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Oakland A's series preview: a Royals visit

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The Athletics greet a Kansas City Royals team leading the AL Central.

If the A's need to mount a comeback against the Royals bullpen, Oakland's plate discipline might save themselves.
If the A's need to mount a comeback against the Royals bullpen, Oakland's plate discipline might save themselves.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The American League All-Stars minus Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout come to Oakland in the form of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals, at 41-28, lead the American League Central Division by 3½ games and own the highest winning percentage in the American League. The Royals have won seven of their last 10, though four of those games came in a sweep of the MLB-worst Milwaukee Brewers in last week's interleague play.

The Athletics face their first division leader since the Yankees on May 29-31 (won series 2-1), the Rays on May 21-24 (split 2-2), and the Astros on May 18-20 (lost 1-2). Oakland has won five games in a row, nine of their last 11, and 20 of their last 31.

If you're wondering about something stupid starting up accidental fireworks, well:

Onward!

On the mound

Starter Ranks
Royals AL Ranks A's
12th (4.43) ERA 1st (3.08)
12th (4.25) FIP 1st (3.42)
T-14th (4.49) xFIP 6th (3.78)

Yordano Ventura is rehabilitating "from irritation in his ulnar nerve in his right elbow," writes the Kansas City Star and Jason Vargas has been on the disabled list since June 9 with a left flexor strain. It would be Joe Blanton's turn to start on Sunday, but the Royals are electing to use their off day to skip his start and go with Jeremy Guthrie instead. It will be Edinson Volquez on Friday, Chris Young on Saturday, and Jeremy Guthrie on Sunday, all right-handers.

Friday vs. RHP Edinson Volquez
Friday (7:05 PM PDT)
Edinson Volquez vs. Jesse Hahn
3.33 ERA 3.40
3.65 FIP 3.38
4.23 xFIP 3.92
17.6% K% 14.9%
1.44 GB/FB 2.33

Edinson Volquez did not face the Athletics in the April series, but he has shown himself quite capable thus far. He has allowed the sixth fewest home runs per nine innings in the American League this year (0.538) but has the eighth highest walk rate (8.8%) among 51 qualified American League starters. That bodes well for the A's, whose hitters are even with the Yankees and Red Sox for fourth-best walk rate (8.2%).

Just don't expect too many dingers Friday night for either player. Volquez is tied with Jesse Chavez for sixth fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (0.54). Jesse Hahn own the best mark at 0.32.

Volquez throws a 94 mph sinker primarily, with a knuckle curve, change, and 95 mph fastball, according to Brooks Baseball.

Saturday vs. RHP Chris Young
Saturday (1:05 PM PDT)
Chris Young vs. Scott Kazmir
2.83 ERA 2.70
4.14 FIP 3.52
5.11 xFIP 3.71
16.1% K% 22.9%
0.40 GB/FB 1.29

Chris Young moved into the rotation for good on May 10. In his nine starts, Young has a 3.14 ERA in 51⅔ innings, striking out 34 and walking 17 while allowing six home runs. The A's have not faced Young this season.

Young's GB/FB rate is the most fly ball heavy among 63 American League pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched. He does get batters to pop out, however, owning the fourth highest infield fly ball percentage. He still allows about one home run per nine innings.

The journeyman Young throws just three pitches, according to Brooks Baseball: an 87 mph fastball, 81 mph slider, and rarely thrown change.

Sunday vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie
Sunday (1:05 PM PDT)
Jeremy Guthrie vs. Jesse Chavez
5.90 ERA 2.90
5.23 FIP 2.92
5.05 xFIP 3.54
10.7% K% 21.6%
0.95 GB/FB 1.22

Jeremy Guthrie has not owned an ERA this high since he pitched for the 2012 Colorado Rockies. That 5.90 is second worst among the 51 qualified American League starters, and adjusting for where he pitches, it is the worst by ERA+.

So what's the deal? For one, he's hardly striking anybody out. That 10.7 percent strikeout rate is league worst. For another, he's allowing home runs like crazy, with a 1.41 HR/9 tied for fifth highest in the AL.

Despite how poorly he is playing, Guthrie owns a 5-5 record and his team is 8-6 in his starts because his bullpen and the team's offense have been able to rescue him from a number of mediocre starts. Riffing from the linked FanPost at Royals Review, we can see that Guthrie has tossed 11 starts where he has given up four runs or fewer and pitched at least five innings. The Royals are 8-3 in those contests.

Guthrie is throwing a 93 mph fastball, 92 mph sinker, change, cutter, and knuckle curve, says Brooks Baseball.

At the plate and in the field

Royals AL Ranks A's
6th (4.39) RS/G 4th (4.55)
8th (102) wRC+ 4th (105)
14th (52) HR 10th (65)
2nd (.274) AVG 5th (.261)
T-6th (.323) OBP 5th (.325)
6th (.409) SLG 7th (.400)
14th (.135) ISO 11th (.138)
7th (39) SB 6th (45)
4th (36) Errors 15th (72)
1st (40) DRS 7th (8)
1st (13.9) UZR/150 15th (-10.9)
1st (.726) DE 6th (.717)

The vaunted Kansas City defense arrives with the Royals sweeping the three advanced metrics I've posted in the table. The three starters the A's are facing this weekend have just five unearned runs on their record: Volquez 4, Young 1, Guthrie 0.

On offense, the Royals enjoy six players hitting better than average by wRC+, led by a 141 from Mike Moustakas thanks to his .328/.379/.478 batting line. In the American League, Moustakas is fifth in batting average and 10th in on base percentage.

Christian Colon is Kansas City's plate discipline champion by BB/K, enjoying a 0.70 ratio over 82 plate appearances. Alex Gordon leads the Royals in BB/K among hitters qualified for batting titles.

Sogard Line

The Eric Sogard Line is Sogard's wRC+, representing my gut feel for what represents serviceable offensive production for a bottom of the order hitter with a good glove, but you probably don't want more than one or two of those in your lineup.

Sogard's wRC+ improved from 70 to 72 after going 3-for-9 with a walk against the Rangers. The Kansas City Royals have given about 15 percent (375 of 2,556) of their non-pitcher plate appearances to batters batting at or below the Sogard Line. The bulk of those plate appearances belong to leading All-Star second baseman candidate Omar Infante (235 PA, 49 wRC+) while fifth place outfielder Alex Rios has most of the rest (109 PA, 42 wRC+).

Here is how the Sogard Line has moved in recent series, and the percentage of plate appearances opponents have given to batters below that line at the start of the series:

Bullpen

Bullpen Ranks
Royals AL Ranks A's
6th (231.0) IP 13th (205.1)
1st (2.06) ERA 15th (4.56)
2nd (3.25) FIP 12th (4.14)
7th (3.71) xFIP 11th (4.05)

The Kansas City bullpen is still really good and does well to keep games close and not blow leads. That bullpen is 12-4 and has 22 saves. They have six relievers with strikeout rates above 20%.

Except for Luke Hochevar, it's also a ground ball heavy bullpen, which works brilliantly with that defense behind it, not that they need it in Kansas City's expansive outfield.

Three Royals relievers have top 10 worst walk rates.

If there's going to be one thing that could save the A's if forced to face the Kansas City bullpen, it's Oakland's plate discipline. Greg Holland has allowed about one in six batters he has faced to reach on a walk, and three Royals relievers are in the top 10 of reliever walks allowed percentage (min. 10 innings pitched): Holland, Jason Frasor, and Brandon Finnegan.

2015 Stats Recent usage (pitch count from www.rosterresource.com)
Player Hand IP ERA K% BB% GB% FB% 25-Jun 24-Jun 23-Jun 22-Jun 21-Jun 20-Jun 19-Jun
Greg Holland R 18.1 2.95 24.0% 16.0% 47.7% 34.1%
O
F
F


D
A
Y
15 17
Wade Davis R 31.0 0.29 30.2% 8.6% 44.3% 32.9% 13 18
Kelvin Herrera R 28.0 1.93 26.4% 9.1% 56.3% 23.9% 12 18 17
Ryan Madson R 29.2 1.82 25.2% 7.0% 55.3% 35.5% 18 4
Franklin Morales L 29.0 2.79 15.3% 5.4% 50.6% 27.6% 13 6
Jason Frasor R 21.1 1.69 15.8% 14.7% 47.7% 26.2% 36
Luke Hochevar R 12.0 6.00 23.6% 7.3% 28.9% 52.6% 22 9
Brandon Finnegan L 14.1 1.88 21.4% 14.3% 61.8% 17.6% 13 51

The games and promotions

No promotions Friday night except the usual free gift for Friday visitors to Value Deck ticket holders. Saturday is 1965 Turn-Back-The-Clock night with the A's giving commemorative T-shirts to 20,000 fans featuring "Charlie O the Mule", the mascot named after Charlie Finley that served as mascot from 1963 to 1976. The A's will also be wearing throwback Kansas City A's uniforms as they play Kansas City. Dan Otero was so confused by this they sent him down to Triple-A:

The A's are also celebrating Faith and Family Day on Saturday, requiring a special ticket to attend a post-game event featuring "A's players and coaches sharing their testimonials, as well as a performance by Donnie Moore and the Radical Reality Team."

Sunday, the A's are giving away Billy Butler "Country Breakfast" Bowls to 15,000 fans.

Here's your schedule:

Time (PT) Probable starters TV Promotion
Friday 7:05 PM Edinson Volquez vs. Jesse Hahn CSNCA
Saturday 1:05 PM Chris Young vs. Scott Kazmir CSNCA 1965 Turn-Back-The-Clock Day | Faith and Family Day
Sunday 1:05 PM Jeremy Guthrie vs. Jesse Chavez CSNCA Billy Butler "Country Breakfast" Bowl