Detroit Tigers (55-59) at Houston Astros (62-53)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Pitching Matchup: RHP Alfredo Simon (10-6, 4.74 ERA) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (13-6, 2.40 ERA)
Two years ago, a 25-year-old Dallas Keuchel pitched 153 2/3 innings for an Astros team that lost 111 games. Keuchel had a 5.15 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. While a 4.25 FIP predicted that better days were ahead, no one could have imagined what would come next. Keuchel took the AL by storm in 2014, riding a sky-high ground ball rate and marginal improvements in his strikeout, walk, and home run rates to a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings. He led the American League with five complete games and won a Gold Glove, though wasn't in serious contention for any other hardware.
This season, Keuchel's success isn't surprising anyone. He has improved on his 2014 numbers, striking out more batters and walking fewer while also allowing fewer hits. Among other things, Keuchel also works a ton of innings. He leads the AL with 7.2 innings pitched per start and has logged at least six innings in every single one of his 23 starts this season. His ground ball rate is still above 63 percent, good enough for second in the major leagues among qualified starters.
Keuchel's fastball only tops out at 92-93 miles per hour (and he sits around 90), but he absolutely pounds the lower half of the strike zone. He uses his sinker over 50 percent of the time, inducing ground balls nearly three-quarters of the time it is put into play. He also mixes in a changeup, slider, and cutter against right-handed batters, who are hitting .234/.286/.320 with eight home runs against him this season. Lefties have had almost no chance, batting just .135 with a .167 on-base percentage.
After a momentary dip in fastball velocity due to an injured groin, Alfredo Simon was back to his usual self in his last start. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that wasn't a good thing. Simon was roughed up for six runs on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox, but was bailed out by a late rally from the offense in a 7-6 win. Simon continued his splitter-heavy approach, relying primarily on that pitch and his fastball against a lefty-laden Red Sox offense. The strategy worked for six innings, but Simon tried to rely on his offspeed stuff a bit too much later in the game and the Sox pounced on him for three runs in the seventh to take a momentary lead.
Tigers hitter to fear: Ian Kinsler (.316/.381/.474 in 21 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Rajai Davis (.000/.000/.000 in 7 plate appearances)
The Tigers missed Keuchel in their four-game series with the Astros earlier this season, and only saw the lefthander once last season in early May. Keuchel held the Tigers to two runs over 7 2/3 innings in that start, but even that wasn't enough to polish up his career numbers against Detroit. Ian Kinsler has punished the 27-year-old lefty in his career, but most of their meetings came in 2013 when Kinsler was still playing for the Texas Rangers. Nick Castellanos has homered off of Keuchel before, while Rajai Davis is 0-for-7.
The Astros have traveled backward recently, losing seven of their 11 games in the month of August. A five-game AL West lead in early July has diminished to two games, in part thanks to the Angels' own slide. However, the Astros have been tough as nails at home this season, winning 38 of their 56 games at Minute Maid Park. They have outscored opponents by 67 runs at home, accounting for nearly all of their +78 run differential. Meanwhile, the Tigers have lost 11 of their last 17 road games and have been outscored by 34 runs on the road this season.
Keuchel cruises and the Astros move to 21 games above .500 at home this season.
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