Kansas City Royals @ Toronto Blue Jays
Monday, July 4th – Wednesday, July 6th
For the first time since the 2015 ALCS, the Jays and Royals will square off as Kansas City comes to town for a three game set at the Rogers Centre. Expect the atmosphere to be very charged, with plenty of visible emotion, especially at the outset of this series. Yordano Ventura isn’t pitching, so it shouldn’t get ugly, but it will definitely be tense. The Royals were looking good after taking three of four in a home and home series against state rival St. Louis, but then they dropped two of three to the lowly Phillies, so they come in on a low note. The Jays, on the other hand, are coming off a couple of big wins against the previously streaking Indians, including a 17-1 laugher in the finale. None of that will likely matter though, and this series should be a good one.
Monday, July 4th – 7:07 PM ET
Aaron Sanchez vs. Edinson Volquez
Volquez stifled an impressive Cardinals offense the last time he took the mound, which most certainly allowed both he and Royals management to breathe a massive sigh of relief. When facing the Houston Astros in his prior appearance, Volquez had nothing working, allowing eight hits, three walks, and an incredible twelve earned runs while recording just three outs — one of the worst starts in the history of baseball.
Volquez is about as steady as they come with respect to pitch usage; for every four he throws, you’re getting two fastballs, one curve, and one changeup. It’s the ideal kit for a starting pitcher, and over the last few years Volquez has found just enough command of the three pitches to be a valuable contributor. Over his career, the dynamics between the three have led to a very balanced approach to both righties and lefties, but he’s run into a spell of trouble against same sided batters this season. Over 218 plate appearances, righties have hit .292/.353/.431 against Volquez, with much of the damage coming against his fastball (.364 BAA) and curveball (.262 BAA). Remarkably, it’s been the changeup that’s best kept them in check (.194 BAA); his approach against the right handed-heavy Blue Jays will be something to watch.
Marco Estrada proving that 2015 wasn’t a fluke is a great story, but at least in this writer’s eyes, Aaron Sanchez has been the Blue Jays most dominant starter this season. He experienced a bit of a hiccup three weeks ago against the Orioles — an issue that was exasperated by Gibby’s insistence on getting his starter through five innings for the “win” — but has otherwise been nothing short of a revelation. Sanchez has seen his strikeout rate has climb from 16.1 to 22.0 percent, all the while his walk rate has plummeted by a third from 11.6 to 7.8 percent. The scary part is that the difference between the two figures is just middle of the pack among qualified starters — there’s still so much room to improve.
Against right handers, Sanchez has done it in typical Sanchez fashion, shoving mid-90’s fastball after mid-90’s fastball down their throat. But he’s shown an exciting level of finesse against lefties, sequencing in a lot more curveballs and changeups, particularly with two strikes, while locating them magnificently. The fastball is an absolute monster, but we and the rest of the baseball world already knew that. It’s the development of the curveball that has allowed Sanchez to transcend from “fifth starter candidate” to “potential American League All Star”, the latter of which could become a reality in very short order.
Tuesday, July 5th – 7:07 PM ET
R.A. Dickey vs Chris Young
If you’re not a fan of metrics like FIP, this is the dream matchup for you. The 6-foot-10 Chris Young has career marks of a .248 BABIP and 76.0 percent strand rate over 1,236 innings, both of which are well outside the normalized range for starting pitchers and have allowed his ERA to beat the fielding independent metrics basically every year. Young created a strong, twelve-year career through an alarmingly deceptive four seam fastball, but for whatever reason, in year thirteen, the right hander has decided to make his slider his primary offering, throwing it 50.27 percent of the time in 2016. In doing so Young has boosted his strikeout rate, which is nice, but more critically, batters are absolutely teeing off.
Among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, Young is first in home runs per nine innings (3.43/9) — well ahead of Alfredo Simon in second place (2.36/9) — and is third in home run per fly ball rate (23.7 percent). Third place is bad, but it doesn’t come close to telling the full story. In descending order, here are the groundball rates of the worst ten pitchers by HR/FB: 55.6, 55.0, 28.0, 49.0, 51.6, 52.7, 51.8, 44.8, 55.9, 49.1. At 28.0 percent, Young is on an island by himself. He gives up more fly balls than just about everyone, and through twelve starts, his fly balls have been going a lot further than just about everyone. An uncomfortable combination for the Royals; a juicy one for Blue Jays sluggers this series.
Over R.A. Dickey’s last five starts he’s allowed ten home runs, bringing his season total to 19 — tied for the 4th most in baseball. Thankfully for both Dickey and the Blue Jays, 16 of 19 have happened with the bases empty, allowing the knuckleballer to post his second consecutive sub-4 ERA month in June despite causing a constant and stifling level of frustration. The interesting thing is, if you look at velocity, movement, release point, location — just about anything — Dickey’s knuckleball has more or less been the exact same all season. Such is the life of a novelty pitch. The Kansas City Royals are 27th in baseball with just 72 home runs, so if Dickey can keep Salvy, Morales, and Hosmer within the ballpark, he has a favorable matchup with a good chance at a promising start to his July.
Wednesday, July 6th – 7:07 PM ET
Marcus Stroman vs Ian Kennedy
The Royals winter signing of Ian Kennedy to a five year, 70 million dollar contract — at the additional expense of a draft pick — was much maligned, and his return to the American League after a six year expedition out west has gone about as well as anticipated. The strikeouts and walks have remained due to his outstanding command and devastating changeup, but his flat-as-a-pancake fastball hasn’t translated to the deep, imposing lineups and bandbox stadiums in the junior circuit. It was mentioned that Dickey is tied for 4th in baseball in home runs allowed, and one of the three ahead of him just so happens to be Kennedy. He’s allowed 20 this season, bringing his total to 51 since the beginning of 2015. When the Royals picked up Kennedy their strategy was likely that a spacious Kauffmann Stadium and a defensively gifted outfield of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain would protect the right hander. Unfortunately, even Gold Glovers can’t catch fly balls that are ten rows deep.
Over five June starts, opposing batters crushed Stroman for a combined triple slash line of .357/.423/.573, leading the would-be ace to enter a period of self assessment. The ever-evolving Stroman has emerged from this struggle once again a new man, as while he’s still throwing his sinker about 50 percent of the time, what he’s done with the other half of his pitches has changed drastically. The cutters and changeups are almost completely gone, the four seam fastball has begun to resurface, but most importantly, the devastating slider that made him a strikeout artist through college, the minor leagues, and his exciting 2014 rookie season is returning to form.
After throwing it in the low-to-mid 80’s over the first two and a half months, Stroman is reaching back for something extra, averaging an impressive 88 miles per hour with his slider over his last four starts. Over that time period he’s thrown 70 sliders; batters have swung at 37 and whiffed on 15 — resulting in an impressive 40.5 percent whiff per swing rate. That rate is near-elite; if sustained, it would rank in the top fifteen sliders among right handed starting pitchers. The current iteration of the Stro Show entails low sinkers, lower sliders, and the occasional high four seam fastball. Only time will tell if this is the recipe for success, but the first audition against Cleveland was a pass with flying colors.
Additions and Subtractions
On July 2nd, after a 19-inning game on Canada Day, the Blue Jays made four changes to the roster. They placed Ryan Goins on the 15-day disabled list with right forearm tightness and optioned Bo Schultz to Buffalo, and in corresponding moves, they recalled RHP Drew Hutchison and LHP Aaron Loup, both from Buffalo. The expectation was that Hutchison would go right back down to the minors following his ineffective inning in relief, but Marco Estrada’s back issues have kept him up with the big club. Estrada is going for an MRI monday, which should help the Blue Jays decide on a next course of action.
The Royals have made no recent changes to their roster, but they are playing without center fielder and three-hole hitter, Lorenzo Cain. Cain strained his hamstring toward the end of June and had to make a trip to the disabled list. This is a lucky break for the Jays.
Keep an Eye On
Morales is coming off a huge month of June for the Royals. In the month of June he hit .402, with a .453 OBP and a slugging percentage of .655. He had seven doubles, five homerun and 18 RBI over that same stretch. Morales is hitting .344 with runners in scoring position this year. With Cain out, Morales will be sitting in the three-hole in front of Eric Hosmer, so he’s going to be a pivotal out for the Jays pitching staff. Unfortunately, he can be tough to match up as he is a switch-hitter with no real platoon splits in his career (though he is doing much better against lefties this year).
Grilli picked up his first win as a Blue Jay on Saturday, but it was far from the first big outing for the veteran righty. Since coming over from Atlanta, Grilli has given up just nine hits and three earned runs in 11.2 innings, with a whopping 21 strikeouts. At the Rogers Centre he’s particularly tough, holding hitters to a measly .130 batting average and just one run in 7 1/3 innings with 13 strikeouts. With his emergence as a right-handed setup option and Brett Cecil’s return from the DL, the back end bridge to Roberto Osuna doesn’t seem quite as shaky as it did a couple of weeks ago.
It seems the real Troy Tulowitzki has finally stood up. Since his return from the disabled list, Troy Tulowitzki has been absolutely on fire. In that 13 game span he has hit .321/.373/.698 with six home runs and two doubles. He has also chipped in 14 RBI and played his usual stellar defense at shortstop. If he has finally turned things around for real, this offense could really take off.
Toronto Blue Jays
Kansas City Royals
|1 Ezequiel Carrera-RF||1 Alex Gordon-LF|
|2 Devon Travis-2B||2 Whit Merrifield-2B|
|3 Josh Donaldson-3B||3 Kendrys Morales-DH|
|4 Edwin Encarnacion-1B||4 Eric Hosmer-1B|
|5 Michael Saunders-LF||5 Salvador Perez-C|
|6 Russell Martin-C||6 Paolo Orlando-RF|
|7 Troy Tulowitzki-SS||7 Alcides Escobar-SS|
|8 Justin Smoak-1B||8 Cheslor Cuthbert-3B|
|9 Kevin Pillar-CF||9 Jarrod Dyson-CF|
via Roster Resource
The Blue Jays will need a few strong performances out of their starters after the beating the bullpen took in the Indians series. They got some help from J.A. Happ in the finale, but still could use a deep start from Aaron Sanchez in the opener. There is also a statement to be made for the Blue Jays, as the last time the Jays saw the Royals they were celebrating a berth in the World Series.
Lead Photo: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports