When previewing the matchups for this week's four-game series against the A's, Tigers fans were probably quick to skip over this one. Lefthander Rich Hill has been as dominant as any starter in baseball since last summer -- an eight start stretch, but the numbers back this up -- while Mike Pelfrey has walked 12 batters in 14 2/3 innings this season. Pelfrey's last two starts have been excruciating to watch, but a few "at 'em balls" helped limit the damage to five runs (four earned) in his last 11 innings.
Luckily, the walks might be a thing of the past. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News noted that Pelfrey made an adjustment during his last bullpen session (which was caught by manager Brad Ausmus) and found the command that he has been missing through his first three starts of the season.
The adjustment comes not a moment too soon for the Tigers, who need more production out of their starting rotation. Pelfrey won't give the Tigers the type of innings they have gotten from Justin Verlander or Jordan Zimmermann in recent starts, but he needs to get a bit closer to averaging six innings per start -- he's currently just under five -- in order to avoid overtaxing the bullpen this season.
Of course, it would also help if the Tigers offense pulled their own weight. They have been shut out in Pelfrey's last two starts, and are facing another hot starter on Tuesday. Can Pelfrey get his first win of the year?
Oakland Athletics (10-10) at Detroit Tigers (9-9)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Rich Hill (2-2, 3.32 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-3, 3.68 ERA)
Rich Hill's numbers don't seem all that impressive at first glance, but here is some context for the stratosphere he's in right now. In the past five seasons, only four different qualified starting pitchers have finished the year with a 30 percent strikeout rate. The two lefthanders to accomplish the feat, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, have both done it twice. Hill's 23.3 K-BB percentage currently ranks ninth among MLB pitchers, and would have made it up to sixth last year.
Yet, opponents are still hitting .274 with a .384 on-base percentage against him this season.
Such is life for a one-time journeyman who is now making $6 million after a dominant four-start showing in 2015. Hill earned his payday by holding opponents to a 1.55 ERA and 0.66 WHIP in 29 innings. What surprised many, however, were Hill's 36 strikeouts in those 29 innings. This looked like an aberration for a pitcher with a career 23 percent strikeout rate, but Hill's improvement is a product of statistics.
In particular, Hill decided to listen to the statistics. Both his fastball and curveball have above average spin rates despite traveling with below average velocity, and Hill started to take advantage of that by throwing his fastball at the top of the strike zone more than any other starter in baseball.
Hill's fastball, as noted by FanGraphs' August Fagerstrom, has one of the highest whiff/swing rates in baseball, in part thanks to that high spin rate. Hill also started toying with his curveball, throwing it as hard as 82 miles per hour and as slow as 65 miles per hour. He also throws it more often, especially when ahead in the count, and lefties see it almost exclusively with two strikes. Hill has also scrapped his slider, and only features his changeup roughly 10 percent of the time against right-handed hitters now.
Hitter to fear: Chris Coghlan (.222/.333/.500 in 21 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Billy Butler (.250/.250/.375 in 8 plate appearances)
For a pitcher that has been in the major league as long as Pelfrey, he has faced a surprisingly low number of Athletics hitters. Likely starters Billy Burns, Josh Reddick, and Khris Davis have never faced Pelfrey, while others like Coco Crisp, Marcus Semien, and Stephen Vogt only have two plate appearances against him. Chris Coghlan, who is 4-for-18 with three extra base hits, is the only A's hitter with more than 10 career plate appearances against Pelfrey.
Hill currently owns the best strikeout rate in the American League, but opponents are still having success getting on base against him. He has only given up three home runs in his eight starts since last season's call-up, and his 54.5 percent fly ball rate is inflated by a high pop-up rate. While the Tigers could stand to hit a few more balls in the air, power could be hard to come by if Hill is hitting his spots.
Pelfrey improves but still picks up his fourth loss of the season.
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