It's funny how one start can change your entire perspective on a pitcher. Six days ago, Tigers fans were lamenting another poor outing from Justin Verlander, one in which the Cleveland Indians roughed him up for seven runs on eight hits in five innings. While he had shown moments of brilliance prior to that point this season, he ended his night with a 6.49 ERA through six starts.
Seven shutout innings against the Texas Rangers later, vintage Verlander was back. His offspeed pitches looked as sharp as we have seen this year, resulting in nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed. When Verlander walked off the mound, the Tigers held a 2-0 lead. Since it's Friday, we'll just ignore what happened after that.
For as inconsistent as Verlander has been this season, his last outing may be the closest approximation of what we can expect going forward. Verlander has been searching for his offspeed stuff all season long, but has generally maintained a firm fastball with good location (Cleveland start notwithstanding). He has 42 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings, his highest per-inning rate since 2009. His hit rate is also at its lowest since 2012, and he has held opponents to fewer hits than innings pitched in four of his seven starts.
Can Verlander maintain this production against the red-hot Orioles?
Detroit Tigers (15-19) at Baltimore Orioles (21-12)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., Oriole Park at Camden Yards
SB Nation blog: Camden Chat
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (2-3, 5.40 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Tillman (4-1, 3.05 ERA)
The last time we saw Chris Tillman, he was busy out-pitching a Tigers ace at Comerica Park. The day was July 18, 2015. The Tigers' pitcher was David Price. The result? Eight shutout innings for Tillman and a 3-0 Orioles victory. Dominating the Tigers has been a theme throughout Tillman's career. He went 8 1/3 innings in an April 2014 start, got the better of a battered Justin Verlander in June 2013, and even beat then-reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS. The Tigers are hitting just .183/.264/.311 against him in his career.
Fun, right? It gets worse.
After struggling to a 4.99 ERA and 4.45 FIP in 173 innings in 2015, Tillman has rebounded to a 3.05 ERA and 2.76 FIP through his first seven starts of 2016. FanGraphs writer (and noted Tigers fan) Paul Sporer identified a couple of changes in Tillman's profile this season, including an uptick in fastball velocity and spin rate. Tillman is averaging close to 94 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball this year, up from 92.6 miles per hour in 2015. Sporer also looked at the location of Tillman's fastball, which fits in with his high spin rate.
Last year saw a sharp drop in fastballs up in the zone with more finding the middle of the zone, a dangerous area for fastballs. His rates of heaters up in the zone by year since 2013: 44%, 44%, 38%, and 43%. The focus back up in the zone has contributed to the jump in the walks, but it’s a small price to pay for the positive results beyond that:
Fastballs up, everything else down. That’s the strategy right now and it’s working.
Last season, Tillman struck out 16.2 percent of the batters he faced. He has fanned 17.8 percent of batters faced throughout his eight-year career spanning nearly 900 innings. This season, Tillman has a 25.8 percent strikeout rate with 14 of his 40 strikeouts coming on the fastball. Given the Tigers' newfound susceptibility to the strikeout -- they have the fifth-highest rate in baseball entering play on Friday -- this could spell trouble.
Hitter to fear: Adam Jones (.237/.250/.421 in 40 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Matt Wieters (.125/.192/.375 in 26 plate appearances)
Verlander has struggled at times against the Orioles throughout his career -- an ill-fated September start that ended his long winning streak in 2011 comes to mind -- but he seems to enjoy pitching at Camden Yards. He is 7-0 in eight career starts with a 2.84 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. While he only has 43 strikeouts in 57 innings, he has limited the O's to just 43 hits and a .593 OPS during that span. The current roster has not fared any better, hitting .207/.259/.327 in 162 combined plate appearances.
The Tigers need the very best of Justin Verlander tonight. Their pitching staff has allowed 62 runs in the past 10 games, a major reason why they are just 1-9 during that stretch. Their bullpen has been taxed, throwing a number of pitches as they try to mop up each other's messes, and they could use a light evening. Unfortunately, the struggling offense is facing a worthy opponent in Tillman, who has limited opponents to a 2.39 ERA in five home starts this season. Tillman has always pitched well at Camden Yards, and should be tough to beat again tonight.
Verlander picks up a struggling offense and the Tigers get back in the win column.
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