A couple years ago, the Tigers and A's were the class of the American League. The teams faced off in the ALDS in consecutive seasons, with both series hotly contested for all five games. In 2014, a trade deadline arms race had fans ready to pencil the two clubs into an ALCS showdown, with the winner likely to roll their way to a World Series title.
As baseball would have it, that pipe dream didn't pan out. The Tigers were swept out of the ALDS, while the A's were nearly bounced from the postseason entirely before blowing a four-run lead in the AL Wild Card game. Both teams slinked to last place finishes in 2015, with the A's posting a league-worst 68-94 record.
The Tigers are currently working through their own issues, but the A's have gotten off to a somewhat surprising, if streaky, start. They swept the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium and won a home series against the defending champion Kansas City Royals, but were also swept at home by the Los Angeles Angels. A weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays turned their run differential upside down, but this team should have the pitching to give anyone fits in a three or four-game series.
The Tigers are hoping that timing works in their favor for this four-game set. The A's are finishing up a 10-game East coast road trip this week, and their starters only worked a combined 9 2/3 innings in the past two days against Toronto. If the Tigers get to the pen early on Monday, it could be a long week for Billy Beane's club.
Oakland Athletics (10-9) at Detroit Tigers (8-9)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kendall Graveman (1-1, 2.04 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-0, 0.00 ERA)
Kendall Graveman reminds me of Shane Greene, in that both are young starters who rely heavily on a two-seam/cutter combination to attack opposing hitters. Graveman doesn't have Greene's "stupid electric stuff" -- his fastball sat around 93 miles per hour during his last start, but his cutter only sits in the 87-88 mile per hour range -- nor his eclectic hair style. Both pitchers induce a high ground ball rate, with Graveman's 64.6 percent rate among the highest in all of baseball.
Like Greene, Graveman works almost exclusively at the bottom of the strike zone. He threw his two-seamer, a pitch with heavy arm-side run, over 50 percent of the time last season, but has tailed that back to about 40 percent this year. In its place, Graveman has been throwing his cutter more, especially when ahead in the count. Opponents hit .224 against the cutter last season compared to .305 against the two seamer, though the cutter did result in eight home runs allowed. Graveman has also been throwing his curveball more this season, a low-80s offering that often works as a "get me over" pitch early in the count.
As one of the players acquired in the Josh Donaldson trade, the A's are counting on Graveman to be a productive player for the next several seasons. His overall numbers in 2015 weren't great, but he rebounded from an early demotion to the minors to post a 3.35 ERA and 2.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 17 starts of the season. He has the potential to be dominant for stretches, as his June numbers -- a 1.93 ERA and 2.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts -- attest. He has looked strong thus far this season, and is coming off an eight-strikeout performance at Yankee Stadium last Wednesday.
Hitter to fear: Yonder Alonso (.300/.300/.700 in 10 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Chris Coghlan (.273/.261/.318 in 23 plate appearances)
Jordan Zimmermann has never faced the A's, but their revolving door of a roster has still seen a fair helping of action against the Tigers' hottest starter. Veteran Chris Coghlan is a respectable 6-for-22, but has six strikeouts and zero walks. Yonder Alonso is the only A's hitter to homer off Zimmermann, while new slugger Khris Davis is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts.
The Tigers offense is struggling as a whole right now, but their numbers against ground ball pitchers like Graveman are even worse than you might expect. Luckily, Graveman was not all that though on righthanders last season, even allowing a slight reverse platoon split. Neither righties nor lefties have found much success against him in 2016, but righties are hitting for a slightly higher average. Graveman's command isn't elite, so he will make mistakes; this game will be determined by whether a struggling Tigers offense can take advantage of those miscues.
Zimmermann gives up a run but the Tigers snap their skid.
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