Detroit Tigers (61-70) at Kansas City Royals (80-51)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Pitching Matchup: LHP Randy Wolf (0-2, 2.57 ERA) vs. RHP Yordano Ventura (9-7, 4.41 ERA)
Yordano Ventura has had a bit of an up-and-down sophomore season in the big leagues, but there have been nothing but ups lately. Ventura apparently figured something out after he was rocked for six runs on eight hits by the Tigers on August 6. He came back five days later to hold the Tigers scoreless for six innings, striking out eight (though he allowed six walks). The command has gotten better in his last three starts, as he has allowed a 1.42 ERA with 24 strikeouts to six walks in 19 innings. The Royals have won all four games, and Ventura's ERA has dropped by half a run.
The uptick in strikeouts is important. Ventura throws hard -- his four-seam fastball averages 96.7 miles per hour -- but he was humming along at a below-average 18.6 percent strikeout rate prior to this recent surge. After racking up 32 punchouts in his last four starts, Ventura's season-long strikeout rate has risen to 21.2 percent, above the league average of 19.9 percent.
Ventura has made a couple of small changes recently, but there's no telling whether these differences are significant enough to affect his on-field results. First, he has started throwing his curveball and cutter more, dropping his fastball usage from 60 percent to 53 percent. The curveball has generated a whiff rate close to 20 percent this season, while the cutter has a high ground ball rate. Additionally, Ventura's fastball has clocked in at three of his highest average velocities of the season in his last few starts. His release point may be a factor, though with four walks in his last start, there are still some inconsistencies to iron out.
He hasn't made enough of an impact to be considered a revelation -- it's too late in the season and this pitching staff is far too awful -- but Randy Wolf has certainly been a breath of fresh air through two starts. The 39-year-old lefty followed up a gutty debut with a stellar performance against the Angels six days ago, allowing one run in seven innings. Through two starts, Wolf now has a 2.13 FIP, the best of any Tigers pitcher who has faced more than one batter this season (sorry, Joe Nathan). Wolf's 3.57 xFIP is topped by only David Price and Bruce Rondon (and Nathan), and his 0.5 fWAR trails only five of the 27 pitchers the Tigers have used this season. It probably won't continue, and Wolf definitely won't be back in 2016, but it's a fun story line to follow as we finish out the season.
Hitter to fear: Jonny Gomes (.522/.577/.826 in 26 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Omar Infante (.286/.286/.286 in 7 plate appearances)
This is your reminder that Jonny Gomes, in pursuit of World Series rings, Presidential photo ops, and Octavio Dotel's jersey collection, now plays for the Royals. The lefty masher is a strong candidate to appear in tonight's lineup, marking his first appearance in Kansas City. He has a career .861 OPS against southpaws, and has 12 hits in 23 at-bats against Wolf. The only other Royals hitter to face Wolf more than three times is Omar Infante, who has a pair of singles in seven at-bats.
The Royals rank ninth in baseball with a .316 weighted on-base average (wOBA), but their numbers fade slightly against left-handed pitching. They are batting .266/.315/.388 as a team against lefties, good enough for a .307 wOBA that ranks 19th in the major leagues. The biggest issue has been their right-handed bats, who have a paltry .299 wOBA against left-handed pitching this season. Adding Gomes (.374 wOBA and Ben Zobrist (.393) helps, and the Royals' lefties have carried their own weight. Their high contact rate should bode well against the soft-tossing Wolf, though his varied arsenal could keep the fastball-feasting Royals off balance.
The Royals get to Wolf early and even the series.
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