In previous years, I would have spent this preview telling you about how the Tigers struggle with the Cleveland Indians in April. However, after a three-year stretch in which the Tigers are 37-19 against the Tribe -- that's a .661 winning percentage, by the way -- the DOOM approach is probably going to fall flat.
The 2016 Indians have gotten off to a slow start in multiple senses of the phrase. They had a pair of games postponed in their first series of the season, and already owe make-up games to the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. Then, after taking two of three on the road from the Tampa Bay Rays, they have dropped consecutive home series to the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. Their best player, outfielder Michael Brantley, has yet to play this season, but could make his 2016 debut on Sunday if his rehab assignment goes well.
If any Tigers pitcher is going to appreciate Brantley's absence, it's Justin Verlander. The Tigers' ace has struggled against Cleveland in recent years, including a 4.50 ERA in two starts last season. The couple years prior were even more rocky, and even his peak seasons contained moments of despair against the Tribe.
The combination of Verlander's past struggles against Cleveland and his current difficulties don't bode well for Friday's game. While Verlander has a pair of quality starts under his belt, he has not looked sharp in either of his past two starts, allowing 17 hits in 10 1/3 innings. Can he get back on track tonight against a familiar foe?
Cleveland Indians (6-7) at Detroit Tigers (8-6)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Josh Tomlin (1-0, 1.80 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-1, 7.16 ERA)
For the first five seasons of Josh Tomlin's career, he was not a very good pitcher. He allowed a 4.89 ERA and 4.44 FIP, gave up more than a hit per inning and 1.4 home runs per nine innings, and struck out 15 percent of the batters he faced. Fangraphs' version of WAR loved his solid strikeout-to-walk ratio (buoyed entirely by a low walk rate), but Baseball Reference had him pegged at 0.7 rWAR in nearly 450 innings. Not very good.
Something clicked in 2014, though. His results didn't show it -- he allowed a 4.76 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 104 innings -- but his strikeout rate jumped to 21.1 percent, a massive improvement over the four years prior. That improvement continued into 2015, when Tomlin struck out 57 batters and limited opponents to 47 hits in 65 2/3 innings. He posted a 3.02 ERA and 7.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10 starts, accumulating 1.9 rWAR.
Normally, this is the part where I tell you what sparked such a dramatic change. However, after scouring multiple websites looking for a dramatic shift in velocity or pitch usage or location or something substantial, I'm stumped.
I mean, Tomlin started throwing his four-seam fastball more in 2014 and 2015, and did better to keep it out of the middle of the strike zone. But opponents actually hit better against that pitch once he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2014. He stopped throwing his changeup, and opponents fared worse. His curveball doesn't break as sharply, and his cutter generates fewer ground balls.
I don't know. Maybe it's still a small sample issue. He has only totaled 174 2/3 innings since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2014, and his 4.02 ERA during that stretch is right around league average (101 ERA+). He is still allowing home runs in bunches, and his 2015 ERA was likely buoyed by some batted ball and situational luck (he held opponents to a .199 BABIP and stranded over 90 percent of runners). However, he continued to look sharp in his first start of 2016, holding the New York Mets to one run (a solo homer) on four hits in five innings before leaving with a hamstring injury.
The jump in strikeout rate is still baffling, though.
Hitter to fear: Carlos Santana (.208/.295/.566 in 61 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jason Kipnis (.095/.216/.119 in 51 plate appearances)
For as much as Verlander has struggled against the Indians in recent years, his numbers against the current roster (Brantley not included) aren't all that bad. Carlos Santana has six career homers off Verlander, but is just 11-for-53 overall. Jason Kipnis probably deserves a night off with Verlander on the mound, while newcomers Juan Uribe and Rajai Davis are also below the Mendoza line. Mike Napoli and Yan Gomes have both fared well in larger samples, but Gomes is off to a slow start in 2016, hitting .220/.233/.341.
Even after being shut out by the Royals on Thursday, the Tigers still own one of the more potent offenses in the American League, averaging 4.79 runs per game. They have hit as well off Tomlin as any club in baseball, batting an impressive .285/.330/.552 in 10 meetings (six starts). Tomlin's penchant for allowing fly balls in bunches could play well at spacious Comerica Park, unless the ball starts carrying or the Tigers get pull-happy. Tomlin tossed a complete game in Detroit last September, and could continue that success tonight if some of the Tigers' big bats don't break out of their current slumps.
The offense suffers a post-road-trip hangover and the Tigers drop their second in a row.
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