After a successful road trip, the Mariners return home for a four-game series against the Royals.
Even with the sour taste of those two blowout losses in Houston lingering, the Mariners did exactly what they needed to on their eight-game road trip: win in Texas and in Oakland. They moved to just one game behind the A’s in the Wild Card race and gained a half game on Boston after the Twins beat the Red Sox in extra innings yesterday. Despite the narrowing of the standings, all of the projection systems still have a hard time believing the Mariners have any real chance at making the playoffs. FanGraphs is the most pessimistic, putting their playoff odds at just 4.8%; FiveThirtyEight is the most optimistic at 16%, while Baseball Prospectus splits the difference at 8.4%. Mathematically, those odds feel about right, but if there’s anything this team has taught us this year, it’s that math doesn’t play nicely with the rules of Chaos Ball.
From here on out, the Mariners alternate series against a team with a record below .500 followed by a direct competitor in the playoff race. That gives the rest of their season a nice cadence and avoids a really tough stretch against multiple difficult teams in a row that might otherwise sink their season in one fell swoop. Instead, they have the opportunity to pad their win totals in these “easier” series before facing their tougher opponents.
While the Royals technically have a record below .500, they’ll still present a tough challenge for the Mariners. Instead of fully tearing down their roster at the trade deadline, Kansas City opted to hold onto many of their veteran players. Since the All-Star break, they’ve won series against the Brewers, White Sox (twice) and the Astros (and almost won a second series against them earlier this week). They’ve called up a bunch of their young pitching prospects to staff their rotation while their lineup is filled with veteran hitters. That combination makes them a challenging opponent and a potential spoiler for any team in the playoff hunt.
Offensively, the Royals haven’t really changed all that much from their peak half a decade ago when they won the World Series. They have a bunch of high-contact speedsters backed by a couple of sluggers. That approach worked well back then, but it’s highly susceptible to streakiness based on batted ball luck. Salvador Perez continues to defy all the common wisdom about the wear and tear on modern catchers. He’s started more than 75% of the Royals games behind the plate and has already blasted past his career-high in home runs. His career arc is really fascinating to look at as he’s gone from a high-contact hitter to a legitimate power threat, all while catching the highest number of innings in the majors by a wide margin. Whit Merrifield hasn’t been as good at the plate as he had been the past few years, but he leads the majors in stolen bases and has played excellent defense at second base. He and Nicky Lopez have combined for a nice 69 stolen bases between them which is exactly what you’d expect from the top two hitters in a Kansas City lineup.
Brad Keller is a rare Rule 5 pick success story. He was drafted by the Diamondbacks out of high school in 2013, and by 2017, he was a 21-year-old in Double-A putting up a 3.58 FIP in 26 starts. The Royals selected him in the Rule 5 draft that offseason and spent the entire 2018 season with them, pitching out of the bullpen first and transferring to the rotation by midseason. He’s put together two solid seasons since then, but has struggled a bit in his fourth year in the majors. Much of his previous success was built on an ability to keep the ball in the park while keeping base runners to a minimum with an above average walk rate. Both his home run rate and walk rate have trended the wrong way this year, and with his contact-heavy approach giving him such a razor thin margin for success, his ERA and FIP have both risen up to career-high levels.
Kris Bubic was the 40th overall pick in the 2018 draft and quickly moved through the Royals organization. After a phenomenal minor league season across two levels in 2019, he made his major league debut during the shortened season last year. Without an overpowering fastball, he profiles as a back-end starter, but he does have a few positive traits that give him some promise. His throwing motion presents some natural deception which helps his already excellent changeup play up. That pitch has an elite velocity differential that hides a rather average pitch shape. He’ll need an improvement in some other aspect of his profile to really make an impact in the majors but the changeup is a real weapon to build off of.
Carlos Hernández started off the season as the Royals 17th ranked prospect (per FanGraphs) who looked more like a reliever than someone who could stick in the rotation. He started off the year as a reliever but made the transition to the rotation after the All-Star break and has flourished. The biggest difference has been a fastball that’s now sitting at 97 mph with a greatly improved shape over what he showed last season. He’s added more than three inches of ride to the pitch moving it from an above average heater into a plus offering. His secondary pitches now lag behind his fastball in terms of raw stuff, but the adjustments he’s already made indicate a willingness and ability to continue to improve.
Taken six picks before Bubic in the 2018, Daniel Lynch was ranked third in the Royals organization with a much higher ceiling than Bubic. He made his major league debut back in May but it was a short stint after getting rocked in three starts. After a brief stint back in Triple-A, he was called back up in late-July looking much more polished. The best tool in his repertoire is a fastball with impressive velocity from the left side. He’s sitting around 94 in the majors but can get it up to 97 with ease. As for his secondary offerings, he leans on his slider pretty heavily, though his changeup is pretty good too. The breaking ball has some really interesting spin characteristics, with some of the largest spin differential in baseball. It’s nearly a true gyro slider making it a really tough pitch to pick up and hit.
The Big Picture:
The Twins did the Mariners a huge favor yesterday afternoon, beating the Red Sox in extra-innings after blowing their lead in the ninth. Those two teams finish off their three-game series today and then the Red Sox head off for a weekend series in Cleveland. The A’s have lost four straight after the Mariners mini-sweep earlier this week and their schedule doesn’t get any easier. They begin a four-game series against the Yankees tonight. New York has been the hottest team in the majors, winning 11 in a row after their two-game sweep in Atlanta. The Blue Jays have managed to win two tightly contested games against the White Sox to keep pace in the Wild Card race. They wrap up that series today and then head to Detroit this weekend. A bullpen meltdown by the Royals allowed the Astros to salvage a series win against Kansas City yesterday; they’ll face their intrastate rivals in Arlington this weekend.