Kansas City Royals (0-1) at Detroit Tigers (1-0)
Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Pitching Matchup: LHP Jason Vargas (9-8, 4.02 ERA in 2013) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 ERA in 2013)
Vargas continued doing what he does with the Los Angeles Angels in 2013: allow a boatload of fly balls and let his outfielders track them down in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Though he allowed more home runs at Angels Stadium than on the road last year, his 3.30 home ERA was far better than the 4.82 ERA he gave up in away games. The gap in FIP splits was not quite as severe due to nearly identical homer rates. He did not allow a home run to a left-handed hitter, but lefties got on base at a .357 clip thanks to a .327 batting average (and .379 BABIP) against him. Right-handers only hit .256, but walked at a healthy 8.1% clip and posted a .168 ISO. This resulted in some minor reverse splits (in terms of OPS) in 2013, but for his career, righties have consistently hit Vargas better than lefties.
Vargas sports a four pitch mix, but primarily relies on a fastball-changeup combination, especially against right-handed hitters. The change was his best pitch against righties, limiting them to a .180 average and .090 ISO in 200 plate appearances that ended with the offspeed offering. Righties mashed the fastball, though. He allowed a .365 average and .660 slugging average (including 12 home runs) with the four-seamer in 2013. Lefties will see much less of the changeup and more of his curveball, which resulted in a surprisingly low 5.37% whiff rate last year. They had no problem handling his two-seam fastball, slinging it around the yard to the tune of a .491 average and .604 slugging average in 53 plate appearances. This probably had something to do with his inability to get the two seamer far enough inside to bother lefties -- he tended to leave it right in that pull-happy zone that lefties love so much.
Max Scherzer was amazing in 2013, and this did not change against the Royals. He allowed five runs on seven hits against them in a shaky April outing, but only allowed five more runs in 22 innings across three starts. He also racked up 28 strikeouts to just six walks. Overall, Scherzer's progression was largely due to a massive improvement in his ability to retire left-handed hitters. While he walked nearly twice as many lefties as righties, he held lefties to a career-best .222/.278/.367, a measly .645 OPS. Many credited Scherzer's development of his curveball as a big reason why he succeeded against lefties, but his continued honing of other pitches -- notably his changeup -- also played a key role.
Scherzer's changeup induced a higher whiff rate against lefties in 2013 compared to 2012, along with a 56% ground ball rate. His .238 batting average against on the changeup was the highest that opposing lefties achieved against his three primary pitches -- he didn't use his slider against them -- but he only allowed two home runs on changeups, and a .331 BABIP should reverse itself in 2014. Scherzer's curveball also garnered ground balls at above a 50% clip, but it wasn't a typical swing-and-miss offering, with a whiff rate under 8%.
Hitter to fear: Alex Gordon (.393/.514/.714 in 35 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Moustakas (.130/.130/.174 in 23 plate appearances)
Gordon absolutely torched Scherzer in 2013, picking up a single, two doubles, a home run, and a pair of walks in 12 plate appearances. This was nothing new for the Royals' left fielder, who now has 11 hits in 28 at-bats against the reigning Cy Young winner. Newly-minted Tiger killer Salvador Perez also has strong numbers against Scherzer, with seven hits in 18 at-bats. Meanwhile, Moustakas can't buy a break against either of the power arms in the top of the Tigers' rotation. He has more strikeouts (seven) than total bases (four) in his career against Scherzer. Jarrod Dyson deserves a dishonorable mention for his 1-for-14 line against Scherzer, so it's unlikely we see him in the lineup.
With as bad as Jason Vargas' fastball has been in recent years, it comes as no surprise that opposing batters hit .359/.354/.641 on the first pitch of an at-bat in 2013. This isn't noteworthy: it stands to reason that many pitchers have poor numbers on the first pitch of an at-bat. Where Vargas excels is when he is able to get ahead in the count. Opposing batters had a .662 OPS against Vargas when he threw a first-pitch strike compared to an .803 OPS when he started a count 1-0. He goes to his off-speed pitches -- which are much better than his fastball-- more often when ahead in the count. Don't be surprised to see the Tigers attack early in the count this afternoon, with Vargas looking to throw a few more get-me-over breaking balls to slow down the Tigers' advances.
Scherzer gets off to a good start in his Cy Young defense and begins the season 1-0.