Think back to March, when [insert publication here] was making their playoff predictions. Two of the teams that consistently popped up were the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners. Some even picked them to make it to the World Series. Now, the Tigers are under .500 and the Mariners have the worst record in the American League. Things have not gone well relative to expectations for either club.
There are excuses on both sides. Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera have spent time on the disabled list. Robinson Cano has been dealing with a stomach ailment all season long. Both teams have watched one of their best starters (Justin Verlander and Hisashi Iwakuma) get hurt and then struggle when healthy. Homegrown talents Nick Castellanos and Mike Zunino have not progressed. The bullpens have been bad.
These struggles go beyond those excuses, though. Both teams are among the worst baserunning teams in baseball. Their perceived weaknesses heading into the season -- pitching for the Tigers, hitting for the Mariners -- have been far worse than anticipated. Both teams are making dumb mistakes at the worst possible times, and the heroic efforts of their Hall of Fame caliber talents (Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez) have not been enough to keep them afloat.
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Game One: Monday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: LHP J.A. Happ (4-5, 4.14 ERA) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (8-6, 4.53 ERA)
J.A. Happ's last start came on July 8, when these same Tigers roughed him up for four runs on seven hits in four innings. Jefry Marte did the majority of the damage, driving in a pair of runs with a double and a home run. The outing bumped Happ's ERA above 4.00 for the first time this season, which indicates how well things have been going for the 32-year-old journeyman. Happ has a career-best 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 2/3 innings, resulting in a career-best 3.53 FIP. He has 1.6 WAR already, just 0.2 away from a career-high.
This resurgent performance may lead to Happ pitching for his fifth franchise come August. A lefty who can eat innings and generally stay out of trouble, Happ could be a valuable trade deadline addition for a team in need of a fifth starter. Happ has been trending upward slightly over the past few seasons -- he has a 2.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 4.06 FIP since 2012 -- so the shiny numbers he's putting up may be more sustainable than they look.
Game Two: Tuesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Taijuan Walker (7-7, 4.84 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Greene (4-7, 6.32 ERA)
Things were going so well for Taijuan Walker. Heading into his start against the Tigers on July 7, Walker had a 1.68 ERA and 51:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his previous seven outings. One of the top pitching prospects in baseball, it looked like the 22-year-old righthander was beginning to figure things out. Then, the Tigers came to town. A rare Seattle heat wave turned Safeco Field into a bandbox, and the Tigers scored five runs off Walker, courtesy of three home runs.
Despite pitching at what is usually a very stingy home ballpark, home runs have been an issue for Walker this season. He has allowed 16 overall, and 1.41 per nine innings. While a fly ball pitcher like Walker is prone to giving up a few dingers, the young righthander has allowed a 30-percent hard contact percentage, slightly higher than the league average. This is somewhat surprising given his nasty stuff (and 10.5 percent whiff rate), but I would expect it to come down as he matures and develops a third pitch.
Game Three: Wednesday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: LHP Mike Montgomery (4-3, 2.51 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (9-7, 4.55 ERA)
What a ride it has been for Mike Montgomery. A Kansas City Royals first round pick in 2008, Montgomery was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in the infamous Wil Myers-James Shields deal. Montgomery pitched for two years in the Rays' farm system, but did no better than allowing a 4.29 ERA and 3.99 FIP in 126 innings in the International League last summer. The Rays sent him to Seattle in exchange for righthander Erasmo Ramirez, and both teams have benefitted from the move. Ramirez has a 3.54 ERA in 84 innings, while Montgomery has been one of Seattle's best starters over the past six weeks.
On the surface, Montgomery's numbers seem ripe for regression. He has a .247 BABIP and is stranding 83.6 percent of baserunners. He has only struck out 17.6 percent of the batters he has faced, and his xFIP and SIERA are both over 4.00. While he will tail back somewhat, his last five starts have given us reason to believe that it may not be so severe. Including a pair of shutouts, Montgomery has a 2.34 ERA in his last 34 2/3 innings. He has amassed 31 strikeouts to just eight walks, and is holding opponents to a .614 OPS. Things likely won't stay this way for long -- he got hit around by a righty-heavy Angels lineup on July 10 -- but it's probably safe to say Montgomery will be in the rotation mix come 2016.
Game Four: Thursday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (2-1, 4.89 ERA) vs. LHP David Price (9-3, 2.32 ERA)
Hisashi Iwakuma was one of the major reasons why the Mariners had the best team ERA in the American League in 2014. An absolute force for nearly five months, Iwakuma was 12-6 with a 2.57 ERA after a win over the Philadelphia Phillies on August 19. Things haven't gone well since then, however. Iwakuma finished out the year with a 7.88 ERA in his final seven starts, allowing six home runs in 32 innings.
He spent two months on the disabled list to begin 2015, but the homer troubles have continued. Iwakuma has already allowed 10 home runs this season, half of his total for all of 2014. Granted, he has never been shy about giving up a dinger or two -- with both a splitter and slider, he has plenty of chances to hang pitches that scream "hit me!" -- but the issue has been more pronounced in 2015, especially as he has lost his strikeout touch. Iwakuma's 8.8 percent whiff rate is nearly identical to 2014, but he is only fanning 17.5 percent of batters, down from 20 percent last year.
Hitter to fear: Nelson Cruz (.305/.372/.536 in 374 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Zunino (.158/.219/.285 in 288 plate appearances)
Nelson Cruz has largely been a one-man show for the Mariners offense this season, but he is finally starting to get some help. Robinson Cano is batting .291/.327/.534 since June 17, while Kyle Seager has a .933 OPS in July. Shortstop Brad Miller has chipped in as well, hitting .282/.329/.423 in the last month. Despite this uptick in production, the Mariners still have the worst team batting average and on-base percentage in the American League. They have moved ahead of the Chicago White Sox with 320 runs scored, but are still a long way off from the respectable unit many expected when they tore the cover off the ball as a group in spring training.
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