Opening Day has always been special in Detroit, often serving as an unofficial holiday in the state of Michigan. There has to be a fair amount of pressure when taking the mound in front of that sellout crowd, but especially for Jordan Zimmermann, who will make his Tigers debut on Friday.
Zimmermann, the Tigers' $110 million solution to a rotation that ranked among the worst in baseball last season, will be unfairly judged on how he performs against a potent lineup loaded with power. The Yankees scored 764 runs last season, the second-highest total in baseball. They were one of four teams to hit more than 200 home runs, and finished fourth in MLB with a .170 ISO. Unfortunately for Zimmermann, the Yankees appear to have picked up where they left off. They scored 27 runs in their first three games against the Houston Astros, including a 16-run outburst on Wednesday.
However, Zimmermann didn't earn his big contract for nothing. Formerly of the Washington Nationals, Zimmermann held opponents to a 3.66 ERA or better in each of his past five seasons. He was worth nearly 19 fWAR during that stretch, an average just shy of 4.0 WAR per season. Zimmermann enjoyed his best season in 2014, holding opponents to a 2.66 ERA and 2.68 FIP in 199 2/3 innings.
His challenge: to stay efficient and limit the efficacy of the Yankees' big bats, and keep warm all the while.
New York Yankees (2-1) at Detroit Tigers (2-0)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Pinstripe Alley
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Luis Severino (5-3, 2.89 ERA in 2015) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (13-10, 3.66 ERA)
|Pitcher (2015 stats)||IP||K%||BB%||FIP||fWAR|
When shopping David Price at the 2015 trade deadline, the Tigers did their best to come away with Yankees prospect Luis Severino. New York gave the Tigers and many other suitors an emphatic "No," instead choosing to hold onto their prized righthander from the Dominican Republic. Needless to say, their patience paid off. Severino was called up just after the trade deadline and turned in a dynamic stretch run, allowing a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts. He went at least five innings in all but one of those starts, and held opponents to one run or fewer on six separate occasions. The only blemish on his record was a lofty home run rate, elevating his FIP to 4.37.
While still only 22, Yankees fans are expecting the world of Severino. The young righthander is armed with a fastball that sat in the 95-96 mile-per-hour range last season, topping out at 98 miles per hour according to Brooks Baseball. He threw the fastball just over 50 percent of the time, mixing it well with his off-speed pitches in all counts. Severino threw his slider 34 percent of the time last year, inducing a swinging strike rate just shy of 20 percent. Opponents hit just .215 against the slider in 2015, a big reason why he posted a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio against right-handed hitters. His changeup, which he threw to both righties and lefties, is also a solid pitch.
Hitter to fear: Didi Gregorius (.375/.375/.750 in 8 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Chase Headley (.182/.217/.182 in 23 plate appearances)
Zimmermann has a pair of starts against the Yankees under his belt, and both were quite successful. He held them to two runs on five hits in seven innings in a start last season, striking out six in a 3-2 Nationals victory. He was slightly less efficient in a 2012 meeting, but still struck out six and took a no-decision in a 5-3 loss.
Most of Zimmermann's matchups with current Yankees have come in National League games. Former NL stalwarts, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann have all seen Zimmermann at least 15 times, though none are hitting better than .250. Of all players, Didi Gregorius is the only Yankee to have previously homered against Zimmermann.
Zimmermann's batted ball profile suggests that he is still trying to figure out what type of pitcher he wants to be. He has flirted with becoming a ground ball specialist at times, such as in 2013 when his ground ball rate spiked to 47.6 percent. That sinking fastball may come in handy today against a Yankees lineup that struggled at times against ground ball specialists in 2015. According to Baseball Reference, they hit .234/.307/.356 against ground ball pitchers last season, well below the .772 OPS they posted against fly ball pitchers. If Zimmermann can keep the ball down -- especially on a cold afternoon when the ball will be difficult to lift -- he could have a lot of success.
Both teams' bats struggle to warm up, but Zimmermann outlasts Severino and the Tigers win their home opener.