Game 56 Preview: Rays at Tigers

J. Meric

Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound after a rough ending to his outing in Pittsburgh as the Tigers return home to begin a three game series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Matt Moore will take the mound for the Rays.

Tampa Bay Rays (31-25) at Detroit Tigers (30-25)

Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation Blog: DRaysBay

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

Pitching Matchup: LHP Matt Moore (8-0, 2.18 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (5-5, 2.79 ERA)

Moore was dominant in his last start, combining with the Rays bullpen to one-hit the Cleveland Indians. The caveat? A five hour rain delay knocked out Moore after one inning, forcing the Rays' bullpen to do the heavy lifting in their victory. This has been the exception in 2013, however. In Moore's other 10 starts, he is averaging over six innings per outing. He has allowed more than two runs only twice, and hasn't allowed more than three runs in ballparks that aren't named Coors Field.

However -- and I hate to be "that guy," because Moore has tons of potential -- his 2013 numbers are largely smoke and mirrors. His FIP and xFIP are 4.10 and 4.33, respectively, and he is largely getting by on a .201 BABIP. He is striking out a respectable 8.27 batters per nine innings, but his swinging strike percentage is down by almost 4% from last season and he is walking 4.06 batters per nine innings. His 91.1% strand rate is unsustainable, especially if he continues to throw less than 50% first-pitch strikes. Once hitters start to square him up a bit better -- he likely won't maintain a 16.8% line drive rate all season long -- his numbers will start to come back to earth.

Here's the part where I pretty much go back on everything I said in the last paragraph. Moore has excellent stuff and should be a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter. There's a reason he was the #2 prospect in all of baseball before the 2012 season. His fastball averages 93 miles per hour with excellent late movement. His changeup sits in the mid-80s and has been one of the best in baseball, ranking 4.9 runs above average in 2013. His curveball has been even better; at 5.0 runs above average, it has been the best hammer in the American League this season.

Through the first six innings of his last start, Sanchez was once again carving up another hapless offense. Neil Walker was the only Pirate to reach base until Garrett Jones singled with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning. Then, the wheels came off. A walk, a wild pitch, a stolen base, and four hits later, Sanchez's night was done and the Tigers saw a 3-1 lead turn into a 5-3 deficit that they would not overcome. Conspiracy theorists might say that Sanchez was fatigued from throwing 130 pitches in his previous outing, a one-hit shutout against the Minnesota Twins (damn you Joe Mauer). However, Dan and Jim* didn't hint to this being the case, and after throwing just 93 pitches against the Pirates I wouldn't expect it to be a factor tonight.

*MLB At Bat works in Peru, just in case you were wondering.

These are not your older brother's Rays

How brutal is the AL East this year? The Rays currently sit in fourth place, but would lead the AL Central by half a game if they were in the Tigers' division. They started off the year cold, winning just five of their first 15 games. Since that 5-10 stretch, the Rays have gone 26-15.

This is largely thanks to an offense that has scored 5.63 runs per game in that stretch and is fourth in the American League in runs scored overall. Evan Longoria has stayed healthy, hitting .305/.361/.527 with 10 home runs in 56 games. Desmond Jennings rebounded after a rough April to hit .282/.347/.437 with 14 RBI and 14 runs scored in May. Matt Joyce and Kelly Johnson have 10 home runs apiece from the corner outfield slots, allowing the Rays to keep Wil Myers in the minor leagues and further delay that precious arbitration clock.

James Loney, the latest of Joe Maddon's reclamation projects, is hitting .326/.394/.525, which is partially buoyed by a .340 BABIP. His numbers get even better away from Tropicana Field -- .371/.426/.577 with four home runs and 18 RBI -- but that .395 BABIP has to regress at some point. He has also had limited success against left-handers this year, hitting .333/.388/.556 in 49 plate appearances. A career .256/.309/.366 hitter against lefties, I would not expect this new-found ability to hit southpaws to stick.

Outlook

It's not surprising that Moore has been so good in 2013, it's just surprising at how he has done it. While 8.27 strikeouts per nine innings is nothing to sneeze at, it's not unreasonable to expect that rate to get higher as he develops, given his ridiculous strikeout rates in the minor leagues. Tonight, I'm interested in his ability to miss bats. The Tigers have the second-lowest strikeout rate in the American League, just ahead of the Orioles -- who had one of the highest K rates in the league in 2012, weird -- and the second-highest OPS against lefties in all of baseball. Moore may be able to dance his way around the lineup like he has with others this year, but given how bad the Tigers have made many a pitcher look at the CoPa, I'd bet on some BABIP regression.

Meanwhile, Sanchez is striking out anyone and everyone in 2013. His elevated strikeout rate won't hang around forever, but until hitters stop whiffing at a 13% clip (thanks Atlanta) he's going to keep setting people down. The problem? That might start tonight. The Rays have the lowest whiff rate in all of baseball at a stingy 7.8%, largely due to the fact that they swing at just 25.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, also the lowest rate in baseball. Sanchez has gotten a healthy dose of his swinging strikes within the strike zone. Opposing hitters make contact with just 80.5% of his pitches within the strike zone, the second lowest rate in baseball among qualified pitchers (behind Max Scherzer).

The real battle between Sanchez and the Rays' offense will be whether the Rays can string together baserunners to score runs. Sanchez has been able to limit the home run ball thanks to a 31.6% fly ball rate and still has yet to allow a big fly at home this season. He can be prone to bad inning, as we saw in Pittsburgh last week, but he can make it a lot tougher on the Rays if he continues to pound the strike zone. He has only walked 2.0 batters per nine innings since joining the Tigers and has allowed a .445 OPS at home this season. If he limits the big inning, the Tigers should pick up a W.

Prediction

The offense gets back on track and hands Moore his first loss of the season.

More Roars:

FanPost: Don’t bench V-Mart

Overanalysis: Phil Coke wasn’t that bad Sunday

FanPost: Don Kelly belongs in the majors

Patrick: Do the Tigers have the league’s best offense?

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