Detroit Tigers (25-12) at Boston Red Sox (20-21)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Pitching Matchup: RHP Rick Porcello (6-1, 3.22 ERA) vs. RHP John Lackey (5-2, 3.57 ERA)
John Lackey went through a rough patch in mid-April, allowing six runs on ten hits in consecutive outings against the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. They were a pair of odd outings, as he allowed four home runs and no walks to the Yankees, and four walks and no home runs to the Orioles. Regardless, Lackey has been lights out otherwise. He has yet to allow more than two runs in any of his other six starts this year, and has gone seven innings or more in four of them. His peripheral numbers aren't quite as strong as Jon Lester's, but his 4.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a career high.
One of the more interesting tidbits about Lackey's start to the season is his 10.8% swinging strike rate, also a career high. He was just under 10% last season, and his career whiff rate is only 8.7%. However, he is throwing his slider and curveball less frequently this season, instead relying on his fastball much more often. The real kicker? Lackey's fastball is averaging 93.4 miles per hour according to Brooks Baseball, his fastest clip* of the PitchFX era. He isn't getting more swings and misses with the heater, but it has led to an uptick in whiffs on his slider and curveball, which may help explain his career high 23.9% strikeout rate in 2014.
Rick Porcello was on pace for his best start of the season on Monday, holding the Baltimore Orioles to one run on five hits through six innings. He had only thrown 83 pitches at that point, well below the 100 he had averaged in his previous four starts. However, Porcello was experiencing some tightness on his left side, and Brad Ausmus decided to pull the 25 year old right-hander as a precautionary measure. It's hard to argue with Ausmus' logic -- the last thing the Tigers needed was a second starter on the disabled list -- though a 2-0 lead is never a comfort if you're a Tigers fan.
For some reason, Porcello has decided to start throwing his slider again in 2014. You may remember that he scrapped the slider prior to last season, instead choosing to focus on his curveball. It seemed to help, as he held both righties and lefties to a lower OPS than the season prior. This season, the slider is back, and the overall numbers are ugly. Opposing batters are hitting .296 with a .519 slugging average on the pitch in a small sample of 27 plate appearances. However, right-handers are slugging just .364 against the slider, and are whiffing 19% of the time, up from a career rate of 14.6%. It's early, but it seems an adjustment has been made, so long as he only throws it against righties.
*For what it's worth, Fangraphs has yet to pick up on any change Lackey's velocity, clocking his average fastball at 91.8 miles per hour.
Hitter to fear: Mike Napoli (.313/.353/.563 in 17 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Grady Sizemore (.200/.250/.200 in 16 plate appearances)
Somehow, Porcello's disastrous start in Boston last September did not result in a bunch of gaudy career stat lines for Red Sox hitters against him. Of the three home runs Porcello allowed, only one was hit by a player currently on the Red Sox roster: David Ortiz (duh). However, Ortiz is just 2-for-7 against Porcello, and that is the second-best batting average anyone has in more than three plate appearances. Dustin Pedroia has grounded into as many double plays (two) as he has hits, while A.J. Pierzynski is just 5-for-22.
Meanwhile, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and Rajai Davis are all hitting .375 or better against Lackey in 28 career plate appearances or more.
For those paying attention, last night's pitcher's duel was no surprise. Teams are scoring slightly more often than they did in 2013, but overall run scoring is at its lowest since before the steroid era and continues to trend downward. To make matters worse for the two offenses on the field, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester have been two of the best starters in the American League this season. We should see more of the same tonight from Lackey and Porcello. Lackey allowed five runs in three starts against the Tigers last season, including 6 2/3 innings of scoreless ball in Game 3 of the ALCS. Porcello's hot start is beginning to get national attention, and could get even more time in the limelight if he pitches well tonight.
The Tigers make it 10 in a row on the road with another win this evening.