The Detroit Tigers caught a big break on Tuesday, when the Pittsburgh Pirates announced that lefthander Francisco Liriano, their Opening Day starter and one of the toughest pitchers in baseball, would miss his scheduled start on Wednesday.
The Tigers have handled Liriano well throughout his career, but many of those crooked numbers came in Liriano's early years with the Minnesota Twins. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, Liriano has a 2.63 ERA and 2.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in four starts against Detroit. His 1-3 record is largely due to a lack of offense -- Alfredo Simon threw eight shutout innings opposite Liriano in 2015, for instance -- or some untimely calls to the bullpen.
Liriano's scratch is especially fortunate given the matchup. Tigers starter Shane Greene looked solid in his lone regular season appearance, setting the Miami Marlins down in order for his first career save, but his 6.88 ERA from 2015 still looms in the rearview mirror. Greene is still working his way back from offseason surgery, and is now also sitting on a full week's rest after his relief appearance. He looked great in spring training, striking out 23 batters to just four walks in 19 1/3 innings, but the Pirates' pesky lineup will present a much bigger challenge.
Detroit Tigers (4-2) at Pittsburgh Pirates (5-3)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., PNC Park
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Shane Greene (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Ryan Vogelsong (1-0, 4.50 ERA)
Ryan Vogelsong has had a baseball career fit for a movie. Originally drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the fifth round of the 1998 amateur draft, Vogelsong made his major league debut in 2000. He missed the 2002 season after having Tommy John surgery in September 2001, but posted a 5.86 ERA and 4.91 FIP in 315 major league innings from 2000 to 2006. His poor results forced him to Japan, where he put up decent numbers with the Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes. He returned to the states in 2010, where he struggled in the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Pacific Coast League.
That should have been it for his career. Instead, Vogelsong signed with the Giants and posted a 2.71 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 179 2/3 innings. He made his lone career All-Star appearance, and received some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes. The miraculous comeback continued in 2012, when he was 14-9 with a 3.37 ERA for the eventual World Series champions.
Things have fallen off in the past few years, though. Vogelsong is 22-30 with a 4.63 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 425 1/3 innings since the start of 2013, including a two-inning appearance with the Pirates this season. He has struggled with his command at times, posting a modest 2.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that span. He walked six batters to just four strikeouts in 14 2/3 spring training innings this year, pushing him to the bullpen after Juan Nicasio's breakout.
One of the more interesting notes about Vogelsong is that his average velocity has not declined as he has aged. He isn't able to ramp his fastball up to the 95 mile-per-hour range anymore, but he still consistently sits around 91-92 miles per hour with a high-80s cutter.
Of course, Vogelsong was already 33 when he returned to the majors, so there is no PitchFX data for his fastball velocity during his 20s.
Tigers hitter to fear: Justin Upton (.321/.394/.500 in 33 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Miguel Cabrera (.250/.333/.250 in 9 plate appearances)
Having spent his entire career in the National League, the Tigers have not seen much of Vogelsong. Justin Upton has had plenty of success against the 38-year-old righthander, hitting .321 with decent power in 33 plate appearances. He has never faced a fair number of likely Tigers starters, including Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, and Anthony Gose.
Shane Greene, on the other hand, had no trouble with the Pirates in their lone matchup last season. Greene faced Pittsburgh on April 14, and threw eight shutout innings while allowing just three hits.
While the Tigers' righty-heavy lineup typically handles left-handed pitching very well, missing out on Liriano is a huge break. Vogelsong posted some significant platoon splits in 2015, but righties still hit .251 with a modest .325 on-base percentage. He also fits in the same velocity band as Jon Niese and CC Sabathia, pitchers that have given the Tigers some trouble early on in 2016. If he can establish the inner half of the plate -- something Niese and Sabathia seemed to do well -- the Tigers could have some trouble. His recent command troubles suggest otherwise, however.
The Tigers take advantage of Liriano's absence and win their second in a row.
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