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Game 9 Preview: Tigers at Padres

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Justin Verlander will make his second career start at Petco Park tonight as the Tigers and Padres continue their weekend series.

Denis Poroy

Detroit Tigers (5-3) at San Diego Padres (4-6)

Time/Place: 8:40 p.m., Petco Park

SB Nation blog: Gaslamp Ball

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (0-1, 2.57 ERA) vs. RHP Ian Kennedy (1-1, 3.27 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Verlander 2 14.0 3.21 3.21 0.00 1.14 3.48 5.70 0.3
Kennedy 2 11.0 7.36 1.64 0.82 0.91 3.21 3.27 0.1

Ian Kennedy has fallen on hard times since winning 21 games with a 2.88 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011. His home run rate and BABIP regressed to league norms in 2012, resulting in a 4.02 ERA and 4.04 FIP in 208 1/3 innings. Last season, his homer rate continued to climb while his walk rate jumped by over 3%, resulting in the worst full-season ERA of his career. A precipitous drop in his strand rate since 2011 has not helped matters either. Kennedy allowed an .859 OPS with men on base in 2013. The move to San Diego did not help his homer troubles, though six of the nine home runs he allowed with the Padres came on the road.

One of the things that gets Kennedy into trouble is how often he elevates his four-seam fastball. He can get away with working upstairs when he hits his spots, and has a healthy whiff rate when he gets there. The only problem with this is that fastballs up in the strike zone that don't hit their spot tend to get hit a long way. Kennedy also uses his changeup quite often and to both right and left-handed hitters. He garnered a 20% whiff rate on the changeup last season, the highest of any of his four pitches. His curveball and cutter are supplemental pitches that induce ground balls at a high rate. He does not use them as often, as his career 41.6% fly ball ratio suggests.

Is it too early to worry about Justin Verlander's low strikeout rate? A growing section of the fanbase -- yes, even here -- is feeling uneasy about Verlander's 8.3% whiff rate. This would be his lowest figure since 2006, and the first time it has dipped below 10% since 2010. The early culprit seems to be his off-speed pitches. He has a respectable 14.9% whiff rate on his curveball, but has not yet gotten anyone to swing through his slider. Meanwhile, hitters are fouling off his changeup at a much higher rate than at any point in his career -- though it's worth noting that there are questions about PitchFX's ability to distinguish Verlander's changeup from his fastball.

Personally, I'm not concerned. As he gets going this season, his breaking balls will become sharper, resulting in an improved strikeout rate. Once again, it is worth pointing out that Verlander had serious April troubles earlier in his career, so a low strikeout rate is much better than the alternative.

Hitter to fear: Xavier Nady (.500/.500/.500 in 2 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Seth Smith (.143/.333/.286 in 27 plate appearances)

Once again, Smith is the only Padres hitter with any sort of history against a Tigers pitcher. Smith had Porcello's number prior to last night's game, but has not had nearly as much success against Verlander. Other than Smith, no Padres player has more than three plate appearances against Verlander. Chase Headley is hitless in three at-bats, while backup catcher Rene Rivera has drawn a walk and struck out twice.

Outlook

The Tigers offense needs to wash the taste of last night's game out of their collective mouths as soon as possible, and there may be no better way to do so than against a pitcher who has fallen on hard times in recent years. Kennedy has taken a liking to Petco Park thus far, allowing a 2.90 ERA in 40 1/3 innings at home in a Padres uniform. However, the homer troubles are only part of the problem, and Kennedy wasn't very sharp in his first start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He will need to be with Verlander on the mound.

Prediction

The Tigers score a run today.