Game 28 Preview: Astros at Tigers

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday is Ray Day in Detroit as Robbie Ray makes his MLB debut against Brett Oberholtzer and the Houston Astros.

Houston Astros (10-22) at Detroit Tigers (18-9)

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

SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: LHP Brett Oberholtzer (0-5, 5.63 ERA) vs. LHP Robbie Ray (3-2, 1.53 ERA in Triple-A Toledo)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Oberholtzer 6 32.0 7.59 2.81 1.13 1.56 4.21 4.08 0.4
Ray (AAA) 5 29.1 6.44 1.53 0.31 1.13 2.90 - -

Unlike Jarred Cosart yesterday, Brett Oberholtzer has never appeared on a top prospect list. John Sickels of Minor League Ball didn't even rank him among the top 20 prospects in the Astros' organization prior to 2013, and a solid major league debut didn't land him among Baseball Prospectus' top 10 talents under the age of 25 for the Astros prior to this year. Oberholtzer has done nothing to prove the haters wrong so far this season. In six starts, he is 0-5 with a 5.63 ERA. He has allowed six runs in both of his last two starts while combining to throw just 8 1/3 innings. With the early emergence of Collin McHugh, Oberholtzer's job may be in jeopardy once Scott Feldman comes off the disabled list.

That said, Oberholtzer isn't as bad as his old school stats indicate. He has a 4.19 FIP and a 4.27 xFIP, and has been victimized by a .353 BABIP despite a slight drop in line drive rate compared to 2013. He hardly walks anyone (23 free passes in 103 2/3 career innings) and has struck out 7.59 batters per nine innings in 2014. His 4.07 SIERA is actually better than the 4.24 figure he posted last season, when he had a 2.76 ERA in 71 2/3 innings. He isn't going to blow anyone away with his low-90s fastball, but a 19% whiff rate on his changeup has helped him hold righties to hitting .253/.303/.419 in his career.

We're not really sure what happened to Robbie Ray in 2012 -- maybe the biceps tendonitis that shelved him for a month bothered him all season long -- but it was bad enough that Ray was also held off any and all organizational top prospect lists. He rebounded in a big way in 2013, allowing a 3.36 ERA and 2.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio at the Advanced-A and Double-A levels. This included a three-hit shutout against the Erie Seawolves, a game that may have set the stage for the trade heard 'round the world last offseason. An aggressive move to Triple-A has paid off for the Tigers, as Ray is 3-2 with a 1.53 ERA and 4.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in five starts. He threw a scoreless inning in relief on Friday in order to stay fresh for tonight's game.

The most astounding (and possibly concerning) area of Ray's start is his minuscule walk rate of 1.5 batters per nine innings. The rate itself is excellent, but the huge drop from 2013 (when he walked nearly four batters per nine) leaves me wondering whether the improvement is legitimate or just a small sample of solid command. His 6.9% whiff rate at Triple-A this season suggests that strikeouts will be few and far between, though the swing-happy Astros could easily prove that wrong. Ray has also upped his ground ball rate to a healthy 44.9% clip and held lefties to a .469 OPS so far in 2014.

Tigers hitter to fear: Andrew Romine (.500/.500/.500 in 2 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Ian Kinsler (.250/.250/.500 in 4 plate appearances)

The six plate appearances documented above are the only instances in which either starting pitcher has faced a hitter on the opposing 25 man roster. At any level. Ray faced the Astros' Single-A affiliate three times in 2011, while the only appearance Oberholtzer made against a club within the Tigers' organization happened in the Gulf Coast Rookie League way back in 2008.

Outlook

The Tigers didn't plan to have Ray make his major league debut against the worst team in the majors, but you have to like their good fortune. Even so, Ray's numbers suggest that his hot start to 2014 may not have lasted at the Triple-A level. Astros or not, this lineup is far better than any team he would face in the minors, and they are capable of punishing mistakes. Meanwhile, Oberholtzer has not been fooling anyone lately, and the Tigers have crushed lefties at a .299/.359/.479 clip this year. This includes a .303 batting average and .819 OPS against left-handed starters despite being shut down by John Danks and Jason Vargas (the first time) already. The bullpens will probably play a big role in this one.

Prediction

The offense helps an inefficient Ray debut with a win.

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