Minnesota Twins (0-1) at Detroit Tigers (1-0)
Time/Place: 1:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Pitching Matchup: RHP Ricky Nolasco (6-12, 5.38 ERA in 2014) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (8-5, 3.43 ERA in 2014)
Ricky Nolasco was a major disappointment for the Twins last season after signing the richest free agent contract in franchise history (four years, $49 million) the offseason prior. Nolasco allowed a 5.38 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 159 innings, both of which were the highest in the American League (minimum 150 innings). His home run rate jumped significantly, though not to the point where we should be expecting a big improvement in his overall numbers. His 4.30 FIP was over a full run better than his ERA, but this has been Nolasco's M.O. throughout his career. His 3.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than half of the starters in the AL, but was his second-lowest ratio of his career. His career 3.82 FIP, which relies heavily upon a pitcher's strikeout-to-walk ratio, is over half a run lower than his 4.48 ERA. In short, when opposing hitters put the ball in play against Nolasco, they're making solid contact.
This high "contact-to-damage ratio" is supported by Nolasco's career .312 BABIP, roughly 15-20 points higher than the average pitcher over the last seven years. His BABIP in 2014 was .351, the highest of his career. He allowed a 22.3 percent line drive rate, but that slight deviation from a 21.6 percent career rate doesn't explain the big spike. The Twins' defense can, however*. Nolasco allowed a .310 BABIP on ground balls last season, well above the league average of .251. His .159 BABIP on fly balls was nearly double the league average of .085. The Twins as a team were above the league average in both categories, an unsurprising fact given their league-worst .685 defensive efficiency rating in 2014. With Torii Hunter in right field and Aaron Hicks currently sitting in the minors, the Twins' outfield is actually worse than it was in 2014, putting Nolasco and his 35.9 percent fly ball rate at risk for further regression.
Since we're talking about BABIP, Anibal Sanchez's splits from 2014 help illustrate the difference between the Tigers' infield and outfield defense. Sanchez had a .224 BABIP on ground balls, well below the aforementioned .251 league average. His BABIP on fly balls was .119, 44 points above the league average. Sanchez hasn't been as reliant on fly ball outs as Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander are, but the shoddy defense the Tigers put behind him in 2014 still had a negative impact on his numbers.
Sanchez's overall numbers took a downturn in 2014 after his amazing 2013 season, but this was to be expected. Sanchez struck out 27.1 percent of batters last season, by far the highest rate of his career. In 2014, that figured dropped to 19.8 percent, just below his career average. He actually induced more swings at pitches outside of the strike zone than in 2013, but opposing batters made contact with those pitches far more often. A drop in whiff rate may be concerning to some, but the weak contact that Sanchez induced helped fuel his low BABIP on ground balls. If he can continue to get hitters to fish low and out of the strike zone, he could be both more effective and more efficient in 2015.
*Full credit goes to Paul Sporer for unearthing this Nolasco BABIP nugget in his 2015 Starting Pitching Guide, an awesome publication you should go buy here.
Hitter to fear: Joe Mauer (.294/.368/.294 in 19 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jordan Schafer (.083/.154/.083 in 13 plate appearances)
Sanchez has been very effective against the Twins throughout his career, holding them to a 2.60 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in nine starts. However, he has also landed on the disabled list twice in the past two seasons immediately following starts against the Twins. He suffered a finger blister last season, and injured his shoulder in 2013. Provided he can stay healthy, he has held the Twins to batting just .223/.294/.290 against him in 215 career plate appearances. Trevor Plouffe is the only Twin to ever homer off Sanchez, while Plouffe and Joe Mauer are the only players with more than two hits. Jordan Schafer might want to take the day off, as he has struck out eight times in 12 at-bats against Sanchez.
For all of the bad Nolasco provided the Twins in 2014, he was actually quite effective against the Tigers. He allowed a 2.33 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, striking out 16 while walking five. His heavy diet of breaking balls helped, especially on the first pitch of an at-bat. Nolasco threw first-pitch fastballs just 50 percent of the time last season, one of the lower rates among MLB starters. The Tigers, on the other hand, were one of baseball's most aggressive offenses, averaging just 3.78 pitches per plate appearance. If Nolasco can spot his offspeed pitches like he was able to last September -- two of his three starts against the Tigers came in the final two weeks of the season -- then he could cause some problems for the Tigers' offense.
Sanchez and the offense shine enough to overcome a shaky outing from the bullpen, improving the Tigers' record to 2-0.
- Anthony Gose, CF
- Ian Kinsler, 2B
- Miguel Cabrera, 1B
- Victor Martinez, DH
- J.D. Martinez, RF
- Yoenis Cespedes, LF
- Nick Castellanos, 3B
- Alex Avila, C
- Jose Iglesias, SS
- Danny Santana, SS
- Brian Dozier, 2B
- Joe Mauer, C
- Torii Hunter, RF
- Kennys Vargas, DH
- Trevor Plouffe, 3B
- Oswaldo Arcia, LF
- Kurt Suzuki, C
- Jordan Schafer, CF
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