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Game 160 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves

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Jordan Zimmermann makes his third attempt at a return from a lingering injury.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While every game is important this time of year, Friday night was especially big for the Detroit Tigers. Between their win and Toronto’s loss in Boston, the Tigers are now just a half game back in the AL Wild Card race. They are tied in the loss column with Toronto, who have two games remaining against the Red Sox. This is huge, because it means the Tigers can now control their own playoff destiny. If they win their next three games (including a potential Monday afternoon tilt with the Cleveland Indians), the worst the Tigers can do is force a tiebreaker in Toronto on Tuesday.

We can dream up different scenarios for this weekend’s games all day, but the most important part of this equation is that the Tigers keep winning. This means relying on Jordan Zimmermann, who hasn’t been a trustworthy arm since May. Sure, there were a couple of months spent on the disabled list during that stretch, but Zimmermann has an 8.41 ERA in 40 23 innings pitched since the start of June. He has just 24 strikeouts during that stretch, and has allowed opponents to hit .341/.382/.641.

No matter how you slice the above numbers, they’re bad. Zimmermann’s previous attempts at a return from the lat injury that has plagued him for the past two months have gone horribly — he recorded a combined eight outs in those two starts — and there is no guarantee that Saturday will be different.

It’s worth noting that Zimmermann looked much better in a relief outing on September 25. In three low-leverage innings against the Royals Zimmermann allowed a run on four hits with four strikeouts. Can he carry that momentum into this weekend’s start against the Braves?

Detroit Tigers (86-73) at Atlanta Braves (66-93)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Turner Field
SB Nation blog: Talking Chop
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (9-6, 4.88 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Blair (1-7, 8.02 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 101.1 14.8 5.3 4.29 1.4
Blair 64.0 12.0 11.0 6.49 -0.8

For all the worrying about Jordan Zimmermann’s recent struggles, Braves starter Aaron Blair has been just as bad. He owns an 8.02 ERA this season, and his 6.49 FIP in 64 major league innings isn’t much better. His strikeout, walk, and home run rates have all been brutal, resulting in him rating nearly a full win below replacement level according to FanGraphs (Baseball Reference has him at a whopping -1.7 WAR). Couple that with a 4.65 ERA in 13 starts at Triple-A Gwinnett, and it has been a year to forget for Blair.

Not many people saw these numbers coming, though. The 24-year-old righthander was a supplemental round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013, and his advanced arsenal helped him blaze through the minor leagues. He pitched at three different levels in 2014, including Double-A, where he posted a 1.94 ERA and 3.49 FIP in 46 13 innings. He didn’t put up the same strikeout totals in 2015, but did enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A, where he allowed a 3.16 ERA in 77 innings in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

This is around when Blair started earning some legitimate prospect hype. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both had him ranked inside their top 50 prior to the 2015 season, and BP left him in the exact same position (No. 43 overall) prior to 2016. He was part of the controversial offseason deal that sent Shelby Miller to Arizona (and brought Dansby Swanson east), which only brought more fanfare. Talking Chop had this to say about Blair shortly after he was acquired.

Blair doesn't necessarily have the greatest pure stuff in the world, but has more than enough to be consider a legitimately good prospect. The low to mid 90's velocity on his fastball comes with ease, and he gets good arm side run on the pitch. In fact he has shown good movement on all of his pitches in the time I have spent watching old games of his. He controls the pitch well and has taken steps forward with commanding the pitches to both corners of the plate, though he still needs to develop some consistency.

While his ceiling is that of a mid-rotation starter, Blair may not get many chances to reach that level. He is one of a gazillion young pitchers in the Braves’ system right now angling for a spot in their rotation in 2017 and beyond, and he lacks the raw stuff of many of his peers. He has shown some faith in his offspeed pitches — a good sign for a pitcher without an overpowering fastball — but the results just aren’t there yet.

Hitter to fear: Freddie Freeman (.360/.484/.480 in 31 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jace Peterson (.278/.316/.278 in 19 plate appearances)

For a team with so many young players on its roster, the Braves have several hitters who are familiar with Zimmermann. Both Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman have over 30 career plate appearances against Zimm, while sparsely used utility man Emilio Bonifacio has 23. Jace Peterson and Matt Kemp have 19 and 17, respectively. While pitcher-batters matchups normally don’t mean much, Freeman’s sustained success and Matt Kemp’s power surge (he’s slugging .813 off Zimmermann) aren’t the best indicators for how the former Washington National will fare. The good news? Zimmermann has a career 2.06 ERA in five starts at Turner Field.

Outlook

The Braves have been one of the most prolific offenses in the National League since the All-Star break, but they have not boasted much power along the way. Friday’s two-homer outburst aside, they are 12th in the NL in home runs and 10th in isolated power (ISO) in the second half. Most of their success has come via stringing hits together (they’re second in batting average) and drawing walks (fourth). Zimmermann may not be at his sharpest, but limiting walks and home runs will go a long way in giving his team a chance to win. There’s a skill in forcing teams to string together multiple hits to beat you, and Zimmermann has a long history of being that pitcher. If he can regain some of that form on Saturday, the Tigers should be in business.

Prediction

The Tigers get to Blair in the middle innings to erase an early deficit for the win.

★★★

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