Kansas City Royals (0-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-0)
Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Pitching Matchup: RHP James Shields (13-9, 3.15 ERA in 2013) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46 ERA in 2013)
James Shields was everything that the Royals could have imagined when they coughed up uber prospect Wil Myers for his services before the 2013 season. Shields led the league in innings pitched for the first time, but it was the seventh consecutive year that he topped the 200-inning barrier. He saw a sharp dive in his strikeout and groundball rates, but a similar drop in home run rate helped him maintain the same 3.47 FIP he logged in 2012. A 79.5% strand rate helped him total the second-best ERA and rWAR figures of his career, giving the Royals their first legit ace since Zack Greinke's 2009 Cy Young season.
Shields relies on a fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup, with the change being his signature pitch. He allowed a .578 OPS on the changeup, including a meager .315 slugging average. While he was happy to throw the changeup to both right- and left-handed hitters, the fading action helped him hold lefties to a .614 OPS with just eight home runs -- one off the changeup. His fastball was easily his worst pitch, with none of the other three resulting in an OPS higher than .613. He did a great job of staying away from lefties -- who tend to be more pull-happy than righties in general -- but struggled to use both sides of the plate against right-handers with his best pitch neutralized.
Justin Verlander's 2013 struggles are well documented, but his return to form in September and the postseason indicate that the mechanical issues he had are a thing of the past. Additionally, his offseason surgery looks to be a minor blip on the radar after he tossed 20 scoreless innings during Spring Training. Even his difficulties in April appear to be over after two straight years with sub-2.50 ERAs during the first month of the season. He was once prone to let his emotions get the better of him in big games, but has logged 13 consecutive scoreless innings in his last two Opening Day starts. He was merely mortal against the Royals last season -- we're talking about a 1-3 record and 3.27 ERA here -- but has historically dominated eight of the nine spots in their lineup.
Hitter to fear: Billy Butler (.441/.506/.588 in 77 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Moustakas (.182/.206/.273 in 34 plate appearances)
There is the slightest possibility that this could be Butler's final season in Kansas City. He has a $12.5 million team option for 2015, but another season like 2013 could lead the Royals to pay the $1 million buyout and look for a cheaper (or more flexible) option for their DH slot. Truth be told, this is all just wishful thinking on our part. Butler has tormented Tigers' pitching in his career -- though his numbers against Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are decidedly un-Butler like -- but his vice-like hold over Verlander is particularly astounding. Meanwhile, Moustakas' struggles against Verlander don't seem to be anything more than a small sample size against one of the best pitchers on the planet. He has seven strikeouts in 34 plate appearances for a 20.6% strikeout rate that is just above his career norms. His lone home run off Verlander came in 2013, for what it's worth.
If there were a day to determine whether the new direction of this club is sure to result in either a championship or complete and utter failure, this is it. Joking aside (we'll save that for tomorrow), it will be interesting to see Ausmus' managerial philosophy in action. We probably won't see a complete revolution on the basepaths considering Shields and catcher Salvador Perez combined to nab five of 10 attempted base stealers in 2013, but it will be fun to see if the Tigers push the envelope in other areas -- especially considering Jeff Francoeur will not throw out Jhonny Peralta at any point this afternoon. Right-handers Rajai Davis and Alex Gonzalez will be in the starting lineup in an attempt to counteract Shields' reverse splits, but Andy Dirks' team-leading 1.300 OPS against Shields will be missed.
The Tigers get more hits today than in their last regular season game.