Detroit Tigers (14-6) at Minnesota Twins (8-11)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (1-2, 5.96 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (1-0, 2.65 ERA)
Once a promising prospect in the New York Mets' system, Pelfrey came to Minnesota after having Tommy John surgery in 2012. He had the fourth-worst ERA in baseball in 2013 (minimum 150 innings pitched) but was one of just two Twins starters to log at least 140 innings that season. After allowing a 7.99 ERA in 23 2/3 innings for the Twins in 2014, Pelfrey missed the last four months of the season due to ulnar nerve decompression surgery in his right elbow. This was the second major elbow surgery Pelfrey has had in the past three years, and probably should have ended his days as a starting pitcher.
Except, it didn't. Pelfrey didn't win a starting job out of spring training, but was awarded the fifth starter's role after Ervin Santana tested positive for Stanozolol. This decision upset many Twins fans, who are eagerly anticipating brighter days in the future from a farm system currently stocked to the brim with premium talent. Pelfrey was given the nod over the likes of Trevor May -- who now has a rotation spot -- and hard-throwing prospect Alex Meyer. To his credit, Pelfrey has quieted the doubters for the moment, allowing a 2.65 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in three starts.
Pelfrey's peripheral numbers suggest a sharp decline is in order. He currently has a 5.43 FIP and 4.99 xFIP, both of which are concerned with his paltry 11.1 percent strikeout rate. Strikeouts have never been Pelfrey's forte, however, and there are signs that he might be a different pitcher than we saw in the past couple years. In his first three starts, Pelfrey's two-seam fastball has averaged 94.3 miles per hour, up from 92.2 miles per hour in 2014. This velocity is also higher than he was throwing in his mid-20s, so it will be worth keeping an eye on. Pelfrey is also generating ground balls at a 61.1 percent clip, well above his career rate of 47.9 percent. All of his pitches are helping contribute to the high ground ball rate, but Pelfrey has been throwing his splitter much more often in 2015. If his change in pitch selection is real (and not just a product of the small sample we're viewing), his rise in ground ball rate could be legitimate.
Anibal Sanchez was much sharper in his last start, holding the New York Yankees to one run in 6 1/3 innings of work. Sanchez did walk four batters, but struck out eight while allowing just one hit in 24 batters faced. More importantly, Sanchez's pitch location backs up the numbers. After leaving several pitches out over the plate against the Chicago White Sox on April 18, Sanchez was better about hitting the corners of the strike zone in his last start. In particular, he did a good job of hitting the outside corner (to lefties) with his fastball while burying his breaking ball down and away to righthanders.
Hitter to fear: Eduardo Nunez (.400/.400/1.000 in 5 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Brian Dozier (.059/.158/.059 in 19 plate appearances)
The Twins have not had much success against Sanchez, and his performance on April 8 was business as usual. After throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings, Sanchez is now 3-2 with a 2.30 ERA in 10 starts against Minnesota. The Twins' current roster is hitting a paltry .171/.234/.239 against him, and infielder Eduardo Nunez is the only Twins batters with an OPS over .680. Brian Dozier and Oswaldo Arcia are both hitting under .100 in at least 14 plate appearances, while five other non-pitchers are hitting under .200.
The Twins aren't the only team that has struggled to score against their scheduled opponent. Pelfrey was solid against the Tigers in five starts in 2013, holding them to a 4.03 ERA in 29 innings. He won two of those starts and held the Tigers to one run in six innings in a third, though he did offer up 11 walks and four home runs. None of those home runs were from players currently on the Tigers' roster, though. If Pelfrey's uptick in velocity is real, the Tigers could struggle to score tonight.
Sanchez stays sharp and the Tigers win another nailbiter.
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