Bolstered by strong pitching performances, the Angels won two out of three games against the Rangers over the weekend. The homestand continues, as the Angels welcome the Royals to town.
Here’s a look at the series, by the numbers.
Head to Head
As of Sunday night, there is a new first-place team in the American League West. No, it’s not the Angels. It’s the Mariners, who, with a record of 37-22, are in first place this late in the season for the first time since 2003. The Angels, 32-28, are 5.5 games back of Seattle and 4.5 behind Houston, with Oakland trailing them by one game.
The Royals split their last 10 games, but they lost their weekend series against Oakland to fall to 21-38 and fourth place in the AL Central. The Angels and Royals played each other in April, with the Angels winning the first three games of the series before the fourth was postponed to the end of this month.
Here’s how the two teams match up heading into their second-to-last meeting of the year:
This is not the same Royals team that played in consecutive World Series and won one. Rather, this is the aftermath of a small-market team going all-in for a couple of seasons. Although the team managed to keep Mike Moustakas, who is having his best season since 2015, Kansas City watched two of its stars–Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer–sign lucrative free-agent deals with other teams in the winter.
Left without their two biggest contributors, the Royals have not been competitive this year. They are near the bottom of the majors in runs scored, and their pitching staff has been even worse, logging the worst ERA in baseball. This has left them with the worst run differential in the AL and the second-worst in the majors. The Royals were right to do whatever they could to win a World Series, but fielding a team like this is one of the consequences.
Kansas City’s Starting Pitchers
On Monday night, Danny Duffy will take the mound for the Royals. Duffy had a breakout season of sorts in 2016, when he posted a 3.56 ERA and struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced in 161 2/3 innings pitched as a starter. He was then solid in an injury-shortened 2017, despite his average fastball velocity dropping from 95.5 mph to 93.4 mph. However, he has taken a significant step back this year.
In 12 starts, Duffy owns a 5.71 ERA, and he has struck out just over 18% of the batters he has faced while walking nearly 11%. Additionally, he has permitted 14 home runs, just four fewer than the league leader. His ERA is the second-worst in the AL while his -0.3 Wins Above Replacement rank last among qualified AL pitchers. Duffy has been better in his two most recent starts, however, permitting only two runs in his last 13 2/3 frames, though he does have six walks compared to just nine strikeouts in that time.
The main problem that Duffy presents the Angels with is the fact that he throws baseballs with his left hand, and they have still yet to solve their problems against southpaws this year, adding Cole Hamels to the list of lefties to shut them down over the weekend.
Game two will see Kansas City send rookie Brad Keller to the mound. Keller was taken by the Reds in the Rule-5 draft over the offseason and then traded to the Royals. The hard-throwing right-hander has appeared in 22 games this year, earning a 2.13 ERA. Keller made his first career start last week, but, as it was the first step in getting him acclimated to a starting role in the big leagues, he was only allotted 50-55 pitches and thus was removed from the game after giving up one run in three innings. Keller will likely be given a bit of a longer leash on Tuesday.
The 22-year-old features a 95-mph fastball and 87-mph slider, but he doesn’t generate a ton of swinging strikes. Instead, his success has come from getting opponents to hit the ball on the ground, posting an inordinately high 61.5% ground ball rate in the majors thus far.
In the series finale, Ian Kennedy will start for the Royals. Kennedy is the only qualified starting pitcher in the AL to post a higher ERA than Duffy this year. He has a 6.08 ERA in 60 2/3 innings this year, though his 4.89 FIP, while still high, indicates that he has been a bit unlucky this year. Aside from a couple of nightmare starts–the most recent being his eight-run, three-inning outing on Friday–Kennedy has mostly been serviceable this season and better than his ERA suggests. In April, the 33-year-old held the Angels to one run on seven hits across six innings.
Angels starting pitchers posted a fantastic 2.86 ERA in May, the second-best mark in the AL. In their first series of June, they were even better. Jaime Barria, Garrett Richards, and Tyler Skaggs held the Rangers to nine hits and did not permit an earned run in 19 innings. The trio struck out 21 batters and walked only five.
The Royals did not have the same luck this weekend. In three games against the Athletics, Kansas City starters gave up 14 runs on 20 hits in 16 1/3 innings.
A Different Animal
When people get on second base, he’s a different animal. The fastball is different, the split finger is different, the slider is different. That’s what impressed me. As soon as somebody got on second base, he had a switch, an extra gear. You don’t see 92-94. You see 97-plus every time.
The idea of a player being “clutch” and having some special ability to perform better in big moments has mostly proven to be a myth. But Maldonado might be onto something. With the bases empty, opposing batters are hitting .206/.280/.299 against Ohtani and with runners in scoring position, they are hitting .160/.250/.292.
The difference could very easily be a result of small sample size, as many of these things are. However, Maldonado is correct in that Ohtani does actually throw harder with runners in scoring position. With nobody on base, Ohtani’s fastball averages 96.6 mph. With runners in scoring position, it jumps up to 97.8 mph. His splitter and slider also see a bump in velocity in those situations.
So, rather than this just being a small-sample oddity, it could be Ohtani showcasing a real ability to save his best stuff for the biggest moments, which could help him pace himself and go deeper into games. If this is the case, it is yet another demonstration of Ohtani’s immense talent, as it would mean that he can hold hitters to a .206 batting average when he’s not even trying his hardest.
On May 27, Ian Kinsler was hitting a lowly .178/.249/.263 (43 wRC+, where 100 is average) with two home runs. In a matter of seven games, he managed to turn that into a more respectable .217/.281/.356 (76 wRC+) with five home runs. In the last two series–the first against the Tigers, the second team he played for and was traded away from, and the second against the Rangers, the first team he played for and was traded away from–Kinsler went 12-for-28 (.428) with three homers, three doubles, and just one strikeout.
In his career against Kansas City, a team he faced a lot with Detroit, Kinsler is hitting .320/.371/.531 with 23 home runs, the most he has against any team.
News & Notes
On Saturday, the Angels placed Kole Calhoun on the disabled list with a “strained right oblique.” The usually dependable right fielder is hitting an unfathomable .145/.195/.179 (3 wRC+) on the season and has accumulated -1.1 WAR. That is tied for the fifth-worst offensive season since 1920 (minimum 180 plate appearances).
The team also sent Barria back down to Triple-A, after he tossed six scoreless innings on Friday night since it does not need a sixth starter until closer to the end of the month. To replace those two on the roster, the Angels recalled outfielder Michael Hermosillo and, for the first time this year, infielder Kaleb Cowart, who hit .225/.313/.382 (89 wRC+) in 117 big-league plate appearances last year and had an .808 on-base-plus-slugging percentage at Triple-A this year.
Lastly, Zack Cozart avoided a DL stint, as, after missing the previous four games due to forearm tightness, he returned to the lineup on Sunday, going 1-for-3 and filling in at shortstop for Andrelton Simmons, who was given the day off.
When & Where to Watch
Monday June 4, 2018 (Tropeano vs. Duffy): 7:07 PM PT, FOX Sports West
Tuesday June 5, 2018 (Heaney vs. Keller): 7:07 PM PT, FOX Sports West
Wednesday June 6, 2018 (Ohtani vs. Kennedy): 7:07 PM PT, FOX Sports West
The Angels possess every advantage in this series and have a good opportunity to make up some ground in the postseason hunt as the two teams in front of them, the Mariners and Astros, square off for two games in Houston.
Featured image via MLB.com.