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Game 5 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates at Detroit Tigers

Justin Verlander gets his second shot at his second start of the season, this time against Jon Niese and the Pirates.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

Sunday's postponement against the New York Yankees was a disappointment for baseball-starved fans throughout the state of Michigan, but Mother Nature may have done the Tigers a favor. Not only did they get a day off, breaking up a stretch of 10 consecutive games in April, but it also allows them to juggle their rotation, potentially giving them an advantage heading into the next week.

For instance, Justin Verlander will start on Monday against the Pirates, pushing fifth starter Shane Greene back to Wednesday at PNC Park. This gives the Pirates a look at Verlander, who otherwise would have missed him in the four-game series. Meanwhile, Greene and Mike Pelfrey are pushed back slightly, reducing their overall workload.

It may not mean much in the grand scheme of things -- they still have to play 162 games, after all -- but it allows the Tigers to tweak their starting rotation to their liking as they continue pushing through a grueling April schedule.

Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2) at Detroit Tigers (3-1)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Jon Niese (0-0, 7.20 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (0-0, 4.50 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Niese 5.0 30.4 4.4 4.35 0.0
Verlander 6.0 21.7 8.7 4.85 0.1

Those who paid attention to Jon Niese's career with the New York Mets may feel like he is on his last legs as a major league starter. He has been around the majors for eight seasons already, logging over 1,000 career innings. However, Niese is still only 29 years old, with a pair of team options hanging onto the back end of a five-year, $25 million contract he signed with the Mets in 2012. So, when the Pirates saw an opportunity to trade an expiring contract for a solid pitcher making $10 million per year this offseason, they jumped at it.

Niese has stayed remarkably steady throughout his career, making at least 24 starts in each of the past six seasons. He has never topped the 200-inning barrier, coming as close as 190 1/3 innings in 2012. His ERAs have ranged from 3.40 (2012) to 4.40 (2011) in this stretch, with a 1.35 WHIP and 2.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With a career ERA- of 106 and a FIP- of 100, he is the epitome of a league average starting pitcher.

That is, until Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage sinks his teeth into him. It may be a one-start blip, but Niese has already made a distinct change to his repertoire, throwing 27 cutters in an April 5 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Niese had used the cutter in the past, throwing it roughly 22 percent of the time over the course of his career. However, his 33 percent usage rate coupled with the high ground ball percentage it generates -- a Searage staple -- we could see a different kind of pitcher in 2016. Niese also upped his four-seam fastball usage in that start against St. Louis, and all but eliminated his changeup.

Hitter to fear: Matt Joyce (.353/.421/.765 in 19 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Andrew McCutchen (.200/.350/.333 in 20 plate appearances)

Justin Verlander has faced the Pirates six times in his career, winning four games. We all remember his near-perfect game in 2012, when Tigers fans heard about Josh Harrison long before his All-Star appearance in 2014. That remains one of two hits for Harrison against Verlander in 10 plate appearances.

Harrison's low batting average is a consistent theme for this Pirates lineup, who have hit just .196/.283/.312 in 161 plate appearances against Verlander. The current roster has fared much better largely thanks to former Tigers outfielder Matt Joyce, who has six hits (including a double and two home runs) in 17 at-bats.


One of the consistent themes we will see throughout this 2016 season is how left-handed pitchers attack this righty-heavy Tigers lineup. Wei-Yin Chen relied heavily on his four-seam fastball and his slider, but did not fare well. Meanwhile, CC Sabathia was able to suffocate the Tigers on Saturday with a barrage of cutters. This helped him cut the strike zone in half, avoiding the middle of the plate while inducing a lot of weak contact. If his first start is any indication, Niese will look to replicate that formula today; it's up to the Tigers to make the adjustment.


Verlander and the Tigers get back into the win column.