Friday October 3rd, 2014

Royals at Angels

Start Time: 9:37 p.m. ET


Series: Royals lead 1-0

Starting Pitchers: Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20 ERA) vs. Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04 ERA)

From Triple-A to Game 1 hero, Moustakas carries Royals to victory

After rallying from four runs back to win the AL Wild-Card Game and then snatching the Division Series opener from the Angels on Thursday night, the Royals should have your attention. They won a game thanks to the rare longball via Mike Moustakas' 11th-inning solo shot, didn't lay down a single sacrifice bunt, showed off stellar — if occasionally adventurous — outfield defense, and required manager Ned Yost to deviate from his bullpen orthodoxy at least somewhat. The latter owed to the game being tied into extra innings; wild horses couldn't get Yost to use closer Greg Holland until after the Moose cut loose, but Kelvin Herrera's departure after just five pitches due to elbow tightness forced him to go off script. Among other things, Yost called upon designated eighth inning guy Wade Davis in the seventh (!) and used him for four outs. More on that momentarily.

Friday night's start pairs two rookie starting pitchers who took very different paths to the Division Series. Ventura, a 23-year-old fireballer out of the Dominican Republic, was the heralded one, ranked as high as 12th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 100 Prospect List, and was part of Kansas City's starting five from the outset of the season. In 183 innings, he whiffed 7.8 per nine and generated groundballs on 48 percent of balls in play en route to a tidy 0.7 homers per nine (though you wouldn't have known it watching him serve up a long three-run homer to Brandon Moss when pressed into a relief appearance on Tuesday night).

Extreme velocity is Ventura's signature. No starting pitcher topped his average speeds on his four-seam fastball (98.3 mph), sinker (97.6 mph) or cutter (94.7 mph), and only Gerrit Cole did so on his curve (83.7 mph, thrown with a knuckle-curve grip); meanwhile, his changeup (88.4 mph) was faster than many pitchers' average fastballs.

Here's how parses his arsenal:

His fourseam fastball is thrown at a speed that's borderline unfair, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has some added backspin. His sinker… has little sinking action compared to a true sinker and results in somewhat more groundballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers. His curve is thrown extremely hard and has primarily 12-6 movement. His change is thrown extremely hard, results in many more groundballs compared to other pitchers' changeups and has a lot of backspin. His cutter… is a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers' cutters, has surprisingly little cutting action and has good "rise".

The road to a title — or not — for every Division Series team

Ventura may not miss quite as many bats as you'd expect given that blowtorch of an arm, and he's prone to walks (3.4 per nine), but he avoids a lot of hard contact and controls the running game like no other righty. Not until Sept. 12 did a team even attempt a stolen base against him this thanks to the combination of his speed to home plate (1.1 seconds) and Salvador Perez's arm; Boston's Yoenis Cespedes was successful that day, but teammate Mookie Betts was wiped out.

Ventura showed something of a reverse split this year, holding lefties to a .232/.299/.343 line via a .272 BABIP; righties hit .250/.326/.378 via a .314 BABIP. The Angels' lineup is righty-heavy, with only Kole Calhoun, a far-below-100 percent Josh Hamilton and switch-hitter Erick Aybar swinging from the left side; the team had trouble with righties (.254/.317/.399) and chewed up lefties (.273/.336/.427), though part of that was a product of Hamilton's rare reverse split (.239/.318/.377 vs. righties) and Raul Ibanez's crater-like performance before being released. In case you're wondering, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols — who went a combined 0-for-8 with a walk apiece in Game 1 — both went 1-for-2 off Ventura with singles in his lone appearance against the Angels, a four-inning, seven-hit affair on June 28. That’s some serious Small Sample Theater for anyone trying to find meaning.

Matt Shoemaker's unlikely hot streak buoys Angels in AL West

As for Shoemaker, he was a 27-year-old non-drafted free agent shuttling back-and-forth to Triple-A Salt Lake until mid-May, when he was pressed into rotation duty. He morphed into the team's top starter when the injury bug bit Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards; in the second half, he posted a 1.87 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 62/9 K/BB ratio in 72 1/3 innings over 11 starts and one relief appearance. He showed a substantial home/road split, with a 2.10 ERA and 2.71 FIP at the Big A, and a 4.55 ERA and 4.08 FIP elsewhere; his home run rate at home (0.66 per nine) was half that on the road (1.32 per nine).

The big concern about Shoemaker is the condition of his left oblique, which he strained in a Sept. 15 start. He hasn't seen competitive action since then, but he's believed to be good to go — though don't be surprised if manager Mike Scioscia keeps him on a short leash.

Shoemaker's signature pitch is his split-fingered fastball (84 mph average), which has an eye-opening 21.8 percent whiff rate; he also throws a sinker and four-seamer (both 91 mph) plus the occasional slider (82 mph) and knuckle curve (76 mph). The breakdown:

His sinker has less armside run than typical, has little sinking action compared to a true sinker and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' sinkers. His fourseam fastball results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, has slightly below average velo, has slightly less natural movement than typical and has some added backspin. His splitter results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' splitters. His slider has less than expected depth and has primarily 12-6 movement. His curve has very little depth, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' curves, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' curves, has slight glove-side movement and has slightly below average velo.

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Shoemaker was particularly tough on righties (.222/.263/.347) while being prone to a bit of pop from lefties (.257/.291/.410). In Norichika Aoki, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Moustakas, the Royals do have a significant lefthanded presence, though whatever advantage they gain from that tends to be counterbalanced by the struggles of Billy Butler and Omar Infante against same-side pitching. That said, when the Royals delivered Shoemaker his worst beating of the season — eight runs and 11 hits in four innings on June 27 — Infante homered off of him.

Bullpen-wise, the loss of Herrera — who was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Friday — and the 27 pitches thrown by Davis on Thursday night could limit Yost's options. Only once during the season did Davis throw more than an inning after having pitched the day before, and of the 10 times he threw at least 25 pitches, only once was he used next day; other than that, his high for returning on back-to-back days was 22 pitches. To the extent that the sample sizes tell us anything, he was touched up (relatively speaking) for a 2.45 ERA and .602 OPS allowed in 18 1/3 innings when pitching on no rest; all five of his extra-base hits allowed (!) came under such conditions. In his other 53 2/3 innings, he pitched to a 0.50 ERA and .329 OPS (!).

For the Angels, Kevin Jepsen was the only reliever to throw more than 15 pitches on Thursday; he threw 24, two higher than his season high for returning the next day. Given Scioscia's more flexible bullpen management, that's probably less of an issue.

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