Game 61 Preview: Indians at Tigers

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Alvarez makes his big league debut today for the Tigers as they look to sweep the Cleveland Indians. Justin Masterson will take the mound for the Tribe.

Cleveland Indians (30-31) at Detroit Tigers (34-26)

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

SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe

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

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Masterson (8-4, 3.57 ERA) vs. LHP Jose Alvarez (5-4, 2.42 ERA for Triple-A Toledo)

Thanks to the gamesmanship of the Cleveland Indians' organization*, yesterday's game preview covered the book on Masterson. Here's part of what I had to say:

Overall, Masterson's numbers look very similar to his excellent 2011 season. He is walking more batters than '11, but he has cut down his rate from last year. He is also striking out nearly a batter per inning, well above the rates he has posted over the past few years. His line drive rate is just 15.5%, down almost 4% from last season, but his ground ball rate is largely unaffected. Given that he's getting more whiffs within the strike zone, I would wager that we will see a jump in ground ball rate if his strikeout rate begins to fall -- instead of fanning on those pitches, hitters will likely beat them into the ground for easy outs.

The biggest reason for Masterson's resurgence is the return of his biting slider. In 2011, it was his best pitch, ranking 6.5 runs above average. That edge disappeared in 2012, as his slider was just 0.8 runs above average. This season? A whopping 11.0 runs above average, second to only Yu Darvish. Opposing batters are hitting just .070 on the slider this season with an ISO of .035. He will throw the slider to both lefties and righties, combining that with his heavy two-seam fastball to create somewhat of a scissoring effect, with one pitch running in on hitters and the other running away.

Masterson hasn't pitched well in Comerica Park, allowing 18 runs (16 earned) in 23 career innings in Detroit. His command has never been great -- as a career 3.57 walks per nine innings attests -- but his walk rate climbs by nearly a full batter per nine innings at Comerica Park. While we're dealing with a small sample here, it's definitely not the first time we've seen a pitcher have some bad splits in Detroit.

Erin, a.k.a. SabreRoseTiger, had a few notes in yesterday's game preview on Alvarez, who has been pitching well in Toledo this season.

As I said above, he’s been Toledo’s best starter this year, and with a 2.42 ERA, he’s been one of the best starters in the International League. I’d describe him as a control guy (He’s only walked 15 in 74.1 innings, while striking out 76), and an innings-eater (He’s only failed to go at least six innings in three of his 12 starts). His 5-4 record is a bit deceptive, since the Mud Hens’ offense has been largely absent this year, so he hasn’t gotten a lot of run support, with a few exceptions. His last start was Monday against Louisville and went 7.2 innings, taking the loss after allowing a 2-run inside-the-park home run to Billy Hamilton in the eighth inning, but he retired 17 hitters in a row at one point between the first inning and the eighth inning (Interesting side-note: He got out-dueled by Armando Galarraga). He only walked one (granted, Louisville as a team doesn’t walk a whole lot) and struck out nine.

As stated above, today is Alvarez's big league debut. The reason why you haven't heard anything about him over the past couple years is because he was part of the Miami Marlins' organization for the previous three seasons. He was originally signed out of Venezuela by the Boston Red Sox before heading to Miami in 2010. The Tigers signed him as a minor league free agent in the offseason.

Magic 8 ball: will Don Kelly play today?

Ask again later.

Outlook

Of all the games for someone to make their big league debut, Alvarez couldn't have come into a much tougher situation. Pitching in front of the home crowd may help (if things go well), but he will likely face a lineup of six or seven right-handed hitters. In addition, the lefties -- Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis, and possibly Michael Brantley -- have hit left-handed pitching fairly well in 2013. Alvarez has allowed a .236 average to right-handed hitters in the minors compared to a .145 average to lefties.

For the Indians, Masterson's success depends on his ability to throw strikes. Like Ubaldo Jimenez, his stuff is lethal if he can keep it in the strike zone. He has done an excellent job this season of keeping the two-seamer and slider down in the strike zone, but the problems we saw in 2012 have started to creep back in during his last couple road starts. If he rights the ship, the Indians should win easily. If not, we could have yet another slugfest on our hands.

Prediction

Alvarez struggles in his debut and the Indians avoid the sweep.

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