A lot has been made of the Tigers starters and their inability to work deep into games so far this season. While some are throwing a bit of shade at Justin Verlander -- a dominant seven-inning performance on Friday sure helped -- the starter really being subtweeted here is Anibal Sanchez.
Once a true "third ace" on this Tigers staff, Sanchez has yet to work six innings in a start this season. He was limited to just five frames in his last start, with the pesky Houston Astros driving his pitch count up to triple digits. While Sanchez struck out eight, his command still hasn't been very sharp this year. He has walked eight hitters in 15 2/3 innings, an 11.6 percent walk rate that would be his highest since 2009. Sanchez also leads the league with three wild pitches.
The good news is that Sanchez's raw stuff looks sharper than in years past. He has a 10.5 percent swinging strike rate through three starts, his highest since 2013. Opponents are only swinging at 18 percent of pitches Sanchez throws outside the strike zone (an unsustainably low rate), yet his strikeout rate is still up from the past two years.
Most important of all is Sanchez's Z-contact percentage, or the percentage of pitches within the strike zone that opponents make contact with. Last season, Sanchez's Z-contact percentage was 85.7 percent. In 2014, it was 86.6 percent. This season, opponents are making contact with 82.9 percent of pitches within the strike zone, a modest improvement that is nearly identical to his 2013 rate.
Still, longevity is an issue. The Indians worked Verlander's pitch count nicely on Friday, and could do the same to Sanchez if his fastball command doesn't improve.
Cleveland Indians (7-7) at Detroit Tigers (8-7)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Corey Kluber (0-3, 6.16 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (2-1, 4.60 ERA)
For the third year in a row, Corey Kluber is off to a slow April start. He was tagged for four runs on nine hits on Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox, then suffered a 6-0 loss to the New York Mets after a quality start against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 12. The final count: three losses and a 6.16 ERA.
Of course, there's no reason for Tribe fans to be worried about Kluber at this point. He posted a 4.24 ERA in April 2015, but finished the season nearly a full run below that. The 2014 season was a similar story, with a 4.14 ERA in his first six starts. Kluber finished that season nearly two full runs below his April ERA, and won the AL Cy Young Award. It should also help that Kluber has a 3.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3.35 FIP through his first three starts. He's going to be fine. The only question is when Kluber will return to form. His past couple years have looked rather Verlander-ish, with Kluber not really finding his groove until May.
Then there are his numbers against the Tigers, which look rather unimpressive at first glance. Kluber has a 2-6 record and 4.72 ERA in 13 outings (12 starts) against Detroit. Tigers hitters are batting .301/.347/.490 against him. However, Kluber has limited the Tigers to three runs or fewer in five of their last six meetings dating back to his 2014 Cy Young season. He has 38 strikeouts to eight walks against them in that time frame. However, thanks to bullpen mishaps and a lack of run support, the Tribe are just 2-4 in those games.
Long story short: you should still be afraid of Corey Kluber.
Hitter to fear: Mike Napoli (.444/.583/1.222 in 12 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jason Kipnis (.136/.167/.182 in 24 plate appearances)
I don't often put stock into pitcher-batter matchups -- I only write this section because people seem to enjoy it -- but a dose of Corey Kluber might be what the doctor ordered for Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers' slugger is batting .571/.595/1.057 with five home runs in 37 plate appearances against Kluber, good enough for an unfathomable 1.652 OPS. The slumping Victor Martinez also has great numbers against Kluber, and J.D. Martinez has joined the party in a smaller sample. If the Tigers' big bats are going to wake up soon, this game might be their alarm clock.
A couple years ago, this matchup would have been must-see TV. Sanchez was coming off an American League ERA title and still looking sharp, while Kluber was just entering his Cy Young form. The Indians' ace is still that caliber of pitcher, but Sanchez is trying to prove that he can still hang with the best starters in the game. He has faced three of the more patient offenses in the game in his first three starts -- the Astros and Pirates rank among the best teams in MLB in pitches seen per plate appearance -- so a longer starter may be in the cards today.
Cabrera and Victor Martinez perk up but the Tigers lose their third in a row.
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