ALDS Game 2 Preview: Tigers at Athletics

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers already took back the home field advantage in this series with a Game 1 victory, but Justin Verlander will be looking to put the Oakland A's on the brink of elimination this evening. Sonny Gray will start for the A's.

Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics

Series: 1-0, Detroit

Time/Place: 9:00 p.m., O.Co Coliseum

SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation

Media: TBS, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Verlander 34 218.1 8.95 3.09 0.78 1.31 3.28 3.68 5.2
Gray 10 64.0 9.42 2.81 0.56 1.11 2.70 3.11 1.5

Sonny Gray is a 23 year old rookie right-hander who was a first round pick out of Vanderbilt* in 2011. He cracked top 100 prospect lists prior to the 2012 season, but a rough year in Double-A (more on that below) caused some to sour on him heading into this season. He responded by posting a 3.42 ERA and 3.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 starts in the Pacific Coast League before getting the call to the big leagues. In 10 major league starts, Gray has been even better. His strikeout and walk rates are both better than Verlander's, and he has induced a 52.9% ground ball rate to boot.

Fangraphs published an interesting piece on Gray's development yesterday. Gray made some mechanical adjustments to his delivery, but was struggling to get results in 2012.

The organization was preaching fastball command, and was trying to get him to be more direct to the plate, and to have a consistent delivery for all of his pitches. As a result, his strikeout rate tanked, his velocity dropped off, and even his control got worse.

Late in 2012, Gray and the team agreed: "Let’s just go back to challenging hitters," and "go back into the mentality of just attacking" while still keeping "the focus on doing the same thing every time."

The entire piece is worth reading, so be sure to click over.

"Letting it fly" is definitely an accurate assessment of Gray's fastball. He averages 93-94 miles per hour with the heater and has touched 97 miles per hour in the big leagues this season. He uses his curveball frequently, throwing it 26.4% of the time according to PitchFX. The Fangraphs piece above points out how Gray throws his curveball in a couple different ways, so it's almost like he uses two different pitches. He also sports a changeup that he primarily uses against lefties.

September seemed to be a breath of fresh air for Justin Verlander. After getting knocked around by the A's for five runs (three earned) in five innings in late August, something clicked. Verlander allowed a 2.27 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in September. Sure, his competition wasn't great -- two starts against Kansas City, and outings against Cleveland, Seattle, Minnesota, and Miami -- but his command took a big leap forward. He walked just 10 hitters in 39 2/3 innings during the month, or 2.27 per nine innings.

*Has Vanderbilt turned into a pitching factory or what? Gray, Mike Minor, and David Price are recent products, and there are a pair of decent prospects in the Tigers' system from Vandy in Drew VerHagen and Kyle Ziomek. Pirates slugger Pedro Alvarez is also a Commodore.

Question of the day: Can Sonny Gray make adjustments?

The Tigers have tended to struggle against pitchers they have never seen before, but have also shown the ability to make mid-game adjustments. Games against Cleveland's Danny Salazar and Chicago's Andre Rienzo come to mind as examples of the Tigers struggling early, but putting it together in the later innings to come away with a win. In Gray's case, his OPS allowed improves each time he works through the order. He has allowed a .738 OPS to hitters the first time through, but that number drops to .599 and .394 the second and third times through, respectively.

However, this seems to be a product of the small sample. Gray has a 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio the first time through the order, but that number drops to 1.58 the second time through. He has not walked a hitter in 59 plate appearances the third time through the lineup. His BABIP also sees a significant drop, going from .400 the first time through to .228 and .222, respectively. Sure, this could indicate that he's pitching to contact more often in later innings and/or inducing weak contact to get outs, but it could also point towards a bit of good fortune. Given Gray's two-pitch approach against right-handed hitters, he will need to sequence well in order to keep the Tigers off balance.

Outlook

This tweet from Jeff Sullivan shortly after last night's game -- linked because of the NSFW language -- says it all. Max Scherzer turned in a gem of a 2013, but Verlander has been the team's ace since his incredible rookie season back in 2006. He struggled at times this season, but seems to have gotten back on track at the right time. It's also possible that starting him in Game 2 could help ease some of the adrenaline we've seen him struggle with in the past -- Game 1 of last year's World Series comes to mind. On the other end, as mentioned above, it's up to Gray and his battery mate to sequence pitches well to keep the Tigers offense at bay.

Prediction

Verlander keeps on rolling and the Tigers put the A's on the ropes with a 2-0 series lead.

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