It’s funny what a hot or a cold start can do to a baseball team and its fanbase. A slew of wins early in the season can help propel a team to greater heights, such as we saw with the 2006 Detroit Tigers. They raced out of the gate in April and May, and continued their run in June and July. The strong start helped them weather rough months in August and September, allowing them to sneak into the playoffs. We know the rest from there. Likewise, a rough first month or two can bury a club. This year’s San Francisco Giants, last in the AL West with a 27-51 record after being mentioned as a playoff contender in spring training, are a great example.
Then there are the weird teams like the Kansas City Royals. The 2015 World Series champs tripped over their own feet at the start line, and finished April with a 7-16 record. They were already 6 1⁄2 games out of first place at the time, and the team was already thinking of selling off its many pending free agents. Our friends at Royals Review, well versed in the art of watching bad Royals teams, hit the panic button on May 1.
Not only are the odds long, but it seems very likely to Royals are going to be very bad. Of those teams that got off to a terrible start in April, the average win total was 68. When you consider the deep hole the Royals have dug themselves into, it would take a tremendous record the next two months to get them to a point where they shouldn’t be sellers in July.
We’re now in the last week of June and the Royals shouldn’t be sellers. They have gone 30-21 over the past eight weeks and now sit at 37-37, just 2 1⁄2 games out of first place. They are two games out of the final AL Wild Card spot, and injured lefthander Danny Duffy is now on a rehab assignment. Their recent run may be unsustainable — their -38 run differential is worse than Detroit’s by a fair margin — but with a team on the rise and mediocrity on the horizon, it’s worth a shot.
Meanwhile, the best thing we can say about these Tigers is that they aren’t in last place anymore.
Game 1: LHP Matt Strahm (2-4, 4.80 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.52 ERA)
Matt Strahm wowed the baseball world when he pitched out of the Royals’ bullpen as a rookie in 2016. He struck out 30 batters in 22 innings and limited opponents to a 1.23 ERA. With a solid mid-90s fastball from the left side, Strahm looked like he could become the next great Royals reliever. However, after making a number of starts in the minors last year before his call-up, the team still had him earmarked for their rotation. He began the year in the bullpen, though — and gave up seven runs in his first three appearances — and was not given his first big league start until June 15. He’s still building up stamina, and will probably be limited to somewhere in the 80-90 pitch range.
Game 2: RHP Ian Kennedy (1-6, 4.95 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (4-5, 4.66 ERA)
Here’s something funny: Ian Kennedy can opt out of his contract with the Royals this offseason. If he does, he will pass up $49 million over the next three seasons. This might be a good bet for a pitcher to take after a strong year, but Kennedy’s 2017 season has been anything but. He got off to a hot start in April, but was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury in May. Since returning on May 21, Kennedy has only pitched six innings in a start twice. He has a 7.11 ERA in his last seven outings, with 26 strikeouts to 17 walks in 31 2⁄3 innings. Worse yet, Kennedy’s home run troubles appear to be resurfacing; he has allowed nine home runs in that same seven-game stretch.
Game 3: RHP Jake Junis (2-1, 4.97 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (6-6, 3.29 ERA)
A former 29th round pick out of high school in Illinois — the Royals paid him $675,000 to skip out on his commitment to NC State — Junis raced through the Royals’ minor league system (as high school picks go). He made 27 starts between Double and Triple-A last year, and struck out over four batters for every walk. Junis has stepped up his game this year, fanning 57 batters in 42 1⁄3 innings at Triple-A Omaha. While he doesn’t have the raw stuff to blow hitters away, he can still run his fastball up to the 93-94 mile-per-hour range. He also commands his pitches well, something the Tigers have struggled to handle this year.
Who’s hot: Lorenzo Cain
The Royals have been on fire lately, and their athletic center fielder is the one leading the way. Cain leads the club with 2.3 fWAR this year, and is hitting .308/.357/.596 over the past 30 days. He has hit eight of his 10 home runs this season during that stretch, and is playing his usual stellar defense in center field along the way. Over the past two weeks, Cain has taken his game to another level, producing a 182 wRC+. Also worth mentioning are Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez; all three have produced a wRC+ over 130 over the last month.
Who’s not: Alcides Escobar
It’s bad, y’all. Escobar is still struggling to hit anything thrown his way, and has a 27 wRC+ in 300 plate appearances this season. Only two players have even received 100 plate appearances while hitting that poorly this season, and one is a catcher. While manager Ned Yost has mercifully removed Escobar from the leadoff spot, the 30-year-old shortstop is hitting .256 with a .092 ISO over the last month. And that’s an improvement.
So, expect him to hit three home runs in this series just to spite this preview.
How the Tigers win this series
It all comes down to pitching in this series. The Tigers haven’t been able to stop anyone recently, and have surrendered 113 runs in 22 games this month. Both the starting rotation and bullpen have struggled, including Michael Fulmer. Their team ERA has climbed to second-worst in the American League this season, while their walk-rate sits third-worst. Meanwhile, the Royals are scoring over five runs per game this month. Whether it comes from the rotation or bullpen (or both, preferably), the Tigers need to figure out a way to simultaneously shore up their leaky pitching staff and slow down the Royals’ red-hot attack.