Game 74 Preview: Red Sox at Tigers

Patrick Smith

Can Justin Verlander rebound from his last start? Is Felix Doubront's gem five days ago a sign that he's turning a corner? Knowing these two teams, neither of these questions will be answered today when the bullpens explode in the late innings. But hey, baseball!

Boston Red Sox (45-32) at Detroit Tigers (41-32)

Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Over the Monster

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: LHP Felix Doubront (4-3, 4.38 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (8-5, 3.72 ERA)

Doubront has been very inconsistent in the Red Sox rotation over the past year and a half, but he is coming off the best start of his career. In his last outing, he allowed just three hits in eight shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, striking out six without allowing a walk. Thanks to a listless offense and a volatile Andrew Bailey -- hey, that sounds familiar -- Doubront walked away with a no-decision. This didn't come out of nowhere, though. In his six previous starts leading up to that gem, he had a 3.48 ERA in 33 2/3 innings.

As has been the case throughout his young career, Doubront has struggled with his command this season. He is allowing 3.89 walks per nine innings in 2013 and already has four outings with four or more base on balls this season. He has been better lately -- just 10 walks in his last 36 2/3 innings -- but his last start was only his second this season in which he didn't allow a walk.

Other than that, his peripherals look pretty good. He strikes out a batter per inning and has cut down his home run rate to a respectable 0.73 big flies per nine innings this year. His line drive rate is still a bit high at 23%, which may be a reason for his elevated .338 BABIP. He is already worth +1.6 fWAR this season after finishing 2012 at +1.9, and at age 25, he still has a few years before we see the "finished product."

Doubront's fastball sits in the low 90s, and it hasn't been particularly deceptive throughout his career. This season, opposing hitters are slugging .425 on his fastball, the highest total among all his pitches. It's interesting to me that he doesn't throw his two-seam fastball more often. Opposing hitters have a 55% ground ball rate off the two-seamer compared to a 35.5% ground ball rate off his four-seamer, and statistically he seems to have the same command of both pitches. Red Sox fans may be able to enlighten us -- that's a hint if any of you are reading this -- as to why Not King Felix insists on using his four-seamer so often. Doubront also throws a curveball, changeup, and cutter, with the cutter turning out to be his best pitch in 2013 in terms of runs above average.

So what was up with Justin Verlander in his last start? It wasn't the velocity: Verlander's fastball averaged 93 miles per hour and he touched 98.67 miles per hour according to PitchFX. Sure, that's still down from the 95 miles per hour he averaged last season, but I'm inclined to trust the guy if he says he doesn't need it yet.

Was it movement? His fastball and changeup movement profiled almost identical to his 2012 averages. The curveball that everyone seems to be worrying about is still dropping off a table and has been one of his most effective pitches in 2013. His slider didn't break as much in his last start as it did in 2012, but Adam Jones' knockout blow came off a fastball. I seem to remember JJ Hardy's home run also being a fastball, but Brooks Baseball seems to think that particular at-bat wasn't important, as it's not in his game log. However, given Verlander allowed four walks in the outing, I'm willing to bet it wasn't just the one pitch he was struggling with.

We can go back and forth all day on what actually went wrong, but the only thing Tigers fans care about is whether this -- and by extension, the rough starts earlier this season -- are a sign of things to come from Verlander. It seems like half the fanbase is hovering over the panic button while the other half is hovering at Baseball Reference looking at his still-gaudy numbers. Sadly, this war of attrition may not be over until the season is. Or his contract, for that matter.

Remember the last time these two teams played a Sunday afternoon game at Comerica Park?

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Let's do that again.

Outlook

Despite the fact that they have been the second-most prolific offense in baseball since Verlander was called up to the big leagues in 2005, he has pitched fairly well against the Red Sox. He is 3-4 with a 3.38 ERA and 88 tOPS+ against the BoSox in his career. He lost two of his three starts against them last season, but was dominant in his only outing at Comerica Park, throwing eight shutout innings on Opening Day. David Ortiz has had Verlander's number, hitting .333/.407/.750 in 27 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia might want to take the day off. He's 0-for-16 lifetime against Verlander.

Doubront pitched well in his only outing against the Tigers last season, allowing two runs in six innings of work. Jim Leyland did him a solid by starting the likes of Ryan Raburn, Gerald Laird, and Danny Worth, and Austin Jackson was on the disabled list at that point as well. While tomorrow's off-day is no guarantee that we won't see a true Sunday lineup, it's probably safe to assume that Doubront will be facing a more formidable batting order than he did last May.

Prediction

Verlander brings his A-game and the Tigers win three of four.

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