A trio of 7:15 p.m. first pitches makes up this weekend’s FOX Saturday Baseball games and the American League is very well-represented. The Oakland Athletics continue their East Coast road trip in Baltimore against the Orioles, the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals are both striving to get on track, and the streaky Boston Red Sox are in the Motor City to take on the slumping Detroit Tigers.
Oakland at Baltimore
The Oakland Athletics have persevered through a rash of pre- and early-season pitching injuries to have the American League’s top run differential. The Baltimore Orioles are trying to get their road success to translate into better performances in front of their home crowd. This matchup features two of the most anticipated right-handed youngsters as Sonny Gray gets the ball for the A’s against Kevin Gausman for the O’s.
Unfortunately, both starting pitchers have started their careers in vastly different ways. Gray has been outstanding as a Major League pitcher with a career 2.55 ERA and 3.06 FIP in his first 24 regular season appearances, 22 of them starts. Gray also made two terrific ALDS starts last season in Oakland’s loss to the Tigers. Gray is 6-1 in 12 starts this season and the A’s are 8-4 in his six starts for 2.76 units of profit on the season.
Eleven of Gray’s 12 starts have been of the quality (6+ IP, 3 or fewer ER) this season, with the lone blip on the radar coming in his May 27 outing against Detroit, in which he allowed four runs over six innings. Unlike most Oakland pitchers, Gray actually has reverse home/road splits, with a 1.25 ERA and a 3.04 FIP in 36 road innings compared to a 3.43 ERA and a 3.54 FIP at home.
Gausman is making his second start of the season and will pitch in place of Miguel Gonzalez, who is dealing with an oblique injury. Gausman managed just four innings in his last start, a May 14 spot start against Detroit, in which he allowed five runs on six hits. Gausman has a 6.10 ERA in his 51.2 career Major League innings, but has flashed the stuff that made him a first-round pick in 2012 with 51 strikeouts in those 51.2 innings.
In 10 starts for Triple-A Norfolk, Gausman was just 1-3, but had a 2.98 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP. This is definitely a tough spot for the youngster, taking on an A’s team that entered play on Friday third in wOBA and OPS. They also have the league’s highest walk rate at 10.9 percent and third-lowest strikeout rate at 17.7 percent despite all of the deep counts.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is generally one of the top hitter’s parks in baseball and it has been that way for the hometown team for quite some time now. This season, however, the Orioles are posting a home slash line of .248/.301/.370 and a wRC+ of 80, the third-lowest mark in the league because wRC+ is adjusted for park factor. On the road, however, the Orioles are batting .280 to lead the league with an OBP of .332 and the league’s best road SLG% at .443. It’s a strange development that should even out in the near future.
Pick: Oakland Athletics
There may be a little bit of regression coming down the pike for Sonny Gray, but he should get a decent amount of offense to work with in this matchup. Kevin Gausman has good stuff, but command has been a problem at the Major League level and lefties have posted good slugging percentages against him in the minor leagues. The A’s utilize platoon advantages which will put a lot of lefties in the lineup against Gausman and that could be his undoing.
New York at Kansas City
Household names David Phelps and Danny Duffy will begin the game on the mound for their respective teams with a 6:15 p.m. local time first pitch from Kauffman Stadium. The Yankees entered play on Friday at 30-29 with the second-worst run-differential in the AL East at -28, while the Royals have hovered around .500 for much of the season.
Phelps will be making his seventh start and 16th appearance of the season. As a starter, Phelps has done a serviceable job for the Pinstripes with a 4.19 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 2/1. The Yankees are just 1-5 in Phelps’s six starts for a loss of just over four units on the season. By increasing his usage of breaking balls, Phelps has mitigated some of the power that lefties had against him, but it has come at the expense of not being able to get righties out. Righties have a .383 wOBA against Phelps in 109 plate appearances.
The increase of breaking balls has led to an increase in pop ups and a decrease in home runs, but most of Phelps’s plate discipline statistics remain largely the same. There is some concern because Phelps’s assortment of breaking stuff has not generated more swings and misses and hitters are making more contact on pitches in the zone. After striking out 16 batters in 11.2 relief innings, Phelps has 26 strikeouts in 34.1 starter innings.
Duffy had a promising start to his career put on hold because of Tommy John surgery and he rejoined the rotation on May 3 after six relief appearances in April. From a pure stuff standpoint, Duffy is a very intriguing guy with a deceptive left-handed arm slot that can run it up there in the mid-90s with regularity. Among 145 pitchers with at least 40 innings of work, Duffy ranks 14th in having the most effective fastball and cracks the top 10 in fastball pitch value per 100 pitches.
As a starter, Duffy is 2-4 with a 3.27 ERA, but he is averaging less than six innings per start as the Royals take it easy with their prized southpaw. The Royals are just 2-4 in Duffy’s six starts for a loss of 2.05 units. Of concern for the Royals is that Duffy has an 18/15 K/BB ratio as a starter after an 11/3 K/BB ratio as a reliever. The 32 lefties Duffy has faced have an .035/.129/.036 slash line, while the 192 righties have a .223/.326/.378 slash.
A definite concern in this game for the Yankees has to be their bullpen. Their 4.27 ERA is the sixth-worst mark in baseball, despite the league’s best K/9 rate among bullpens. The concern for the Royals is what it has been all season – their offense. The Royals entered play on Friday 29th in OPS, the worst team in the American League, at .657. Only the Orioles and Diamondbacks walk less than the Royals.
Pick: Kansas City Royals
In a game that will likely come down to bullpens because of starting pitchers that don’t work very deep into games, the Royals should have a big advantage in the late innings. Current Yankees have just 17 plate appearances worth of experience against Duffy and lefties that rush it up there in the mid-90s with good breaking balls generally take an adjustment period.
Boston at Detroit
The best game of the three should be at Comerica Park in Detroit where the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Max Scherzer, takes on Jon Lester, who outdueled Adam Wainwright twice in last year’s World Series to help the Red Sox to their third title since 2004. These two teams have been on quite the roller coaster ride of late. The Tigers moved to 27-12 with a 6-2 win at Fenway Park on May 18 and have now lost 13 out of 17. The Red Sox lost 10 straight, including three straight to Detroit during that mid-May series, to fall to 20-30 and then won seven in a row. They were then swept by the Cleveland Indians to open the month of June.
Lester has been spectacular this season for the Red Sox with a 6-6 record and a 3.15 ERA. His 2.53 FIP, 2.69 xFIP, and 2.78 SIERA are better indicators of just how good he has pitched. He’s setting career bests in K% and BB%. The problem is that the Red Sox have managed just 3.23 runs per game of support for Lester. With Lester on the mound, the Red Sox are down 1.47 units.
Scherzer has been the Scherzer that Tigers fans and his teammates have come to expect. Since mostly eliminating the control problems that plagued him early in his career, Scherzer has been a strikeout machine averaging about 190 innings or more per season. This season is no different. Scherzer is 6-2 in his 12 starts with a 3.20 ERA, a 3.12 FIP, and a 3.33 xFIP. Unlike most cases where the advanced metrics or ERA only tells a partial story, everything lines up for Scherzer. In those 12 starts, the Tigers are 8-4 for a profit of 2.45 units.
Are there underlying concerns about Scherzer? His ground ball rate has dropped for the fourth straight season and his walk rate has climbed back up to his career average after having a career year in that regard last season. His average fastball velocity has also fallen 1.2 mph from last season to this season. His first-pitch strike percentage is at a seven-year low and his other plate discipline numbers have gravitated towards his career averages, which, as we know, include those first couple of seasons with shaky control.
The Red Sox have a major bullpen advantage in this one as the Tigers have the worst bullpen by ERA in baseball and they didn’t acquit themselves very well in the Toronto series, turning some close games into blowouts and turning potential wins into losses.
Pick: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers entered play on Friday 10-6 against left-handed starters, while the Red Sox were just 14-24 against right-handed starters. Scherzer is one of the best in that latter category and he’s averaging 6.2 innings per start. That should limit the exposure for the Tigers bullpen and Manager Brad Ausmus may push Scherzer a bit farther with the extra day of rest from last Monday’s off day.