Detroit Tigers (37-29) at Minnesota Twins (30-35)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: RHP Doug Fister (5-4, 3.28 ERA) vs. RHP P.J. Walters (2-1, 2.49 ERA)
Like Samuel Deduno yesterday, Walters made his season debut against the Tigers at Comerica Park back in late May. Unlike Deduno, Walters pitched well in his debut. He got the better of Doug Fister by allowing just two runs in six innings, all while throwing just 81 pitches. He has continued to pitch well in his other starts, allowing five earned runs in 19 1/3 innings.
Walters has seemingly embraced the Twins' pitch-to-contact philosophy more than ever this year, decreasing both his walk and strikeout rates by a full batter per nine innings. The result? A 5% increase in ground ball rate that hasn't really translated to more outs, thanks to a .337 BABIP and the Twins' shoddy infield defense -- and it's not improving anytime soon now that Trevor Plouffe is back from the DL. The real secret to Walters' success seems to be that he is limiting the home run ball. He's allowing just 0.36 home runs per nine innings after averaging 1.75 dingers per nine innings last season. If and when a few more balls start leaving the park, we will likely see his ERA get closer to his 4.28 xFIP.
Walters' bread and butter is a two-seamer/curveball combo that he is throwing nearly 75% of the time in 2013. The two-seamer sits in the low 90s and doesn't seem to be very deceptive. Opposing batters hit .333 on that pitch last season and are hitting .372 so far this year. They have a .385 BABIP in these situations, but a .628 slugging average and .256 ISO off the two-seamer indicates that the success may not be as luck-driven as an elevated BABIP would indicate.
The curveball, on the other hand, has been much better. Opposing batters are hitting .263 off the hammer, but with a .316 slugging average and .053 ISO. With an 11.7% whiff rate, it has been Walters' preferred two-strike option this season. He also throws an effective changeup to left-handed hitters, a big reason why they are hitting just .244/.292/.333 off him this season. His fourth pitch is a cut fastball that he throws primarily to right-handed hitters. While it ranks as his best pitch in terms of runs above average per 100 pitches, it hasn't stopped righties from mashing him at a .339/.371/.492 clip this season.
Meanwhile, Fister continues to be the victim of a lack of run support. Since starting the year 5-1, he is 0-3 with a 3.60 ERA, a figure that looks a lot better when you consider his poor start in Texas. He is 0-2 with a 2.67 ERA in his last four starts despite averaging almost 7 2/3 innings per outing during that stretch. He has been very efficient -- in no small part due to getting into a good rhythm early in games, in my opinion -- but hasn't been able to avoid the big inning in three of those starts. Could pitching with an early lead ease his burden and prevent the big inning from happening? It would be nice to find out.
I preached patience for the Tigers' offense yesterday, and that didn't seem to work. Of course, I couldn't see the game so I wouldn't really know, but I won't get into that. Today? Bombs away. Walters throws his two-seamer over half of the time to start an at-bat, and hitters are clobbering it all over the park. Of the eight hits that Walters allowed to the Tigers in their matchup earlier this season, six of them came in at-bats of three pitches or fewer. While being aggressive early in the count may not drive up Walters' pitch count particularly quickly, it seems better than the alternative of facing the best bullpen in the league in the later innings.
Fister, on the other hand, just needs to keep pitching like he has in his last four starts. The runs will (hopefully) come eventually, but the losses aren't his fault. Hopefully this won't be the case again today.
Fister avoids the big inning and wins despite another poor offensive performance.