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Cleveland series preview: The two who might have ruled

They're totally phasing out Chief Wahoo, again, for the tenth straight year.

Middle-infield pattycake
Middle-infield pattycake
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The World Champion Kansas City Royals travel to Cleveland to face that team with a mascot just racist enough that the club makes an annual statement vowing that they're in the process of phasing it out. This is the first series between the division foes, though there is not much of a rivalry between the two teams.

They currently enjoy/suffer a three-way tie with Detroit for second place in the American League Central, each team hovering one game above .500 and a full four back of the *shudder* first-place Chicago White Sox. With both Cleveland and Kansas City eyeing bigger things in 2016, the first month could have gone better, but neither team is out of it. The Royals get to send their best three starting pitchers to the mound this weekend, while they miss Corey Kluber and hit Cleveland while Carlos Carrasco sits on the disabled list.

*All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Pitching match-ups

Game One - Friday, 6:10 PM CDT

Yordano Ventura 5 27.0 22 20 3.67 5.23 5.73 5.66
Danny Salazar 5 30.0 34 15 2.40 2.85 3.86 3.79

While it is difficult to point to what exactly has led to Salazar's early improvements this season, there is no denying that he has electric stuff. This is not news to Royals fans, who have seen Salazar maintain a 4.73 K/BB against the Royals. Of course, that K/BB doesn't tell the whole story about the maddening Salazar, who has somehow also gotten hit particularly hard by the Royals in his nine starts against them, sporting a 4.64 ERA versus Kansas City, the worst mark he has against any team he's faced multiple times. He has increased his groundball rates to career-high marks (47.8%) while inducing more infield flies (read: automatic outs) in an odd combination of changes. How this altered approach plays out tonight is anyone's guess.  With efficiency an ever-present concern for Salazar, the Royals will hope to run his pitch count up and get to the Cleveland pen earlier than later.

Ventura has outperformed his peripherals, which justifiably dislike what the flame-thrower has done in the free pass department. Twice, he has walked six, most recently against Seattle over the weekend. While two starts account for 60% of his walks, it is hard not to look at the early struggles from Ventura and see the same old problems despite the alteration of his delivery.

Game Two - Saturday, 3:10 PM CDT

Ian Kennedy 5 31.0 29 11 2.61 3.92 4.60 4.06
Cody Anderson 4 20.0 14 4 7.65 6.33 4.67 4.47

With the luck of the draw working out in Kansas City's favor this series, the Royals face Cleveland's spot starter Cody Anderson, whose current spot in the rotation exists solely because Carlos Carrasco is on the disabled list for another month or so. While his K/BB is serviceable thus far, Anderson has allowed 6 dong hangings in just 20.0 innings. His 20.7 HR/FB% leaving him begging for some regression to the mean, but if Anderson is making mistakes, they'll get tattooed.

Kennedy has enjoyed a rather different twist of fate. Anderson and Kennedy's xFIPs are virtually identical, but Kennedy has struck out nearly a batter an inning. And then there's the fact that Kennedy's 14.4 K-BB% is identical to Anderson's K%. Kennedy has certainly been helped by Kansas City's outfield defense, with multiple highlight-reel catches coming with him on the mound. Luck is a fickle mistress, but she has looked kindly upon Kennedy in 2016.

Game Three - Sunday, 12:10 PM CDT

Edinson Volquez 6 37.1 32 11 3.13 2.95 3.74 3.81
Josh Tomlin 4 23.0 16 2 3.13 3.77 4.10 3.96

Thanks to his microscopic walk rates, Tomlin has enjoyed a solid first month of 2016. Historically, he does not walk batters. Unfortunately for Tomlin, he doesn't strike out many either, leaving him subject to the vagaries of batted-ball luck. He has moved increasingly toward his cutter and change-up this season, and judging by his non-aberrant .282 BABIP, 78.0 LOB%, and 8.00 K/BB, it's hard to say that his ERA isn't at least close to what can be expected of him.

Volquez has been the Royals' best pitcher (non-Herrera division) thus far. His one bad start in Anaheim masks what has otherwise been a lights-out 2016. His next two bad starts (in which he allowed an appalling two earned runs apiece) saw him strike out a combined 17 while walking just one. In a just world, Volquez would be sporting a 5 - 1 record heading into action on Sunday.

The Batsmen

While Cleveland is still waiting for some of its batsmen to come around - namely Michael Brantley, who missed the first few weeks of the season recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery, but also Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis - they have gotten solid enough production to be exactly average. Want proof? Their wRC+ is 100, thanks to a team triple slash of .253/.314/.403 and .312 wOBA. For perspective, these marks are considerably better than the slump deflated figures of the Royals (.249/.303/.374 slash line, .298 wOBA, 88 wRC+).

Jason Kipnis (L) 2B 111 3 16 13 3 .270 .315 .410 .314 102
Francisco Lindor (S) SS 110 2 17 12 4 .299 .367 .412 .341 122
Michael Brantley (L) LF 31 0 3 6 1 .276 .290 .345 .261 63
Carlos Santana (S) DH 102 4 13 12 2 .244 .353 .465 .356 133
Mike Napoli 1B 96 5 15 17 0 .225 .281 .461 .320 106
Yan Gomes C 79 3 7 13 0 .197 .215 .368 .249 55
Marlon Byrd RF 66 2 5 8 0 .241 .318 .397 .314 102
Juan Uribe 3B 69 1 2 4 0 .224 .333 .328 .294 88
Tyler Naquin (L) CF 55 0 8 2 0 .315 .327 .426 .325 110
Rajai Davis CF 75 2 9 11 7 .271 .320 .429 .326 111
Chris Gimenez C 4 1 1 1 0 .333 .500 1.333 .689 375
Jose Ramirez 3B 68 1 9 7 1 .292 .324 .400 .317 104
Lonnie Chisenhall (L) RF 32 0 4 1 1 .250 .250 .344 .255 59

*Stats through Thursday, May 6

As mentioned, Cleveland is still waiting to get any positive production from Brantley, but the sample size is very small, post-surgery. Kipnis is striking out an alarming 28.8% of the time, a full ten percentage points higher than his career average. His triple-slash hasn't been hurt accordingly thanks to a .353 BABIP, which is .032 better than his career .321 BABIP. Something probably needs to change here.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona utilizes a bunch of different lineups, going so far as to have Carlos Santana lead off sometimes. They are clearly piecing together psuedo-platoons in two of the outfield spots and at third base. Luckily for Cleveland, they have no problems at shortstop, where they have star Francisco Lindor developing in ways the glove-first shortstop wasn't necessarily expected to, showing more power and production at the plate than anticipated.

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