Detroit Tigers (7-1) at Pittsburgh Pirates (3-5)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., PNC Park
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Pitching Matchup: RHP Alfredo Simon (1-0, 5.06 ERA) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (0-0, 2.57 ERA)
It's hard to believe that Francisco Liriano has been around the game for over a decade, but here we are. The 31-year-old lefthander debuted with the Minnesota Twins in 2005 and had an electric rookie campaign in 2006, finishing the year with a 12-3 record, 2.16 ERA, and 2.55 FIP in 121 innings. After that, Liriano went off the rail for a while. He missed the 2007 season due to Tommy John surgery, then had a difficult time getting settled after his return. It wasn't until 2010 when Liriano looked like his old self. He allowed a 3.62 ERA and 2.66 FIP in 191 2/3 innings that season, helping the Twins to their sixth division title in nine years.
Liriano spent two more years in the doldrums after that, allowing a 5.23 ERA in 291 innings for the Twins and Chicago White Sox. The Pirates took a flyer on him prior to the 2013 season, and, as they have done with several other reclamation projects lately, turned Liriano back into a serviceable starter. He dominated lefties en route to a 16-9 record and 3.02 ERA in 2013, holding them to a .321 OPS in 138 plate appearances. The 2014 season was a slightly different story. Liriano allowed a 4.60 ERA and 2.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 14 starts, finishing that stretch with a measly 1-6 record. After spending a month on the disabled list due to an oblique strain, he held opponents to a 2.40 ERA and .192 batting average against in his final 15 starts.
Liriano's erratic history stems from an awkward delivery that he has trouble repeating. His less-than-ideal mechanics work for him when he's on, but he can frequently fall into stretches where he has trouble finding the strike zone, leaves the ball up and over the plate, or both. He has tried to keep the ball low in the strike zone throughout his career...
...but really gets hurt when he leaves the ball up. This, compounded with a high walk rate, can quickly lead to an elevated ERA.
The first game of the Alfredo Simon era went almost exactly like we expected. Simon was effective through the first five innings, allowing two hits and two walks while keeping the Cleveland Indians off the scoreboard. There was some hard contact -- this comebacker off the bat of Jason Kipnis is one example -- but he also induced a few ground balls, including a double play that erased a leadoff walk in the second. Simon fell apart in the fifth, allowing five consecutive hits and three runs before he was pulled by manager Brad Ausmus. Simon's issues started as the lineup turned over for a third time, a common trend for many pitchers that does not reveal itself in Simon's career numbers. He was actually able to improve as he moved through the batting order multiple times in 2014, so it will be interesting to see how his numbers materialize in 2015.
Hitter to fear: Andrew McCutchen (.250/.400/.400 in 25 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Pedro Alvarez (.100/.308/.200 in 13 plate appearances)
Simon has had a lot of success against the Pirates during his career, holding them to a .220/.332/.312 batting line in 203 plate appearances. He pitched against them frequently as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, but did not face as many lefthanders because he pitched out of the bullpen for two years. Current Pirates players have fared better with a .694 OPS in 140 plate appearances. He has issued plenty of walks -- including a combined eight in 38 plate appearances to Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez -- but has also logged 26 strikeouts against current Pirates hitters.
Simon made four starts against the Pirates last year, and wasn't particularly impressive in any of them. He went 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA, but also held the Bucs to a .196 batting average and .645 OPS. These low figures were not surprising for the Pirates, who had a lot of trouble hitting for power against ground ball artists like Simon. The Pirates had a .376 slugging average against such pitchers last season, resulting in a .706 OPS that was well below their total season mark of .734. The Tigers, meanwhile, were able to work the count against Liriano and draw four walks in their lone meting last season. Can the Tigers continue hitting lefties now that they're up against a good one?
Simon struggles early, but the offense picks him up and the Tigers finish their road trip with a 5-1 record.
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