We have focused a lot on the Tigers' offense early on this season. Given the circumstances -- there are a few new players, and the offense has been performing well -- it makes sense. However, Tuesday's series opener against the Royals highlighted what could be a major weakness for this 2016 Tigers team: starting pitching.
So far, the only starter immune to whatever ails this rotation has been Jordan Zimmermann. The Tigers' $110 million man has been worth the money so far, throwing a pair of scoreless outings to begin his career in the American League. Zimmermann will inevitably allow a run, but his steady presence on the mound and relatively efficient workload -- he's the only Tigers pitcher averaging more than six innings per start right now -- has been a major boost for a club relying almost entirely on its offense right now.
Zimmermann's peripherals aren't pretty, but it's far too early to be concerned. His walk rate has hovered right around five percent over the past five years; this season, he's at 9.8 percent. His strikeout rate has never been stellar, but should rise relative to its current 13.7 percent clip. He will allow a home run eventually, but has generally been able to prevent them at an above average rate.
Pretty or not, the Tigers need a strong outing out of Zimmermann tonight. A win would guarantee them a .500 record on their eight-game road trip, and set them up for a potential series victory on Thursday.
Detroit Tigers (7-5) at Kansas City Royals (9-4)
Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (2-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Ian Kennedy (2-0, 0.66 ERA)
I made fun of the Royals when they signed Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract over the offseason. Kennedy was coming off four consecutive seasons with a sub-100 ERA+ (meaning he was a below average pitcher) and had a qualifying offer attached to his name. While he has gotten off to a hot start -- and has an opt out clause following the 2017 season -- it's hard to see that contract ending well.
That said, Kennedy has been really good to open the 2016 season. He dominated the Twins and Astros in his first two starts, striking out a combined 14 hitters while only allowing a solo home run off the bat of the suddenly powerful Jose Altuve. Kennedy has always maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the newfound stinginess in his game is a welcome sight for Royals fans.
Is it sustainable? Probably not. Even if Kennedy, a fly ball pitcher by nature, maintains his 54.8 percent fly ball rate, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will rise. Zero of the 17 fly balls he has allowed this season have landed in play, with only Altuve's home run clearing the fence. Kauffman Stadium should help suppress some of Kennedy's former home run difficulties, but natural regression elsewhere will bring his numbers back to earth.
The question, then, is whether that regression comes tonight. The Tigers have good career numbers against Kennedy, though four of the 17 hits the current roster has accumulated against him are from pitchers who faced him in National League parks. The Tigers have fared well against fly ball pitchers on the young season, hitting .308/.365/.526 as a team. While those numbers will regress as we move through the season, they were slightly better against fly ball pitchers in 2015 as well.
Hitter to fear: Kendrys Morales (.667/.667/.667 in 3 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Omar Infante (.167/.167/.471 in 18 plate appearances)
Zimmermann doesn't have much experience with the Royals after pitching in the National League for nine seasons. In fact, other than Omar Infante, the Royals player with the most career plate appearances against Kennedy is starter Chris Young, who has a double in six at-bats. Likewise, starter Ian Kennedy has the highest career OPS (1.667) against Zimmermann of any Royal thanks to a pair of hits in three at-bats.
Kennedy has a similar dearth of experience against the Tigers, but the small samples favor the hitters. Former teammate Justin Upton has three hits (including a homer) in eight at-bats. Miguel Cabrera is 3-for-7 with a pair of extra base hits. Ian Kinsler is a torrid 5-for-7 with three doubles. Even Justin Verlander got in on the act a couple years ago, notching a pair of hits in three at-bats.
If current trends hold, Wednesday's game could feature a lot of lazy fly ball outs. Both Zimmermann and Kennedy have induced career-high fly ball rates so far this season, and the respective outfielders are rangy enough to make plays on anything with a bit of loft to it. Kennedy deserves the edge on paper due to his stronger early season peripherals, but a Tigers club with one of the better contact rates in baseball should lower his gaudy strikeout rate some. Meanwhile, Zimmermann has been better at suppressing home runs throughout his career, which could prove to be the difference if the ball starts carrying.
The Tigers win in Royals-type fashion, with a couple of clutch hits and a solid bullpen performance.
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