortest) and will look to exact some revenge. Many have felt that Nova’s been the Yankees’ second-best pitcher since being recalled from AAA, and while it’s hard to argue with the results, I remain a bit skeptical about Nova’s ability to be effective on a regular basis long-term. Things like striking out no one in his last start do nothing to dispel this feeling.
And in the Wednesday night finale, Bartolo Colon gets Bruce Chen. Presumably you are familiar with Chen, who is kind of like a lefthanded Freddy Garcia, with a slow-slower-slowest approach that can occasionally lull a good offense to sleep. Chen actually limited the Yanks to five runs over three last time he saw them a little over a year ago, and that’s probably about as good an outing as the Royals can expect out of him against a team like the Yankees. As mentioned the other day, Bart’s been good, though he’s been running his pitch count a bit higher more quickly than we might like; however, as long as he continues to keep runs off the board I’ll take it.
Despite the fact that, on paper the Yankees and Royals are a world apart, the KC lineup has some very real hitters in it and I wouldn’t expect them to go quietly. Still, after being embarrassed back in May, it would have to be considered a pretty big disappointment if the Yanks can’t take two out of three on their flailing enemy’s home turf.
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