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Game 8 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Pittsburgh Pirates

The Tigers are looking to take three of four from Pittsburgh, but have to go through Gerrit Cole to do so.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

If you started to nod off during Jordan Zimmermann's debut performance with the Tigers last week, I don't blame you. Zimmermann is an infielder's dream for working quickly and inducing a lot of ground balls, but he can be a bit boring to those watching at home.

Wonderfully, blissfully boring.

The Tigers needed a heaping pile of boring after the 2015 season, when their rotation ranked among the worst in the American League in many statistical categories. Alfredo Simon led the team in wins and innings pitched, stats that Zimmermann racked up plenty of while pitching in Washington.

If we are to take anything away from Zimmermann's first start -- he threw seven shutout innings against the Yankees, in case you're living under a rock -- it's that he is continuing to ride the high fastball. He has been trending upward in the strike zone throughout his career, which some saw as a problem when his numbers tailed off in 2015. However, given the number of lazy fly balls he induced by working up in the zone last week, the Tigers should be in good shape.

Detroit Tigers (5-2) at Pittsburgh Pirates (5-4)

Time/Place: 12:35 p.m., PNC Park
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (0-1, 5.79 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 7.0 12.5 12.5 3.69 0.1
Cole 4.2 19.1 14.3 3.48 0.1

Gerrit Cole struggled in his first outing of the season, allowing three runs on five hits and three walks in just 4 2/3 innings. However, that outing came against the Cincinnati Reds, so we can all but strike it from the record. The Reds have had a mystifying hold over Cole in his young career, batting .309/.366/.490 in seven meetings. That .856 OPS is over 200 points higher than the .649 OPS all hitters have against Cole in 468 career innings. The Tigers, if you're wondering, hit 245/.288/.306 against him in a pair of matchups last season.

Instead, let's look at the bigger picture. Cole took a step forward in 2015, lowering his ERA to 2.60 and his FIP to 2.66. He topped the 200-inning mark for the first time and struck out 202 hitters, just shy of a batter per inning. He lowered his walk rate to just 5.3 percent, a very low rate for a hard-throwing pitcher as young (25) as he is.

While most young pitchers find more success by refining a secondary pitch, Cole went the opposite way. He relied more on his fastball and slider in 2015, and did more to get ahead of hitters early in the count. Prior to last year's NL Wild Card game, Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan pointed out a trend that Cole and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta shared.

The first time through the order, both Arrieta and Cole start almost everyone off with a heater. Though they both have two different fastballs, for Arrieta it’s mostly sinkers, and for Cole it’s mostly four-seamers. The general line of thinking is familiar to you — it’s evidence of both Arrieta and Cole trying to establish the fastball. That’s not an uncommon thing to hear, but these rates are unusually high.

You can click over to see the full breakdown, but Cole threw a first-pitch fastball 90 percent of the time when going through the order the first time, then backed off to a still-high 60 percent of the time after that. However, opponents still hit just .245 with a .354 slugging average off the fastball last season, so attacking early in the count isn't a sure bet for scoring runs.

Hitter to fear: David Freese (.429/.500/1.143 in 8 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Starling Marte (.000/.000/.000 in 3 plate appearances)

You would think that pitching in the National League for seven seasons would have afforded Jordan Zimmermann a handful of starts against the Pirates, but the two have faced one another just twice since Zimmermann debuted in 2009. Those two meetings did not go well for Zimmermann, who allowed four home runs -- two to Andrew McCutchen -- in 12 innings of work. A large part of the Pirates' lineup has never seen Zimmermann before, including likely starters Gregory Polanco, John Jaso, and Francisco Cervelli.

Outlook

The Tigers have scored at least four runs in every game this season, a streak that is going to end at some point. Facing Gerrit Cole seems like a fair bet that today will be that day, but the Tigers have handled hard-throwing pitchers like Jose Fernandez and Luis Severino surprisingly well this year. Of course, Fernandez also struck out 13, but he is one of the most electric pitchers in baseball.

While Cole specializes in getting ahead in the count, staying patient and trying to drive up his pitch count is probably the best way to attack him. Opponents who watched his first pitch last season fared better than those who swung, and Cole held opponents to a .665 OPS on the first pitch of an at-bat. If the Tigers can force an early exit, they can then feast on a fatigued Pirates bullpen.

Prediction

Cole out-duels Zimmermann and the Pirates split the series.

★★★

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