Philadelphia Phillies (49-53) at Detroit Tigers (56-45)
Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Good Phight
Pitching Matchup: LHP Cole Hamels (4-12, 4.16 ERA) vs. RHP Doug Fister (8-5, 3.90 ERA)
Hamels has struggled this year after two consecutive ace-level seasons in 2011 and 2012. His strikeout rate and walk rate have both declined slightly, resulting in his highest FIP since 2010. The real issue, however, is his inability to get out of jams. Hamels has stranded runners at a 78% clip or higher in each of the past three seasons, but his strand rate sits at 69.9% in 2013.
There aren't any glaring splits that have plagued Hamels this season. Righties and lefties are both hitting him at a slightly higher clip, and he hasn't struggled any more with runners on base. The overarching issue, much like Justin Verlander, seems to be Hamels' fastball. From 2010 to 2012, his four-seamer was 14.5 runs above average. This season, it has already been a whopping 11.0 runs below average. Opposing batters are hitting .313 with a .563 slugging average off the four-seamer, a pitch he throws nearly 50% of the time. Meanwhile, his changeup is still devastating, rating 17.2 runs above average.
It's worth noting that Hamels has looked much more Hamels-like of late. He is 3-3 with a 3.30 ERA since June 1st, and has pitched at least six innings in all but one start. His location seems to be back as well; he has a 5.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those 60 innings. He wasn't particularly sharp in his last outing, allowing four runs on seven hits and two walks in just five innings against the New York Mets.
Fister started his annual assault on the second half by allowing just one run in six innings against the Kansas City Royals in his last outing. He wasn't particularly efficient -- he has thrown 100+ pitches in six innings in each of his past four starts -- but he looked like his usual self, recording 10 ground ball outs. He only walked one batter after issuing five free passes in his past two starts and struck out five.
Never forget, Tigers fans
Non-Delmon reasons why the Phillies aren't that good
The Phillies rank among the bottom third of the National League in ERA, FIP, xFIP, pitching fWAR, strikeout rate, strand rate, and SIERA. Part of this is because Roy Halladay had an 8.65 ERA in seven starts before landing on the disabled list. A good chunk of the blame rests on their bullpen, though. They rank last in the NL with a 4.48 ERA and are walking a whopping 4.14 batters per nine innings.
Meanwhile, the offense has been just as mediocre. They are 13th in the National League in runs scored despite having the fifth highest batting average in the league, largely because Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't believe in on-base percentage. Chase Utley has resurrected his career in a contract year, hitting .283/.344/.515 in 73 games. Domonic Brown carried their offense for a month and a half, but is now on the seven-day disabled list with a concussion. Ryan Howard is also on the DL, but replacement Darin Ruf has an .893 OPS in 14 games. Ruf, one of the top players in the Phillies depleted farm system, is my pick for Tigers killer of the weekend.
In reality, the team to blame here is the Washington Nationals. They have underperformed so violently that the Phillies are tied for second in the NL East. Thanks to them (and the NL West), the Tigers no longer play in the worst division in baseball.
It seems as if Hamels' difficulties with his fastball mirror Verlander's. His velocity hasn't declined and he still gets similar movement, but his release points are off slightly. For pitchers like those two with pinpoint command -- Hamels even more so than Verlander -- that slight difference can significantly throw off their rhythm. Hamels is an excellent pitcher capable of shutting down any lineup, but he won't be able to do so tonight if he can't locate his fastball.
Fister, on the other hand, has had trouble with his curveball at times in 2013. His fastball has been hit around at a higher clip, but I would estimate that this is because he hasn't had the same effective curveball he has had in recent years. However, his last start was encouraging. He broke off 30 benders, 20 for strikes. The threat of a big curveball dropping in for a strike helped keep the Royals off balance, resulting in some awkward swings. If he can keep everything rolling tonight, the Tigers should be in good shape.
Fister continues his recent surge and the Tigers win the first game of the series.