For the last few years, local and national pundits alike have bemoaned the decline of Justin Verlander. Save for a brief reprieve at the end of the 2015 season, the Detroit Tigers have not gotten anything close to the production they expected when they signed Verlander to a seven-year, $180 million contract extension prior to the 2013 season. A lot of the pessimism surrounding this Tigers team heading into the 2016 season centered around Verlander, who had a pedestrian (for him) 3.84 ERA in the previous three seasons.
Then Verlander got rocked, allowing seven runs on 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings against the Pirates in his last start. At least, that's what the box score says.
In reality, Verlander's results were worse than the process. His command in that outing wasn't particularly sharp, but he threw 17 of 23 first-pitch strikes and only walked two batters. Had another bounce or two gone his way, Verlander's outing could have gone much differently.
The matchup wasn't a great one for Verlander either. The Pirates, who own one of the highest contact percentages in baseball, fouled off a whopping 26 of Verlander's 111 pitches. Many of those pitches came when behind in the count, and a lot came outside of the strike zone. They only whiffed six times, resulting in just two strikeouts. As a team, they own the third-lowest strikeout rate in the majors.
Verlander will need to make an adjustment when facing teams of similar makeup in the future -- looking at you, Kansas City Royals -- but he gets a brief reprieve tonight against the swing-happy Astros.
Detroit Tigers (6-3) at Houston Astros (4-7)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (0-1, 8.71 ERA) vs. RHP Collin McHugh (1-1, 6.14 ERA)
Collin McHugh got off to a rough start -- and I mean rough start -- this season. He recorded one out in his first start of the year, allowing six runs (five earned) before being pulled from the game. Five months of waiting, seven batters faced, and a whopping 135.00 ERA to show for it.
Luckily for the Astros, McHugh bounced back in his next start. He held the defending champion Royals scoreless through seven innings, scattering eight hits and a walk while striking out four. The outing was a continuation of what we saw from McHugh last season; while his splits aren't as severe as Dallas Keuchel's, McHugh pitched much better in his 16 home starts.
McHugh's arsenal has been a work in progress throughout the course of his career, but he settled on a winning combination in 2015. He throws his four-seam fastball -- one with an above-average spin rate -- roughly one-third of the time, his cutter almost 40 percent of the time, and a big, breaking curveball just under 24 percent of the time. The curveball, in particular, is an interesting pitch because it helped him hold lefties to a .648 OPS in 2015. Meanwhile, righties fared much better, hitting .288/.336/.420 with 11 home runs.
Hitter to fear: Jose Altuve (.500/.500/.667 in 6 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Carlos Gomez (.071/.133/.143 in 15 plate appearances)
Verlander has faced the Astros five times in his career, and the results aren't pretty.
For Houston, that is.
The Tigers' ace owns a 1.62 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 33 1/3 innings against the Astros, with 37 strikeouts to nine walks. Sure, the Astros have been rather hapless throughout much of Verlander's career, but he threw seven shutout innings against them in 2015, a lineup that will be nearly identical to the one he faced in August. Their current roster is batting a dismal .162/.279/.243 against him, with only Jose Altuve (six plate appearances) and Carlos Correa (three plate appearances) getting on base at an above average clip.
If there were a start for Verlander to get back on track -- save for facing the hapless San Diego Padres right now -- this is it. The Astros are one of the worst teams in baseball at making contact, with a 12.8 swinging strike percentage. Their 45 percent O-contact percentage is the worst in baseball (the Pirates, meanwhile, are the best team in baseball in that category). While they are a rather selective bunch, the Astros also struggle at making contact within the strike zone, and own the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the game. McHugh could make life difficult for the Tigers offense, but he should have a tough time keeping pace with Verlander tonight.
Verlander bounces back and the Tigers get back in the win column.
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