Detroit Tigers (36-27) at Kansas City Royals (29-33)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (8-4, 3.71 ERA) vs. RHP James Shields (2-6, 2.81 ERA)
Remember Doug Fister's numbers in 2011? He was 3-12 with a 3.33 ERA and 3.09 FIP in 21 starts for the Seattle Mariners before being traded to the Tigers. This is the kind of year Shields is having so far, minus the "being traded to Detroit" part. He had a sterling 2.92 ERA in May that included three starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer over seven innings or more. His record? 0-4. The Royals scored just eight runs for Shields all month long and lost all five games that he started. Things have gotten a little better in June, though. The Royals have already scored eight runs for him in just two starts -- baby steps, people -- and have won both games. Shields only has a couple of no decisions to show for his efforts despite allowing just three runs in 14 innings.
The big difference between Shields and some of the upstart pitchers I have previewed this year is that, unlike the upstarts, this type of season is just business as usual for Shields. There is no stat that jumps off the page begging for regression. Other than a slightly depressed home run rate -- an odd fact, considering Tropicana Field is one of the stingiest venues in the MLB for hitters -- Shields' peripherals are in line with what he has done over the past few seasons. He still strikes out just under a batter per inning and limits walks. His ground ball rate is down from 2012, but is just 0.2% off his career rate. In other words, he's a boring player to analyze.
He's far from boring to watch, however. Shields, as usual, has gotten by with a mix of fastballs, a curveball, and -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- an excellent changeup. This season, Shields is throwing his curveball more often on the first pitch of an at-bat to great effect. He has hit the strike zone 42% of the time in this particular situation, and opposing hitters are 1-for-9 when putting a first-pitch curveball into play off him this year.
As usual, he saves the changeup for two-strike counts, and it's as unhitable as advertised. He has a 22.9% whiff rate on two-strike changeups -- a pretty significant number, considering he throws it almost 40% of the time in these situations -- and if hitters do make contact, they are pounding it into the ground at a 62% rate.
Unsolicited plug time: Paul Sporer and Doug Thorburn host a weekly podcast at Baseball Prospectus called "TINSTAAPP" (an acronym for "There is no such thing as a pitching prospect," for those that weren't around during the Tokarz days). Each week they break down a "Game of the Week" where they take an in-depth look at a certain pitching matchup, specifically looking at a pitcher's mechanics and pointing how how they lead to his ultimate success or failure. It's lengthy (episodes run three to four hours long), but well worth your time.
Where am I going with this? A couple weeks ago, they looked at Verlander's start in Texas. Thorburn pointed out that Verlander's release point actually gets higher when he struggles, which goes against conventional wisdom. Without giving too much away (here's a link to that particular show, if you're interested), the PitchFX data from Verlander's bad three-game stretch in May don't show any appreciable difference in release point compared to his last three starts. However, we are seeing more fade on both his fastball and changeup, and more downward break on his slider and curveball. Whether this is a mechanical adjustment or just a weird phase that he went through is unclear, but it looks like everything is fine with the Tigers' ace.
Magic 8 ball: will Don Kelly play today?
My sources say no.
Of all of Shields pitches, the only one that ranks below average has been his two-seam fastball. Opposing players are hitting .453 off the pitch with a slugging average of .547. The .500 BABIP helps things, but it seems as if he can't command the two-seamer as well as in years past. It's impossible for players not named Miguel Cabrera* to differentiate the two-seamer from his other fastballs, but considering how nasty his curveball and changeup are, it would be a good idea for the Tigers to attack his fastball. Shields does a good job of attacking the inner half of the plate, so taking the fastball to the opposite field may be the best strategy for the Tigers today.
*I'm not going to doubt Miguel Cabrera anymore. He could be Santa Claus and I'd just nod and agree.
If there were ever a game for Verlander to announce "I'm back, suckas" with authority, this would be it. He is 15-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.126 WHIP against the Royals in his career, including a 9-2 mark and 2.49 ERA at Kauffman Stadium. He held the Royals in check for seven innings in April, allowing two runs (one earned) before leaving the game with that weird thumb issue. Any ill effects that the thumb had on his game in early May are long gone, though. In his last three starts, he has struck out 24 batters while walking only five in 21 innings.
Verlander dominates and the Tigers take the series in another close game.