Detroit Tigers (56-60) at Houston Astros (63-54)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matt Boyd (1-3, 7.11 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (5-9, 4.03 ERA)
He doesn't have elite fastball velocity, but Mike Fiers lives at the top of the strike zone with his 90 mile-per-hour fastball. His upright pitching delivery and ability to change eye levels has flummoxed opposing hitters all season, resulting in a high percentage of weak flyouts. Fiers' 40.7 fly ball rate ranks 11th among qualified major league pitchers, and he induces an above average amount of soft contact. Of course, Fiers also has allowed the highest percentage of hard contact among qualified MLB pitches this season, resulting in a jump in his home run rate compared to 2014.
While the utility of soft vs. hard hit percentage statistics is still up for debate, one would imagine that Fiers' extreme fly ball tendencies are working in his favor. He can give up all the warning track flyouts he wants, but as long as those fly balls aren't leaving the park, he is fine. He has given up 16 dingers this season, a career-high, but his home run rate is hovering around the league average. Fiers supplements this by striking out over a batter per inning, and has a solid 2.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sunday's game will be Fiers' first start at Minute Maid Park, a stadium that gives up fewer home runs than his old stomping grounds in Milwaukee.
Matt Boyd got into early trouble in his last start, a second consecutive outing against the Kansas City Royals. The first two Royals hitters jumped on first-pitch fastballs, and they had a 2-0 lead less than 10 pitches into the game. However, Boyd and catcher Alex Avila quickly adjusted to the Royals swing-at-everything game plan, and utilized a steady diet of breaking balls to keep the damage to a minimum. That approach probably won't work against the Astros, though. While they sport the highest swinging strike rate in baseball, they are actually a disciplined bunch, and swing at pitches outside the strike zone at a below-average rate.
Tigers hitter to fear: J.D. Martinez (.667/.667/1.000 in 3 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Victor Martinez (.000/.000/.000 in 3 plate appearances)
Fiers made a start against the Tigers at Comerica Park, where he reversed his usual trends by recording nine ground ball outs to just five flyouts in 5 2/3 innings. Fiers allowed two runs on six hits, and the outing helped spring him to a nice stretch where he allowed a 3.36 ERA in 15 starts before he was traded. J.D. Martinez recorded two hits against his good friend and offseason training partner, and Miguel Cabrera logged his only triple of the season.
The Astros have a versatile roster that gives them the platoon advantage in 57 percent of their plate appearances, one of the higher rates in the American League. However, even though several of their best players are right-handed, they have struggled a lot against left-handed pitching this season. They have a .714 OPS against lefties, a figure that drops slightly to .707 against left-handed starters. Meanwhile, Boyd's excellent changeup has resulted in some early reverse platoon splits, though his rough numbers from one bad start with Toronto are still skewing everything. If both he and Fiers get on a roll, this game may come down to which pitcher can keep the ball in the yard.
Boyd gets left in one (or two) batters too long and the Tigers drop the series finale.
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