Royals vs. Athletics — An AL Wildcard Preview of Sorts

The Royals have won 42 of the 68 starts James Shields has made for the team in the last two seasons, their first consecutive winning campaigns in two decades.  (Photo courtesy of Kyle Rivas/Getty Images, caption courtesy of the New York Times)

The Royals have won 42 of the 68 starts James Shields has made for the team in the last two seasons, their first consecutive winning campaigns in two decades. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Rivas/Getty Images, caption courtesy of the New York Times)

While I am grizzled by the fact that my team isn’t in the playoffs, I’m pretty excited that my favorite pitcher, James Shields, is getting another shot at the postseason. Since Shields and teammate Wade Davis, along with more than a handful of Athletics, are former Rays, covering Tuesday night’s AL Wildcard Game seemed like a no-brainer.

This being a one-game, winner-take-all elimination round scenario, the winner will earn the right to face the Angels. The Royals — much like the traditional form of the Tampa Bay Rays – aren’t a powerful team, though their rotation and bullpen has leveled the playing field. The Athletics, on the other hand, were baseball’s best team for four months until they were one of its worst for the last two. That is, the Royals were a game from clinching their division thanks to pitching, defense, and timely hitting, while the Athletics legacy was predicated on powerful hitting until the trade deadline, and good pitching overall.

Interestingly enough when you account for Kauffman Stadium, as well as the respective play of both the Royals and A’s on the road at home, both teams are fairly evenly keeled — excepting the GB%, FB%, GB/FB, and HR/FB percentages. While the Royals were last in the AL in both walks and homers, as well as the all-encompassing OPS+, Shields has held opponents to a .43 HR/9 over the last month, and a .91 HR/9 overall. If Juego G can mitigate the powerful, yet slumping Athletics, Kansas City has a chance to be successful by doing what they’ve done all season long.

On the other hand, in 13 games against the Royals in his career, Lester has held Kansas City to a .196 BA/.276 OBP/.264 SLG/.540 OPS line while allowing a single home run in 353 plate appearances. Lester’s posted a 1.84 ERA over 88 innings of work while averaging 6-2/3 innings per outing.

As Mark Narmandin (of SB Nation) notes,

The Royals’ offense is, but they’re pretty used to that by now. They finished last in the AL in OPS+, as mentioned, but just to rub in how poor that is, they finished behind last-place teams like the Red Sox, Rangers and Twins, as well as lineups full of mostly anonymous players in Houston and New York. Again, Gordon can hit, Butler is capable of things that resemble hitting and Cain has his uses at the plate, but otherwise this is not an exciting lineup. Players like backstop Salvador Perez are good enough for their position, but no one truly stands out other than Gordon.

As for the A’s, much was made of them losing Yoenis Cespedes and with him their ability to hit, but there are still plenty of bats here. Josh Reddick came on strong while the rest of Oakland burned around him, and finished with a 115 OPS+. Josh Donaldson had another season that should merit him some MVP consideration. Brandon Moss had a brutal second half at least in part due to injury, but he’s a high-quality hitter who can send the ball into orbit. The strength of Oakland’s attack relies entirely on which version of the team shows up. If it’s the one that outscored opponents by 164 runs in their first 106 games, then Shields will have a tough day on the job. If it’s the A’s from August and September, this is going to be a thrilling 1-0 game lost by the first team to have a pitch catch too much of the plate.

Given that, it’s worth noting that the Royals have two of the game’s faster players on the bench in Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore. Manufacturing a run might not only work, but could be the best idea depending on when Yost decides to go that route.

James Shields, Jon Lester, and the Royals and Athletics bullpen (over the last 30 days).

James Shields, Jon Lester, and the Royals and Athletics bullpen (over the last 30 days).

Royals and Athletics offensive production (at home and away).

Royals and Athletics offensive production (at home and away).

Key matchups vs. James Shields: Alberto Callaspo (6-24, 2 RBI, BB), Craig Gentry (1-3, 2B), Jonny Gomes (1-2, BB), Nick Punto (4-14, 4 BB), Josh Reddick (4 BB), Stephen Vogt (2-6).

Key matchups vs. Jon Lester: Aoki Norichika (4-9, 2 RBI, BB), Lorenzo Cain (5-16, 3 2B, BB), Alcides Escobar (5-17, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 3 BB), Eric Hosmer (4-13, HR, RBI, 3 BB),  Mike Moustakas (3-12, 3 RBI, 3 BB), Jayson Nix (8-26, 2 2B, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 2 BB), Salvador Perez (3-6, 2B, 2 RBI, 2 BB).

Noteworthiness

  • There was an excellent piece on James Shields in the NY Times, yesterday.
  • Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote on the return of James Shields’ change-up.
  • Also from FanGraphs, per staff writer Dave Cameron, “The A’s/Royals match-up is interesting for a number of reasons, and the difference in performance for wins versus expected wins is one of the more notable story lines. The A’s underperformed their BaseRuns expected total by seven wins; the Royals overperformed their expectation by eight wins. The Wild Card game matches up the team with the largest positive differential against the team with the second largest negative differential, and all of our playoff models are going to put more emphasis on the underlying performances rather than win-loss totals. Thus, the A’s grade out as slight favorites on Tuesday, even given their recent struggles and the fact that they are on the road.”
  • In Rays news, a few Tampa Bay related tweets were brought upon the world on the heels of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman’s final presser of the 2014 season:

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Looking Backward While Moving Forward: Rays Drop Season Finale, 7-2

Alex Cobb pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning of their game at Progressive Field. (Photo courtesy of David Maxwell/Getty Images)

Alex Cobb pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning of their game at Progressive Field. (Photo courtesy of David Maxwell/Getty Images)

Put a fork in it, the Tampa Bay Rays’ most disappointing season since 2007 came to a close in disappointing fashion, with the Rays falling to the Cleveland Indians 7-2. The Rays ended the season with a 77-85 record, and their lowest offensive output since the Devil Rays days (more on that below). Alex Cobb took the mound against Indians starter TJ House and allowed ten hits, including a rare two homer second inning. Meanwhile House, while lasting only 49 pitches, proved to be effective, ultimately limiting the Rays to one run in five innings.

The Rays got on the board first in the second inning, thanks to a Sean Rodriguez home run; his 12th on the year and good enough for second best on the Rays (behind Evan Longoria). The one-run lead was short lived, however. David Murphy and Zach Walters both took Cobb deep in the bottom of the inning to give the Indians a one-run advantage.

Cleveland scored again in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Jose Ramirez plated Tyler Holt on a sac-fly.

The Rays managed to put another run on the board in the top of the sixth after Longoria brought Brandon Guyer home with a sac-fly of his own. Tampa Bay held the deficit to two runs until the seventh when the typically reliable Jeff Beliveau gave up three runs, blowing the game open for the Indians.

Brandon Gomes and CJ Riefenhauser finished the game for the Rays, though the offense would never be able to overcome the five run margin.

And that my friends, is how one of the most disappointing years on record ended on a whimper, not a bang. A few game and season peripherals follow.

Noteworthiness

  • At 612 runs scored (some 88 runs fewer than the previous season), the Rays scored the fewest runs in the American League this season, and the fewest in team history.
  • The Rays finished the season with 116 home runs hit (12th in the AL) — a difference of 53 runs from the previous year.
  • Meanwhile, at 1,437 K’s, Tampa Bay struck out the second most batters in MLB history, falling 13 short of the Indians.
  • The Rays ended the season with a 41-40 road record, and a 36-45 record at home.
  • Alex Cobb finished the season with a 2.87 ERA, which is fourth best in team history and sixth in the American League. The other Rays starters who ended their respective seasons (162 IP minimum) with a better ERA to that of Cobb were David Price with a 2.56 ERA in 2012 and a 2.72 ERA in 2010, and James Shields with a 2.82 ERA in 2011.
  • The Rays finished the 2014 season with 1.44 MM fans through the gate — a worst-in-the-league average of 17,858 fans per game — their poorest showing since 2007.As Noah Pransky of the Shadow of the Stadium blog writes,

    The 2014 total represents nearly an 800 fan-per-game drop from 2013, which is about right given the team’s terrible start and season-long struggle to reach .500. The rest of MLB attendance remained about flat from 2013.

    Its also worth noting the Rays enjoyed another good year on television and stand to make major financial gains when they renegotiate their TV contract, set to expire after the 2016 season.

    The Indians dropped to just 274 fans per game ahead of Tampa Bay with three games to go, but the season-ending series against the Rays boosted that number back up to 570.

    However, had the Indians counted their three weekday single-admission doubleheaders toward their attendance totals, their per-game average would look much different. If you added the 40,129 total fans who saw the three doubleheaders, the Indians’ average would be 18,241 — 344 fans ahead of the Rays. If you don’t double-count the fans from the doubleheader (we don’t know if they watched both games), the Indians would be averaging just 17,746 — 122 fans behind the Rays, who sold about 10,000 more tickets this year.

  • The Rays began their long off-season all too soon, though I can’t wait to see what kinds of moves they make to bolster the roster going into the 2015 season. While we won’t be putting together updates with the frequency that both Spring Training and the regular season schedules dictate, we’ll be keeping up with all the Hot Stove moves. Hell, maybe we’ll even write about the postseason (cough, let’s go Royals).That said, we’d love to add some contributors to the fold. Know how to read statistics, and have some writing chops? Are you a sarcastic old coot who hates the Yankees or Red Sox? Get in touch: Belowaverageraysfansite@gmail.com
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Looking Backward While Moving Forward: Alex Colome Impressive in Rays 2-0 Win

Alex Colome pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians. (Photo courtesy of Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Alex Colome pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians. (Photo courtesy of Jason Miller/Getty Images)

If the last 30 days of play has been an audition of sorts between Alex Colome, Jeremy Hellickson, and Nate Karns, for the fifth starter spot ahead of Spring Training, then Colome saved one of his best performances for last. Suffice it to say, Colome was impressive in his 6-1/3 inning stint, allowing only five hitters to reach base on four hits and a walk, while blanking Cleveland and striking out six. Moreover, he put down all seven of the leadoff batters he faced, and allowed one lonely base runner to reach second throughout the course of his outing.

Colome’s fastball was on point, and he was able to induce eight of his 13 total weak contact outs on that pitch alone. He baffled the Indians with his slider all the while — coaxing 13 uncomfortable swings (five whiffs) from the opposing hitters. Not bad for a pitcher who has a history of command and control issues.

Alex Colome at-bat results (courtesy of Brooks Baseball).

Alex Colome at-bat results (courtesy of Brooks Baseball).

Forget that Colome is projected to be on the 25-man roster in one capacity or another next season, thanks in part to the fact Colome’s out of options, last night’s start against the Indians was his compelling argument for a spot in the starting rotation, until Matt Moore returns from Tommy John surgery in late May or June.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the three pitchers vying for the fifth starter spot next season (assuming that Jeremy Hellickson isn’t traded in the off-season). In doing so, I looked that Colome, Hellickson, and Karns’ body of work over the last 30 days.

Alex Colome, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Karns over the last 30 days.

Alex Colome, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Karns over the last 30 days.

While Colome pitched seven fewer innings than Hellickson, he has averaged a greater number of innings per outing. That is, he’s pitched much more efficiently which has allowed him to go deeper into games. If this trend continues, I’d feel much more comfortable with Colome saving the bullpen, in a manner of speaking, every five days.

The New What Next

The final game, sound the death knell. Alex Cobb will get the start opposite of TJ House. This should be an interesting pitching matchup — after all, both Cobb and House have similar strikeout, walk, and ground ball numbers. On the subject of House, FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman writes,

• The left-hander throws from a low ¾ release point (almost side arm) and lefties should have a problem hitting him. This season his FIP vs LHH is 2.82 and 3.92 vs RHH. Right-handed hitter won’t exactly tee off on him, it is just lefties will struggle mightily.
• His pitches all operated in a horizontal direction starting with his 87-93 mph fastball. Because of his low release point, it comes across the plate sideways.
• Additionally, he threw a change and slider. It is tough to differentiate these pitches from each other. They both come in at 81-84 mph, but the slider breaks more across the plate.
• He threw a 74 curve a couple of times. It looked like a decent pitch.
• He is getting a huge number of groundballs (61%, good for 2nd in the league, min 80 IP). His mechanics and pitches don’t seem to lead to such a high GB%.
• His fastball is the source of the high groundball rate since it sits at 65% for the season. All of his other pitches all have at least a 50% GB%.

You can read more on the pitching matchup in our series preview.

Rays 9/28/14 Starting Lineup

Guyer LF
Myers RF
Longoria 3B
Forsythe 2B
Rodriguez 1B
Loney SH
Franklin SS
Molina C
Kiermaier CF
Cobb RHP

Noteworthiness

  • With his eighth inning stolen base, Ben Zobrist joined Andrew McCutchen and Hanley Ramirez as the only players to hit at least 10 homers and swipe at least 10 bags in each of the last six years.
  • Wil Myers snapped the Rays 19 inning scoreless streak with a broken bat single in the fourth. James Loney snapped the ensuing four inning scoreless streak with an RBI single in the eighth.
  • Marc Topkin writes, “In the unlikely event they (the Rays) can’t work something out, Maddon could manage out the last year of his contract then have the option to see what offers he could get as a free agent. And if the Rays didn’t sense they could strike a deal, they conceivably could let him go, or even trade him, this offseason.
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Looking Backward While Moving Forward: Rays Fall Despite Strong Effort By Archer

Chris Archer pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians. (Photo courtesy of Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Chris Archer pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians. (Photo courtesy of Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Going into Friday night’s game, Rays starter Chris Archer set one goal for himself in this, his final start of the season: pitch strongly.   And over the course of 7-2/3 innings of baseball, Archer put together his strongest outing of the season — holding the Indians to one run on three hits, while striking out six. Unfortunately for him,Jose Ramirez took advantage of a first inning mistake pitch for the only run of the game, and the Rays had to butt heads with the 2014 Cy Young Award contender, Corey Kluber.

The opinion of many, Archer needs to master one more pitch — say, a change-up — before he can meet his potential. Ian Malinowski touched on that in his latest piece for DRaysBay. However, Archer used his change to great effect last night, tossing it for strikes 71% of the time (1 Whiff, 2 balls in play with an out, 7 strikes not in play) and throwing off the timing of the opposing hitters along the way. Archer avoided the big inning and only allowed one base runner to get past first base after Ramirez’s first inning solo shot. In the end, the right handed version of DP pitched very well, giving up only three hits while walking two.

Sadly Archer walked away with the tough luck loss, thanks to Kluber. The sweeping movement he got on both his sinker and his curve was pretty remarkable, and he had the ability to work those pitches to the edges of the zone. Kluber set up the Rays hitters with his backdoor breaking pitches, and sinkers at the bottom of the zone, then put them away with an outside power curve to righties, and sinkers on the outside corner to lefties. Sequencing, sequencing, sequencing… Kulber masterfully hit his spots, and put down Tampa Bay’s two scoring opportunities – the first following a triple by Kevin Kiermaier in the fifth inning, and the other following a Kiermaier walk in the seventh inning, which put two on with two outs. In the case of the seventh, Ryan Hanigan struck out looking to end the threat and the inning.

Archer ended his first full year in the bigs with three consecutive solid outings, a 3.42 ERA and a very respectable 3.36 FIP.

The New What Next

Alex Colome will make his final start of the 2014 season against Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco (5-2, 1.32 ERA) has been very good in his nine starts since rejoining the Indians rotation. While Carrasco is 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA against the Rays in his previous 11 innings of work, the 27 year-old RHP held the Rays hit-less in 1-2/3 innings of work out of the pen in the aforementioned May series at The Trop. You can read about the pitching matchup in our series preview.

Rays 9/27/14 Starting Lineup

Zobrist CF
DeJesus DH
Longoria 3B
Loney 1B
Myers RF
Franklin SS
Joyce LF
Hanigan C
Forsythe 2B
Colome RHP

Noteworthiness

  • Sour grapes, Archer was one out short of a potential complete game on his 26th birthday. I still don’t know why Maddon didn’t leave him in. Had Joe left Archer in, he would have become the second AL pitcher in 20 years to throw a complete game on his birthday (Sabathia did so against TB on 7/21/11).
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Rays 9/26/14 Starting Lineup, Etc

A photo of the 1909 Cleveland Nats.

A photo of the 1909 Cleveland Nats.

Rays 9/26/14 Starting Lineup

Zobrist 2B
DeJesus DH
Longoria 3B
Loney 1B
Franklin SS
Joyce RF
Guyer LF
Kiermaier CF
Hanigan C
Archer RHP

Noteworthiness

  • “The Rays are facing an uphill battle to keep their franchise relevant in a market that may not truly be a big-league market,” writes Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors. He went on, “Those who don’t sign extensions, after all, will see their price tags soar in arbitration at an ever-increasing rate, and offense is only getting more expensive. As such, the Rays’ lack of revenue — the team drew just 1.446MM fans this season — is a significant concern.”
  • Evan Longoria has played in 239 straight games, the second longest active streak behind Hunter Pence (380).
  • After going a team record 94 games without allowing double-digit runs, the Rays have done so three times in last four games.
  • Don’t forget to check out our Rays vs. Indians series preview. If you already have, make it a two’fer.
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