Kansas City Royals (86-60) at Detroit Tigers (67-78)
Time/Place: 7:08 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Pitching Matchup: RHP Johnny Cueto (9-12, 3.47 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (3-8, 3.58 ERA)
Just over one month ago, Johnny Cueto threw a four-hit shutout against the Tigers. The win propelled the Royals to a 67-44 record and a 12-game lead in the AL Central. A 19-9 record in August pushed the Royals to a season-high 30 games over .500 at the beginning of September, but all is not well in Kansas City. In Cueto's last five starts, he has allowed 28 earned runs in 26 1/3 innings, a 9.57 ERA. This rough stretch is one thing for a young starter like Danny Duffy, who was recently sent to the bullpen, but Cueto's struggles are different. Panic-inducing, even.
Unlike previous rough patches, there does not seem to be a clear reason for Cueto's dip in production. His fastball velocity has not dropped, and he has a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His FIP is 6.15 during this stretch thanks to a pair of home run barrages from the Baltimore Orioles, but that 20.5 percent home-run-per-fly-ball ratio won't continue. In fact, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote a lot of excellent words to suggest that it's little more than bad BABIP luck. To wit: Cueto has a .417 BABIP in his last five starts.
That doesn't seem to be the whole story, though. Cueto did not look like his usual self in his last meeting with the Tigers, and you don't give up eight home runs in five starts because the BABIP gods think it's time to mess with you. Something is a bit off with Cueto, and while it's not showing up in the numbers or PitchFX data, it's definitely making itself known in his stat line.
Justin Verlander was dominant in the first four innings of his last start, allowing just one hit to the 13 Cleveland Indians batters he faced. Then, things fell apart, and Verlander allowed four runs in his next two frames. It was the second time in September he has given up four runs, and his third subpar (for him) start in a row. Verlander has a 4.12 ERA and 13:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in September, though he has only allowed one home run.
Tonight will be Verlander's fourth start in a row against a divisional opponent, and his seventh this season. He has struggled against the Royals so far, allowing nine runs (seven earned) in 13 2/3 innings across a pair of starts. Overall, he has a 3.89 ERA and a 26:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 1/3 innings against AL Central opponents this year, numbers that pale in comparison to the dominant figures he posted against division rivals -- the Royals, in particular -- a few years ago. By comparison, Verlander has a 3.39 ERA in 66 1/3 innings against non-AL Central opponents this year.
Hitter to fear: Salvador Perez (.488/.465/.805 in 43 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Mike Moustakas (.189/.204/.245 in 55 plate appearances)
Prior to one of Verlander's earlier meetings with the Royals, I touched on his recent numbers against a resurgent Kansas City offense. While they haven't hit him around this season like in the past couple years, they are getting to Verlander far more than during his heyday. The Royals are batting .309 and slugging .473 against him this year, led by Salvador Perez, who is 5-for-6 with three RBI. Kendrys Morales has been an equal-opportunity Tigers killer, batting .359 with a .388 on-base percentage against Detroit this season.
While Verlander has not been as sharp as usual lately, he has gotten little help from his offense. The Tigers have scored two runs in his past two starts, marking the sixth and seventh times since the All-Star break where they have scored two runs or fewer. He was trending in the right direction in his last start, with 14 swings and misses in 114 pitches, but seems to struggle with the whiff-averse Royals. I don't expect this to change in Verlander's third matchup with the Royals in the past two months.
Verlander gets into trouble in the middle innings as the baffling run support issues continue.