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Game 44 Preview: Houston Astros at Detroit Tigers

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Will the Tigers make it four in a row?

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Astros (27-16) at Detroit Tigers (26-17)

Time/Place: 4:08 p.m., Comerica Park

SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes

Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: RHP Lance McCullers (0-0, 1.93 ERA) vs. LHP Kyle Lobstein (3-4, 4.29 ERA)

Pitcher GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP FIP SIERA fWAR
McCullers 1 4.2 9.64 5.79 0.00 1.29 2.91 4.14 0.1
Lobstein 7 42.0 4.07 2.79 0.64 1.40 4.08 4.55 0.4

A supplemental round draft pick out of high school by the Astros in 2012, Lance McCullers, Jr. rocketed through Houston's farm system. He struck out plenty of batters along the way, fanning 304 hitters in just 256 2/3 innings. However, his command has been an issue. He has walked nearly five batters per nine innings during his minor league career, including 56 walks in 97 innings with Advanced-A Lancaster last season. McCullers was hit around in 2014, allowing a 5.47 ERA and 5.73 FIP for the JetHawks. This isn't as concerning as it sounds, though. McCullers was pitching in the notoriously hitter-friendly California League, which resulted in 18 home runs allowed in 25 appearances. At 20 years old, he was still one of the youngest players in the league.

The promotion to a more neutral environment has done wonders for McCullers' numbers, but it appears he has made some improvements of his own. In six appearances for Double-A Corpus Christi, McCullers has held opponents to a 0.62 ERA and 2.18 FIP. He has 43 strikeouts in 29 innings, and has lowered his walk rate to a palatable 3.41 batters per nine innings. With multiple starters now on the disabled list, McCullers was promoted to the majors last week. He made his big league debut on May 18, allowing one run in 4 2/3 innings against the Oakland Athletics. His electric arsenal and spotty command were both on display, as he struck out five but only threw 54 strikes in 93 pitches.

McCullers hasn't drawn much hype relative to his peers, but Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the Astros' No. 7 prospect prior to this season. He possesses a mid-90s four-seam fastball that averaged nearly 95 miles per hour in his big league debut. He pairs the fastball with a low-80s curveball that also has double-plus potential. He has the ability to get swings and misses on both pitches, which sets him up well for a high leverage relief role in the future. There are still questions about his ability to stick in the rotation, as his third pitch (a changeup) lags well behind the other two.

Kyle Lobstein got bitten by the home run bug in his last start, allowing a pair of dingers to Milwaukee Brewers sluggers Carlos Gomez and Aramis Ramirez. Other than those two solo shots, Lobstein was very effective. He allowed a third run in the seventh inning, but only after he was allowed to face Gomez for a fourth time before being lifted from the game. The move was a puzzling one for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, and it backfired, especially since the offense was only able to score two runs in a 3-2 loss. Despite the solid effort, Lobstein is still having trouble with right-handed batters, who are now hitting .308/.362/.467 against him this year.

Hitter to fear: Jose Altuve (.396/.491/.521 in 57 plate appearances vs. LHP)
Hitter to fail: Evan Gattis (.159/.170/.364 in 47 plate appearances vs. LHP)

Although most of Houston's best hitters bat right-handed, they have struggled against left-handed pitching this season. As a team, they are hitting just .224/.305/.409 with 19 home runs against lefthanders. This is good enough for a 99 wRC+, the fifth-lowest total in the American League. Their offense is still heavily reliant on the home run ball, but with such a low on-base percentage, the chances for two- and three-run home runs are slim. Jose Altuve and George Springer have had his way with lefthanders in 2015, but righties Evan Gattis, Chris Carter, and Jake Marisnick all have a wRC+ of 63 or lower against lefties this season. Lefthander Colby Rasmus is defying his career platoon splits with a 146 wRC+ in 39 plate appearances against lefties this year.

Outlook

While the Astros have struggled against left-handed pitching at times, their numbers are not all that different from their overall production. The "hit it out or don't hit it at all" strategy has led to a below average on-base percentage and 98 wRC+ for the year. However, their righty-heavy lineup should play well against Lobstein's significant platoon splits. The Astros will likely hit a couple home runs today, but Lobstein's challenge will be to keep runners off the basepaths in front of their sluggers. If he can keep the Tigers within striking distance, they may be able to take advantage of an inefficient rookie starter and get into the Astros' middle relief corps.

Prediction

The Astros jump all over Lobstein early in the game and hold off a late Tigers rally for the win.

★★★

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