Odds are good it’ll be a low-scoring affair when the Indians are involved.
After a 6-3 road trip, the Royals come home to take on the third-place team in the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians. With the unbalanced schedule, all division games are pretty important, but this (and the next one against the White Sox) feels extra important. The Indians lost a lot in the offseason with some of their trades and aren’t as strong as they have been, but they can still really pitch so they’re likely to be hanging around in the division for most of the season. If the Royals can take this series, they can knock the Indians back early. If the Indians can take this series, they can make it a three-team race with the Twins likely to creep up soon. For the Royals to stay at the head of the class, they’ll need to handle their business this week.
The Indians can’t really hit. They do have a bunch of guys who will take a walk, but outside of Jose Ramirez and sort of Jordan Luplow, they just don’t have a bunch of guys who hit much at all. I think Cesar Hernandez will bounce back eventually and guys like Eddie Rosario and Josh Naylor may eventually hit, but there’s a lot of struggle in that lineup, so the Royals pitching should be able to bounce back from a tough Twins series. But the offense may struggle as the Indians pitching is generally very good, though Triston McKenzie has struggled and Logan Allen has already been demoted, so they aren’t in as good shape as they usually are. But their bullpen is top-notch with some nasty stuff at the back end. These games seem like a good bet to be low-scoring, so I guess we should just pencil in about 60 runs in the four games.
Probable Starting Pitchers
I feel like Aaron Civale is the starter package for the Indians to turn guys into top starters in their rotation. He throws strikes and manipulates the ball decently. And so far, the Indians have been successful in getting him results and not giving up hits, which has led to the fast start for him so far. He’s kind of interesting in that his strikeout and walk numbers are similar to his rookie year when he posted a 2.34 ERA in 10 starts. Then last year, he struck out more and walked fewer and his ERA shot up. This year, of course, the numbers are good, but there is reason to assume the peripherals will drag him down a bit. His fastball has been outstanding with a .138 opponent’s average, but the xBA is .241. That’s still good, but not otherworldly. His xSLG on it is .484 compared to .345 in reality. The pitch he’s been hit on and has the peripherals to match is the slider. He has struggled a bit with men on base, but he’s been really good deep into counts. So the Royals strategy might be to swing early against a guy who throws a first pitch strike 63 percent of the time.
Oh man, it’s Daniel Lynch time. The big lefty who is probably either their best or second-best pitching prospect depending on how you view Asa Lacy will get his first crack at the big leagues with a start against the struggling Indians offense. He’ll sit 95-97 and can hit 99 on the gun. As I said today on Inside the Crown, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he threw triple digits because of his adrenaline for his debut. His slider is filthy and his changeup is very much improved. The Indians haven’t hit lefties very well this season and they haven’t really hit anyone very well, so this is a good chance for him to get his career off to a good start. It’s an important game too, so they’re really throwing him in the deep end.
Sam Hentges will be making his first career start in his fourth career game, taking the rotation spot of Allen. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft by the Indians and just kind of steadily climbed through the system over the next few seasons. After missing last year like everyone else, he had a chance to make his big league debut this year. He did have Tommy John Surgery during the 2016 season and when he came back, his velocity wasn’t quite where it was before, but he has averaged just under 96 MPH in his brief big league time. He has a curve that Terry Francona praised quite a bit last year from the alternate site as well as a slider and the occasional changeup, which he hasn’t yet thrown in the big leagues. Realistically, he has the profile of a reliever, but the Indians have a need and he can probably give them a few innings, so he’s going to get the call right now for this game.
Mike Minor is coming off his first true clunker with the Royals, which I kind of predicted on Twitter. I just feel like when teams have a long top half of the first that the road pitcher struggles, and he couldn’t make it through five in spite of being given a six-run lead. What’s concerning about Minor is that while his fastball is up slightly, it’s not up as much as you’d like. Also, it’s been hit hard with a .759 SLG and .779 xSLG compared to .360/.459 last season. To his credit, he’s thrown it a lot less this season, with his slider bumping up quite a bit more. I’d like to see him give that fastball up more of a shot against a lineup that likely won’t do as much with it as some others just to see if he can get some confidence in that pitch again because the only way he’s successful is if he’s throwing his fastball and throwing it well.
As it turns out, Shane Bieber remains good after having a fantastic short season in 2020. He’s still striking out hitters at a ridiculous rate and going deep into games and just generally showing that he’s in the upper echelon of big league pitchers. His control has been slightly worse than last season and he’s been a bit easier to hit, but honestly that doesn’t make him easy to hit. Some of that might be that his fastball velocity is down about a full mile per hour so far and while his curve is still dominant, it’s just not quite as dominant. It’s also interesting that he’s thrown his slider a lot more and almost entirely scrapped his cutter from last season, though I wonder if that has something to do with pitch classification. If you’re looking for a weakness on Bieber, he’s allowed an OPS 200 points higher to lefties than righties. Of course, that OPS against lefties is still only .666. A big change is that when hitters get ahead of them, they find more success than last year, hitting .276/.512/.448, which honestly still isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as last year’s .233/.383/.326.
As of right now, Brady Singer is making this start, but I guess we’ll see how his foot is doing after taking that 105 MPH line drive off it against the Twins. Before that, Singer’s command was as bad as I’ve ever seen it, which was a bit surprising considering he was coming off some of the best command we’ve seen from him in his previous two starts. That’s the life of a young pitcher, I guess, but it’s something to keep an eye on, especially if he’s not 100 percent. Though he did make it seem like he was feeling much better the next day. The Indians were a good matchup for him last year. He made his big league debut against them and struck out seven in five innings. Then in September, he took a no-hitter deep into the game and ended up giving up just one hit over eight innings while striking out eight. This is a good team for him to bounce back against.
While it’s easy to see McKenzie’s name and start singing in your head about words to a sermon no one will hear, he has some very loud stuff out there on the mound. You can see that in his 29 strikeouts in just 18.2 innings. Of course, he’s struggled mightily with the zone this season, which you can see with his 18 walks in that time. And it’s not just control. It’s command too. He ranks in the third percentile among pitchers in hard hit rate, so he’s leaving the ball out over the plate way too much. Opponents have barreled up 21.1 percent of batted balls, which is just terrible. You’d think he throws harder than he does, but he’s only averaging about 91 on his fastball, which is down almost two full ticks from last season. His slider and curve have been nearly unhittable, but for some reason, he’s thrown the fastball two-thirds of the time. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. His platoon splits are pretty crazy with a 1.095 OPS allowed to lefties and a .610 OPS to righties. Guys like Carlos Santana and Andrew Benintendi have a chance to have big games with their patience, left-handedness and both hitting the ball really right now.
Danny Duffy continues to be an absolute force with the best earned run average in the big leagues. I was thinking before his start against the Twins that if he pitches well, I might be fully in on the Duffy career year and then he went and gave up just one run in seven innings. He’s gotten double digits swings and misses in all five of his starts so far, which is exactly what you want. He’s really doing everything well on the mound right now and I think it starts with his fastball averaging 93.8 MPH after averaging just 92.2 last season. There just isn’t a single pitch that a batter can sit on and think they can do damage to it, and it starts with the fastball. This all started in his first start in Cleveland, so hopefully he can handle this lineup again.
Four-game sets are hard to win for either side, so I’m going to be super boring and say that I think this ends in a split. It’s so hard to predict day-to-day, but I think there is a very clear pitching edge for the Indians on Wednesday (sorry to Singer, but come on, Bieber is unreal) and for the Royals on Thursday. Monday and Tuesday seem like coin flips. If the Royals get good Minor, that’ll certainly help to take three of four, but I’m sticking with that split prediction.