A two-month stint on the disabled list for a strained triceps muscle snapped Justin Verlander's seven-year Opening Day start streak in 2015, but Tigers fans are far more excited with how he finished the season. After posting a 6.62 ERA in a five-start tune-up, Verlander looked like his old self over the final two months of the year. In his last 14 starts of the season, Verlander held opponents to a 2.27 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 4.55 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He averaged seven innings per start during that stretch, while fanning nearly a batter per inning.
Perhaps even more encouraging than Verlander's results are how he came about them. Much was made of his drop in fastball velocity, but Verlander found success while averaging 93.4 miles per hour with his heater, just a tick above his 93.3 mph average in 2014. He held opponents to a .233 batting average with the fastball, his lowest since a .221 average allowed in 2011.
Even the most optimistic Tigers fans aren't expecting a repeat of 2011 -- or even 2012, really -- from Verlander, but he seems a safe bet to out-perform the modest projections set forth by Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA. The Tigers are relying on him as an ace, and his first test comes on Tuesday against Giancarlo Stanton and the Marlins.
More Opening Day coverage
Detroit Tigers (0-0) at Miami Marlins (0-0)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Marlins Park
SB Nation blog: Fish Stripes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (5-8, 3.38 ERA in 2015) vs. LHP Wei-Yin Chen (11-8, 3.34 ERA in 2015)
|Pitcher (2015 stats)||IP||K%||BB%||FIP||fWAR|
For four years, Wei-Yin Chen felt like somewhat of a ticking time bomb. Pitchers don't typically last long in the American League East, and allowing a 40 percent fly ball rate should not mix with that division's bandbox stadiums. Instead, Chen defied the odds and held opponents to a 3.72 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in over 700 innings. Over the past two years, he was 27-14 with a 3.44 ERA, but a 4.03 FIP. He compiled 10.0 rWAR during his Orioles career, which translated to a staggering amount of surplus value on his original five-year, $16 million deal.
Now, Chen moves to the NL East, where the ballparks are bigger and designated hitters don't exist. Sure, he has to figure out a way to handle Bryce Harper -- just walk him, man -- but common sense suggests that 2016 could be a banner year for the 30-year-old Taiwanese lefthander. Not only was Marlins Park one of the stingiest home run ballparks in baseball last season, but the Marlins were third in MLB with +38 defensive runs saved as a team. Chen is also trending in the right direction, posting a career-best 19.3 percent strikeout rate in 2015.
As you might expect, Chen's league average strikeout rate is indicative of an arsenal that isn't all that overpowering. His fastball has averaged 92-93 miles per hour over the course of his career, but he still induced a 10.6 percent swinging strike rate with it in 2015. Chen also uses a slider, splitter, and curveball, with the slider coming most often against lefties. Righties will see a mix of all four pitches, but fared best against the curveball and splitter last season.
Hitter to fear: Martin Prado (.333/.400/.556 in 10 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Jeff Mathis (.000/.091/.000 in 11 plate appearances)
Fun fact: Justin Verlander started the last game the Tigers played at Marlins Park and struck out 10 hitters in six shutout innings. Of course, the only thing most fans remember is the hapless Tigers lineup that was no-hit by then-Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez. That game is Verlander's lone career start against Miami, and he has only faced four of their eight probable starters -- Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, Dee Gordon, and Giancarlo Stanton -- with only Prado having seen Verlander more than three times
And since you're wondering, Verlander struck out Stanton in each of their three meetings.
One of the question the Tigers will have to answer over the course of the season is whether their righty-heavy lineup can be exploited by good right-handed pitching. Thankfully, they won't have to answer that question tonight. Chen displayed significant platoon splits last season, allowing right-handed batters to hit .274/.318/.496 with 25 home runs. Meanwhile, the Tigers posted a 120 wRC+ against left-handed pitching last year, second-highest in all of baseball. Pitching in the cavernous Marlins Park could limit the damage somewhat, but the Tigers handle lefties so well, it might not matter.
Plus, Chen is facing Justin Verlander, which probably won't end well for him.
Chen's Miami debut gets off to a rocky start and the Tigers win on Opening Night.