Detroit Tigers (14-9) at Kansas City Royals (14-13)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Rick Porcello (3-1, 3.96 ERA) vs. RHP James Shields (3-2, 2.03 ERA)
James Shields has gotten off to a phenomenal start in 2014, allowing just nine earned runs in 40 innings. Of course, there are also seven unearned runs on that ledger, six of which came in one inning against the Minnesota Twins on April 12th. If we continue to ignore those, then Shields has allowed two earned runs or fewer in five of his six starts this season. The sixth came way back on Opening Day, when Shields allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings against these same Tigers. However, that stat is also misleading, as Aaron Crow inherited two runners when Shields was pulled in the seventh inning and allowed both of them to score.
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As usual, Shields threw a boatload of changeups and cutters in that start despite only facing two left-handed hitters. His use of the cutter is particularly interesting because he is now throwing it more than ever before. His 32% usage rate is by far the highest of his career, and for good reason: opposing batters are hitting just .137 off the cutter with a .235 slugging average. These figures are far below his career .256 average and .379 slugging average against the cutter. Hitters are flailing at it more often too, whiffing 11.3% of the time this season. Meanwhile, he has had trouble locating his trademark changeup, missing the strike zone 43% of the time in 2014. This should get better as the season goes along -- it's not often that a pitcher loses his feel for his best pitch on a whim.
Rick Porcello's last start still remains a bit of a mystery. He was hit on the elbow by a line drive early on, then spent over 30 minutes in the dugout as the Tigers scored seven runs in one inning. After five excellent innings, things fell apart in the sixth. He allowed a mammoth home run to Brian Dozier and allowed two more baserunners before being pulled from the game. Justin Miller did no favors by allowing both of his inherited runners to score, but Porcello still picked up the win thanks to the Tigers' offense. We still don't know what happened to him -- though we gave it our best guess -- so it will be interesting to see if there are any lingering effects tonight.
Hitter to fear: Alex Gordon (.355/.375/.613 in 32 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Alcides Escobar (.048/.048/.048 in 21 plate appearances)
Both Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer have had their way with Porcello, hitting over .350 with a pair of homers apiece. Hosmer has a .438 on-base percentage in 16 plate appearances and has only struck out once, while Gordon has six strikeouts. Other than that, the Royals' numbers aren't very impressive against Porcello. Billy Butler has 13 hits in 42 at-bats, but a pedestrian .381 slugging average. Alcides Escobar's numbers above are a special kind of abysmal, and newly crowned Tiger killer Salvador Perez has even been held in check. One interesting wrinkle to all of these stats: Porcello did not face the Royals in 2013.
The Tigers will open this series with a pair of starting pitchers that have not taken the mound in a week (or more, in Drew Smyly's case), but this does not necessarily indicate that either guy will be rusty. Porcello has been quite good when on six days of rest or more in his career, allowing a 3.45 ERA and a 2.81 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 starts. In four such starts last season (not including his first start of the season), he allowed six runs in 27 innings. On the other side, Shields has pitched quite well against the Tigers since joining the Royals. His ERA is inflated by one bad start -- hey, that sounds familiar -- but he held the Tigers to three runs or fewer in seven-plus innings in his other four outings against Detroit last year.
Porcello matches Shields and the Tigers bullpen isn't awful, giving the Tigers their 15th win of the year.