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Game 116 Preview: Tigers at Pirates

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The Tigers' annual home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Pirates kicks off tonight at PNC Park.

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Justin K. Aller

Detroit Tigers (63-52) at Pittsburgh Pirates (62-55)

Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., PNC Park

SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (10-10, 4.57 ERA) vs. LHP Jeff Locke (3-3, 3.78 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Verlander 24 157.2 6.56 3.03 0.91 1.40 4.08 4.35 2.1
Locke 12 81.0 6.22 1.44 1.22 1.16 4.07 3.65 0.3

Last season, Jeff Locke was a BABIP darling in the first half, winning eight of his first 10 decisions with a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings before the All-Star break. These great numbers earned him a trip to the 2013 All-Star Game -- and rightfully so -- but a 3.80 FIP suggested that things were going to crash back to earth at some point. Locke's BABIP rose from .231 in the first half to .374 in the second, resulting in a 6.12 second half ERA. He was even left off of the Pirates' playoff roster by manager Clint Hurdle. And at the end of the day, the difference in his xFIP from first half (4.21) to second half (4.14) was .07.

This season, things got off to a slower start. Locke suffered an oblique strain in Spring Training, resulting in him spending the first month of the season in the minor leagues. He was called up for a start in mid-May, but the San Francisco Giants tagged him for six runs on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. Locke went back to the minors for another month, but was recalled when Gerrit Cole went on the disabled list in June. Since then, Locke has made 11 starts, allowing a 3.33 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. His 4.27 FIP during this stretch is a bit high thanks to an iffy home run rate, which is much worse on the road. His 3.54 xFIP since coming up to the majors in June is closer to the pitcher we will see tonight, as Locke is much stingier in PNC Park's spacious confines.

In fact, the home/road splits go beyond his home run rate. He has a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio at PNC Park as well, and is holding batters to a wOBA over 120 points lower than on the road. Left-handed hitters have had no chance for success* against Locke in Pittsburgh, hitting just .146/.150/.263. He has yet to walk a left-handed batter at home this season. Righties have fared much better, hitting .241/.277/.336 at PNC with a .757 OPS overall.

Everyone wants to, but it's still too early to say that Justin Verlander is back. Verlander turned in his fourth consecutive quality start in his last outing, the first time he has done so since April. He only allowed five hits in seven innings against the New York Yankees, but a pair of those hits were solo home runs. The dingers, combined with an inept Tigers offense, resulted in Verlander taking his 10th loss of the season. He only struck out five, his highest total since the last time we tried to say that he was "back" in late June. However, the one walk he issued is his only one in the month of August.

*Yes, this is a subtle way of saying that Alex Avila has no business being in the lineup tonight.

Hitter to fear: Travis Snider (.385/.385/.923 in 13 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Andrew McCutchen (.154/.250/.308 in 16 plate appearances)

Thanks to the annual series between these two clubs, the Pirates have been able to build up a decent sample of plate appearances against Tigers pitchers. Russell Martin, Andrew McCutchen, Jayson Nix, Travis Snider, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez all have 10 or more career plate appearances against Verlander, though many of Martin's came with the New York Yankees in 2011 and 2012. Things get much dicier for Verlander if we take out his postseason numbers, though. Martin is 6 for 14 with a home run in the regular season. Unforunately, Verlander will not get to feast on the likes of McCutchen -- who is just 2 for 13 -- due to an avulsion fracture McCutchen suffered to his rib cage just over a week ago. He hasn't landed on the disabled list yet, but it would be surprising to see the reigning National League MVP in this series.

Outlook

I'm not sure exactly what kind of an effect a 20 inning game and subsequent trip through customs is going to have on the team's effort tonight, but there's a decent chance that Jeff Locke and his 3.39 home FIP keeps the Tigers' offense at bay. Sure, the Tigers have handled left-handed pitching with ease -- see: Mark Buehrle yesterday -- but the travel may present an extra degree of difficulty for a team searching for answers at the moment. The Pirates have the best home record in the National League, where they are allowing just 3.8 runs per game. If the bats don't get going against Locke early, it could be another disappointing night for a Tigers fanbase already on edge.

Prediction

Another strong Verlander outing is wasted in a low scoring affair.

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