The Detroit Tigers have downplayed the importance of this week's series against the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians, and for good reason. The Tigers posted one of the best intradivisional records in baseball last season, including an 11-7 mark against the Tribe, but struggled against the rest of baseball in their freefall to last place.
However, you can almost feel them lying through their teeth as you read their quotes on your screen. The Tigers know the importance of winning games within the division, as its how they built the foundation of their four consecutive division titles from 2011 to 2014. Each season, the Tigers posted an excellent intradivisional record, with a penchant for keeping the second place team in check. To wit:
2014: 13-6 vs. Kansas City
2013: 15-4 vs. Cleveland
2012: 12-6 vs. Chicago
2011: 12-6 vs. Cleveland
If the Tigers are to climb back into the hunt in 2016, it will be thanks to a solid record against their divisional opponents.
First on that list are the Royals, who come into Tuesday's matchup as hot as they ended the 2015 season. Kansas City has built their 8-4 record on the back of their pitching staff, which has held opponents to fewer than three runs per game on the young season. Their rotation has been solid, with four starters under the 2.50 ERA mark, while their bullpen is slightly higher at 2.56.
Detroit Tigers (7-4) at Kansas City Royals (8-4)
Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Shane Greene (1-0, 2.57 ERA) vs. RHP Yordano Ventura (0-0, 2.45 ERA)
Fun fact: Yordano Ventura was demoted to the minor leagues last season. You may have missed it, because Ventura was in the minors for less than 24 hours before being recalled, but the brief demotion seemed to do the trick. After his quick down-and-back to Triple-A Omaha, Ventura went 9-1 with a 3.10 ERA and 2.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 14 starts of the season, including three outings with double-digit strikeouts.
Or did it?
Our friends at Royals Review looked beyond the feelingsball when Ventura was demoted, noting that he had FIP and xFIP figures nearly two runs lower than his 5.19 ERA at the time. They noted that Ventura was probably getting unlucky on balls in play, something that doesn't often happen with this Royals defense behind him.
Ventura's BABIP this year is .321. His career BABIP is .294 (which of course includes this years BABIP). That's good for 15th worst in the major leagues (min. 70 IP). We know that pitchers have basically no control over what happens after the ball leaves their hand, and Ventura has been the subject of some bad luck here.
Ventura's BABIP and FIP are nearly equal to JA Happ and Brett Anderson but Happ's ERA is 4.12 (1.7 runs lower) and 3.17 (2.2 runs lower). Would we be having this discussion if Ventura's ERA was 4.12? How about if it was 3.17?
From July 26 to the end of the year, Ventura's 3.10 ERA was much closer to his 3.40 FIP, while his BABIP dropped to .294.
Perhaps more frightening for other teams than the lower ERA is Ventura's strikeout rate, which finally eclipsed the batter-per-inning threshold in those final 14 starts of the season. Ventura possesses one of the most electric fastballs in baseball, capable of hitting triple digits on the radar gun at any point in the game. He started throwing his curveball more down the stretch, but especially against lefthanders. Lefties hit just .161 against the curve down the stretch, and .175 with a .240 slugging average on the season.
Hitter to fear: Eric Hosmer (.400/.400/.400 in 5 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Omar Infante (.000/.000/.000 in 6 plate appearances)
Shane Greene was able to keep the Royals in check in a mid-May start last season, allowing just one run on four hits in eight strong innings. That outing was an oasis amid a sea of struggles, as he otherwise posted a 5.83 ERA that month. In two career outings against Kansas City, Greene has held the Royals to a .191 batting average with zero home runs in 50 plate appearances.
No matter how you slice it, the Tigers offense is facing an uphill battle tonight. Ventura is one of the nastiest young arms in the majors, and is 4-0 with a 3.86 ERA in five career starts against the Tigers. The Tigers have struggled against ground ball pitchers this year, and Ventura is coming off a 52.2 percent ground ball rate in 2015. Ventura has also been good at suppressing home runs in his career, with just 11 dingers allowed in 32 career home starts. Greene will need to keep the Tigers close in the early innings, but Ventura and the Royals bullpen may be too much to handle tonight.
Greene comes back to earth and the bullpen suffers its Kurt jinx in a loss.
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