Game 66 Preview: Royals at Tigers

Ed Zurga

The AL Central lead is up for grabs this week as the Tigers and Royals kick off a four game series at Comerica Park. Justin Verlander and Jason Vargas are tonight's starting pitchers.

Kansas City Royals (36-32) at Detroit Tigers (36-29)

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

SB Nation blog: Royals Review

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: LHP Jason Vargas (6-2, 3.30 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (6-6, 4.61 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Vargas 14 92.2 6.51 2.23 1.07 1.21 4.09 4.08 1.1
Verlander 14 91.2 6.58 3.83 0.69 1.51 3.96 4.63 1.5

Somehow, someway, Jason Vargas has continued to shine at the top of the Royals rotation. While his peripheral numbers are not as sexy as those of James Shields or Yordano Ventura, Vargas leads the team in innings per start and quality starts. This discrepancy between peripherals and actual results is reflected in the team's WAR standings. According to Fangraphs, Vargas ranks fifth on the team with 1.1 WAR. Baseball Reference has a different take, however, and Vargas' 1.8 WAR is easily the Royals' highest total. Considering Vargas has held the opposition to two runs or fewer in nine of his 14 starts, it doesn't really matter how he is getting it done.

There have been a few speed bumps scattered between the sparkling outings, though Vargas has limited the damage compared to years past. The Tigers have seen both sides of Vargas this season. They were held to just one run on five hits in seven innings in the second game of their season, then tagged Vargas for seven runs on 11 hits in five innings at Kauffman Stadium in early May. Vargas had a similar implosion a couple weeks later, coughing up seven runs in a start against the Chicago White Sox. Since then, he has a 2.25 ERA and 21 strikeouts to 10 walks in his last four starts.

Looking closer, it's hard to see where Vargas has improved compared to years past. His batted ball ratios are nearly identical to his 2013 totals and he isn't stranding an inordinate number of runners compared to previous years. His .279 BABIP is lower than last season's .310, but higher than the .254 he had in 2012. Part of the reason could be slight improvements to his strikeout and walk rates, while part could be explained by his .399 slugging average allowed, his lowest since 2011.

Oh, what could have been. Brad Ausmus has gotten plenty of grief for leaving Justin Verlander on the mound during the sixth inning of his last start, a move that resulted in a seven run inning for the Sox. While it was unlikely that Verlander would have escaped the inning unscathed had Ausmus gone to the pen, it's a fair assumption that the bullpen may have limited the damage. While the end result was disappointing, the first five innings were encouraging. Verlander was inefficient but effective, holding the White Sox to a run on three hits with a pair of walks before his implosion in the sixth. Would the Tigers be better off limiting Verlander to 100 or so pitches at this point? The data seem to support this notion thus far.

Hitter to fear: Salvador Perez (.444/.414/.815 in 29 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Moustakas (.154/.175/.231 in 40 plate appearances)

Move over, Billy Butler. There is a new Verlander killer in town. Perez has taken to pummeling Verlander just like his portly predecessor, tallying seven doubles and a home run in 27 at-bats. He has hit well this season as a whole, with a .771 OPS and 23 extra base hits in 245 plate appearances. Billy Butler's numbers are still well below his career norms, but he finally seems to be breaking out. He is hitting .310/.362/.476 in June. Ditto Mike Moustakas, who has a .767 OPS with a pair of home runs since returning from his short stint in the minor leagues. He only has two multi-hit games during this stretch, though.

Outlook

The last time Verlander and Vargas squared off, the Tigers were a tour de force en route to the infamous 27-12 record to start the season. They swept the hapless Royals at Kauffman Stadium, extending their division lead to 4 1/2 games at the time. Since then, the Royals are 22-16, including a scalding 10-3 record in the month of June. Vargas has led the way, winning four of his last seven starts since the aforementioned sweep. If he continues to pitch well, the Tigers will need their very best out of Verlander and the bullpen in order to keep pace.

Prediction

Verlander runs into more late inning trouble, but the bullpen does not reward Ausmus' quick hook tonight.

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