Cleveland Indians (30-30) at Detroit Tigers (33-26)
Time/Place: 4:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Masterson (8-4, 3.57 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (2-3, 5.21 ERA)
Before the season, one of the most popular phrases among baseball pundits about the Indians went something like this: "Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and the pitching staff will have to step up if the Indians are going to be contenders." Masterson has been that guy for the Tribe so far this year, putting his team in a position to win almost every time he takes the mound. He has gone at least six innings in all but one of his starts and has held the opposition to two runs or fewer on seven separate occasions. He was knocked around in his last start, allowing seven runs in 6 1/3 innings to the New York Yankees. Short porch caveats apply.
Overall, Masterson's numbers look very similar to his excellent 2011 season. He is walking more batters than '11, but he has cut down his rate from last year. He is also striking out nearly a batter per inning, well above the rates he has posted over the past few years. His line drive rate is just 15.5%, down almost 4% from last season, but his ground ball rate is largely unaffected. Given that he's getting more whiffs within the strike zone, I would wager that we will see a jump in ground ball rate if his strikeout rate begins to fall -- instead of fanning on those pitches, hitters will likely beat them into the ground for easy outs.
The biggest reason for Masterson's resurgence is the return of his biting slider. In 2011, it was his best pitch, ranking 6.5 runs above average. That edge disappeared in 2012, as his slider was just 0.8 runs above average. This season? A whopping 11.0 runs above average, second to only Yu Darvish. Opposing batters are hitting just .070 on the slider this season with an ISO of .035. He will throw the slider to both lefties and righties, combining that with his heavy two-seam fastball to create somewhat of a scissoring effect, with one pitch running in on hitters and the other running away.
Porcello cruised through the first six innings of his last start against the Baltimore Orioles, save for a rough patch in the third inning. He was commanding his fastball and breaking ball as well as we have seen this year, keeping the big bats in the O's lineup off balance. However, he seemed to lose all of that immediately in the seventh inning. He hung a changeup to Chris Davis, and everything went downhill from there.
Above all, I'm interested in Porcello's strikeout rate. He is striking out nearly two batters per nine innings more than last season, and his swinging strike rate has been steadily climbing over the past four seasons. While getting rid of his horrid slider helped, it is actually his changeup that is making a big difference. Hitters are whiffing on the change 2% more than they did last season and hitting it on the ground 7% more often. Overall, they are hitting .224 on that pitch with a .103 ISO, well below the .250 and .160, respectively, that they posted last season.
Magic 8 ball: will Don Kelly play today?
My sources say no.
While the Indians are one of the best teams in the majors at jumping on opposing pitcher's fastballs, it seems as if they have trouble with pitchers who rely on a two-seamer as opposed to a four-seam fastball. Of the scalps they have collected (pun definitely intended) this season, nearly all of the former Cy Young winners they have beat up rely on a four-seam fastball. On the other hand, pitchers like Alex Cobb, Mike Pelfrey, and our very own Rick Porcello -- all of whom use a heavy dose of two-seamers -- have had success against the Tribe's offense. If Porcello continues to command his fastball like he has lately -- he is 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA since Los Angeles -- then he should be successful.
Masterson's career numbers against the Tigers aren't that great, but like his career overall, he has been either very good or very bad against Detroit. Last season, he made four starts against the Tigers. In two of those outings, he combined to allow three runs in 13 innings. In the other two, he allowed 11 runs (nine earned) in 8 2/3 innings. He has struggled on the road, allowing at least five runs in each of his past three road appearances. Combine that with a career 6.26 ERA at Comerica Park and I think we see the Indians dip below .500 by the end of the day.
The Tigers out-slug the Indians early and hold on late for their third consecutive win.