Game 81 Preview: Athletics at Tigers

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Verlander takes the mound this afternoon looking for a sweep of the Oakland A's, who still have the best record in baseball.

Oakland Athletics (51-32) at Detroit Tigers (46-34)

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

SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Jesse Chavez (6-4, 2.94 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (6-7, 4.80 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Chavez 16 98.0 7.99 2.57 0.83 1.21 3.49 3.58 1.5
Verlander 17 110.2 6.91 3.50 0.73 1.49 3.86 4.38 1.8

Jesse Chavez picked up a bare bones quality start against the Tigers at the tail end of May, raising his ERA to a then-season-high 2.78. Chavez was slightly worse in June, but not much. He held the opposition to a 3.30 ERA and .640 OPS in five starts, four of which were A's victories. His strikeout rate has fallen off by nearly a batter per nine innings since then thanks to seven-consecutive starts with five strikeouts or fewer. His home run troubles have also disappeared for the time being, as he has not allowed a dinger in his last four starts.

I discussed Chavez's adoption of the cutter the last time he faced the Tigers, but Fangraphs has more on the complete story.

"I’ve thrown away the pitch before, but now it’s my best pitch" said Chavez. And really, that describes much of the ebb and flow of his arsenal. His four-seamer and cutter traded places as practice and gamer pitches, his curve became a slider and then turned back into a curve again, his change-up was born of a single moment with the scout that signed him — Chavez has done everything in his power to stay in the big leagues.

His cutter has continued to fluster hitters, rating nearly two runs above average according to Fangraphs. While this does not seem like much, it is ranked as the 11th best in baseball among qualified starters.

Justin Verlander has run into some bad luck this season, but his last start may have taken the cake. He allowed three earned runs in six innings, but two of the runs came on defensive miscues caused by the speedy Jose Altuve. However, Verlander was sharp again, striking out eight batters while only walking one for the second-consecutive start. He collected 18 whiffs on just 105 pitches, a 17 percent clip. Astros hitters lead the league in swinging strike percentage, but their inability to time his fastball  which induced five whiffs on its own  is very encouraging. He also kicked his fastball velocity up a notch in June, averaging 94.6 miles per hour for the month. While he may not be "back" yet (again), his velocity does not seem to be an issue (again).

Hitter to fear: Yoenis Cespedes (.333/.368/.444 in 19 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Nick Punto (.172/.250/.172 in 32 plate appearances)

Verlander has been dynamite against the A's in his career, and his recent playoff heroics only begin to tell the story. He is 86 with a 2.48 ERA in 15 starts against Oakland. While he does not have Max Scherzer's ridiculous strikeout rate, Verlander's 91 strikeouts in 98 innings is still an impressive total. Yoenis Cespedes is the only A's hitter with any sort of success against the Tigers' ace, slugging a pair of doubles in 18 at-bats. After Cespedes, the next best option the A's have had is Coco Crisp, who has a .237 average and .625 OPS against Verlander in 40 plate appearances. Verlander has allowed a .375 on-base percentage to leadoff hitters in 2014, and Crisp was on a tear before last night's 0-fer against a white hot Rick Porcello.

Outlook

Last month, splitting a four-game series with these A's felt like a monumental achievement after a 16 stretch. Now, a 21 series victory  even one against the best team in baseball right now  would almost feel disappointing. Chavez has continued to pitch well, but did not look as sharp in June as he did early on. He has already thrown a career high 98 innings this season, and it's possible that the former reliever could be hitting some pre-All-Star game fatigue. That said, he still has yet to allow more than four earned runs in a start this season and his peripheral numbers don't suggest a change anytime soon.

Prediction

Verlander stays on track and the Tigers sweep the A's.

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