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Game 1 Preview: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers

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The Tigers send David Price to the mound to open their 2015 season. He will face Phil Hughes of the Minnesota Twins, who was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA against the Tigers last season.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Twins (0-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-0)

Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Phil Hughes (16-10, 3.52 ERA in 2014) vs. LHP David Price (15-12, 3.26 ERA in 2014)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
Hughes 32 209.2 7.98 0.69 0.69 1.13 2.65 3.17 5.7
Price 34 248.1 9.82 1.38 0.91 1.08 2.78 2.72 6.1

At the beginning of last season, Twins fans were optimistic that new free agent signees Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes would help bolster a pitching rotation that had a 4.55 ERA and the lowest strikeout rate in baseball in 2013. Nolasco wasn't the least bit effective, but Hughes performed like a pitcher reborn, allowing a 3.52 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in a career-high 209 2/3 innings. That's only part of the story, though. Hughes pounded the strike zone all season long. He threw a first-pitch strike a whopping 72.5 percent of the time, by far the highest rate in baseball. He walked 16 batters all season long, a paltry 1.9 percent clip that also led baseball by a wide margin. He gave up just as many home runs as walks. All of this led to a stellar 2.65 FIP (sixth-best in baseball) and an 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the highest in MLB history.

The crazy part is that his performance was relatively sustainable. Sure, he might walk a few more batters in 2015, but even doubling his 2014 walk rate would have put him sixth among qualified starters, just ahead of David Price. He will get hurt from time to time with how many pitches he leaves over the plate, but the improvements made in his home run rate were more than just a move to a bigger home ballpark. Hughes tightened up his command in the transition from New York to Minnesota, in part because he tightened up his arsenal. He scrapped his slider in favor of a cutter, stopped throwing his changeup, and upped his curveball usage. Hughes essentially became a three-pitch pitcher, but was good enough at commanding all three pitches that he didn't even need a changeup to hold left-handed batters to a .619 OPS. He pounded the top of the zone with his fastball, backdoored the cutter to lefties, and buried the curveball at and below the knees. The overall result was quite impressive.

Phil Hughes pitch location

His ERA and win-loss record might not agree, but David Price had the best season of his career in 2014. The 29-year-old lefthander threw a career-high 248 1/3 innings (which led the majors), allowed a career-best 2.78 FIP, and struck out over a batter per inning for the first time. His 7.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio pales in comparison to Hughes' historic figure, but was still by far the best mark of his career. The discrepancy between old and new school stats widened further in Price's small sample of innings with the Tigers. He had a 3.59 ERA in 11 starts -- mostly due to one awful night in New York -- but had a 2.44 FIP thanks to a drop in his home run rate.

Like Hughes, Price's numbers improved in part because he threw more strikes. Price's 69.9 percent first-pitch strike rate was third in baseball, and he went to an 0-2 count on 277 of the 1009 batters he faced. Opposing batters had a .549 OPS when Price got ahead with strike one, and that figured dipped to .428 whenever Price had two strikes. Opponents whiffed on a much higher percentage of pitches than before, a sign that he was being more unpredictable. His pitch selection suggests that this was the case, as he threw fewer first-pitch fastballs, more breaking balls to lefthanders, and an even spread of all pitches to right-handed batters.

Hitter to fear: Torii Hunter (.348/.400/.522 in 25 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Joe Mauer (.174/.296/.217 in 27 plate appearances)

If one were to imagine the perfect pitcher to get Joe Mauer out consistently, David Price would be it. He throws left-handed, he pounds the strike zone early in the count -- Mauer rarely swings at the first pitch of an at-bat -- and he can locate anywhere in the strike zone. Mauer had a down year in 2014, hitting just .277/.361/.371 in 518 plate appearances. He was better in the second half, but his career-high 18.5 percent strikeout rate is well above the figures he posted between nine and 11 percent earlier in his career.

Torii Hunter will be the Twins' cleanup hitter today, batting directly behind Mauer. We all know how impatient of a hitter he has gotten to be as he has aged, but he still has enough pop left in his bat to be effective. He was particularly menacing at Comerica Park in his two years with the Tigers, hitting .314 with 16 home runs.

Outlook

The Tigers enter the 2015 season with more uncertainty surrounding them than at any point during their four-year reign atop the AL Central. While one game does not make a season, it is always nice to start out on the right foot, especially against a team that was particularly pesky the year before. The Twins beat the Tigers in 10 of 19 contests last year, and outscored them by 17 runs. Some of the players in their lineup had a penchant for beating up Tigers pitching last season, including Danny Santana (.953 OPS) and Brian Dozier, who hit five of his 23 home runs against Detroit last year. Another efficient outing from Price would also be appreciated, as the Tigers' bullpen has blown save opportunities the last three times they have opened their season at Comerica Park.

Prediction

Price gets the Tigers started off on the right foot with an Opening Day victory.

★★★

Tigers lineup:
  1. Rajai Davis, CF
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  4. Victor Martinez, DH
  5. J.D. Martinez, RF
  6. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
  7. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  8. Alex Avila, C
  9. Jose Iglesias, SS
Twins lineup:
  1. Danny Santana, SS
  2. Brian Dozier, 2B
  3. Joe Mauer, 1B
  4. Torii Hunter, RF
  5. Kennys Vargas, DH
  6. Trevor Plouffe, 3B
  7. Oswaldo Arcia, LF
  8. Kurt Suzuki, C
  9. Jordan Schafer, CF

★★★

Editor's Note: SB Nation is hosting a $6,000 one-day Fantasy Baseball league for MLB Opening Day on FanDuel. It's $5 to join and first place wins $1,000 and four tickets to a game.