Exhale. After the Tigers' narrow win over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday evening, that's about all you could do. Francisco Rodriguez recorded a pair of outs, allowed a pair of home runs, and generally made us pine for the low-stress days of Jose Valverde before locking down a 3-2 win.
Deep exhaling is about all Tigers fans could do in Mike Pelfrey's last start as well. The fanbase's newest scapegoat allowed a whopping 11 baserunners in six innings, including a career-high six walks. However, he was able to dance out of trouble time and again, and limited the Houston Astros to just one run. Unfortunately for Pelfrey, all that tiptoeing was for naught, as Dallas Keuchel mowed down the Tigers lineup for a 1-0 Astros victory.
There are positives to take from this outing, though. Pelfrey induced 12 ground balls to just five fly balls, upping his ground ball rate to 59.4 percent on the year. This rate is probably unsustainable, but it's what the Tigers signed up for when they inked Pelfrey to that two-year deal. He was the only Tigers starter to hold the Astros without a home run, which is no small feat at Minute Maid Park.
This game may be different, though. Pelfrey's ground ball tendencies theoretically play right into the Royals' contact-happy lineup, giving them ample chances to cause all sorts of havoc when the ball is put into play. Hits are going to happen, but how the Tigers limit Kansas City's speed -- both in stolen base attempts and by taking extra bases -- will determine today's matchup.
Detroit Tigers (8-5) at Kansas City Royals (9-5)
Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports 1, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-2, 2.79 ERA) vs. RHP Edinson Volquez (2-0, 2.04 ERA)
Like Wednesday starter Ian Kennedy, Edinson Volquez has gotten off to a roaring start in 2016. The Royals have won all three of his starts, and he has limited the opposition to just four runs in 17 2/3 innings. He is currently sporting a strikeout rate on par with his career-best years with the Cincinnati Reds, but that is largely due to an outing against a Minnesota Twins clubs that was in a deep funk to start the season. Like Kennedy on Wednesday, Volquez's strikeout rate and swinging strike rates will drop off as the season progresses.
Where Volquez zags from his colleague is when the ball is put into play. Kennedy has built his reputation as an extreme fly ball pitcher, while Volquez trends towards a higher ground ball rate. His batted ball rates have varied over the past few years, but Volquez has always been at his best when his ground ball rate hovers at or above the 50 percent mark. This season, his ground ball rate sits at 52.1 percent through three starts, his highest since 2011.
Other than an early uptick in ground balls, Volquez's profile is a little boring. He throws his two-seam fastball approximately 50 percent of the time, mixes in a curveball and changeup to both right- and left-handed hitters, and does his best to pound the lower half of the strike zone.
Beating Volquez depends almost entirely on location. He gets into trouble when he leaves his fastball up in the strike zone, which happens more than his numbers would suggest. His command isn't excellent -- he already has two starts with at least three walks this year -- and he really struggles when working through a lineup multiple times. If the Tigers can elevate his pitch count early, they can do some damage, either against him or the less frightening half of the Royals' bullpen.
Hitter to fear: Omar Infante (.415/.467/.463 in 45 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Kendrys Morales (.200/.200/.500 in 10 plate appearances)
Well, this isn't good. Eight Royals players have at least 10 career plate appearances against Pelfrey. Seven of them are hitting .333 or better, with five above the .900 OPS plateau. The worst part? These aren't bench players. Pelfrey has struggled against Lorenzo Cain (1.205 OPS), Mike Moustakas (1.050), Eric Hosmer (1.071), Alex Gordon (.938), and Omar Infante (.930), and has allowed a home run to Kendrys Morales. Overall, the current Royals roster is batting .338/.401/.430 against him, and that includes a combined 0-for-10 performance from four Royals pitchers.
So, naturally, Pelfrey held the Royals to a 2.20 ERA in three starts last season.
If you ignore that hellish ninth inning from Wednesday, the Tigers are now 4-3 on their eight-game road trip, all against teams that were in the playoffs last season. They have already clinched a .500 record on this trip, and a win today would see them manage one of the roughest stretches of their entire season with a winning record.
However, the Tigers are once again at a huge disadvantage on the mound. Pelfrey is once again lined up against the opposition's No. 1 starter, and the Royals have some stellar career numbers against him. The Tigers hit Volquez around last season, but he otherwise had excellent numbers with runners on base. The Tigers need to find some gaps if they are going to score -- they can't go station-to-station against him -- which is easier said than done against this Royals club.
Volquez gives the Royals five solid innings and the bullpen does the rest for a Kansas City win.
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