Show of hands: who thought the Philadelphia Phillies would have a better record than the Detroit Tigers at this point in the season? Yeah, I didn't think so. The Phillies have arguably been baseball's biggest surprise in the early season, racing out to a 25-19 record in their first 44 games. Expected by many to battle with the Atlanta Braves for last place in the NL East, the Phils are instead just two games out of first place.
Much of this has come on the back of their pitching staff, who have allowed a 3.66 ERA, fourth-lowest in the National League. Their starters, led by young arms like Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola -- both of whom the Tigers will see in this series -- rank third in the majors with a 24.1 percent strikeout rate and have the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the game.
However, this run may not be sustainable. The Phillies currently own a run differential of -31, giving them a Pythagorean expected record of 18-26. Baseball Prospectus takes it further, giving them a third-order win percentage of just .407. This is due to a relatively weak schedule thus far. Of their 44 games played, 25 have come against the Marlins, Braves, Reds, Brewers, and Padres, teams that were expected to finish in the bottom half of the National League.
Their pitching staff has also had to buoy an offense that ranks among the very worst in the game. The Phillies own a 73 wRC+, tied for second-lowest in baseball. They are hitting just .233/.292/.359 as a club, and have just 32 home runs this season (the Tigers have 27 in May).
While the Phillies are living on borrowed time, this doesn't mean that regression begins immediately. The Tigers face a pair of tough starters in this series and have demons of their own to exorcise. First up is beleaguered starter Mike Pelfrey, who still has yet to win a game this season.
Philadelphia Phillies (25-19) at Detroit Tigers (21-22)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: The Good Phight
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Vincent Velasquez (5-1, 2.42 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-4, 5.49 ERA)
I hope you like fastballs, because the Tigers are going to see a lot of them tonight. Vincent Velasquez, a 23-year-old righthander originally drafted by the Houston Astros in 2010, has a good one and he likes to throw it a lot. Velasquez was the centerpiece in the Astros' blockbuster deal for reliever Ken Giles, and the move already seems to be backfiring in a big way for Houston. Through his first eight starts, Velasquez has 59 strikeouts -- including a pair of double-digit performances -- in 48 1/3 innings pitched. He has already been worth 1.7 fWAR, or nearly as much as the Astros' entire bullpen (2.0).
Back to the fastball, though. Velasquez's heater averages 94 miles per hour, and he can ramp it up to 98 mph. He throws it nearly 70 percent of the time, and almost three-quarters of the time in two-strike counts against right-handed batters. His four-seamer has an impressive 14.5 percent whiff rate, a big reason why he owns the seventh-best strikeout rate among qualified pitchers in baseball. Opponents are hitting just .186 off the fastball with a .248 slugging average. While he has a smattering of off-speed pitches, everything lives off that fastball.
It gets worse, though. Velasquez isn't just getting guys to chase high fastballs; he's forcing swings and misses within the strike zone. Opponents are making contact on 80.6 percent of Velasquez's pitches within the zone, the ninth-lowest figure among qualified pitchers. This stat, better known as Z-Contact Percentage, is probably your best bet for determining how nasty a pitcher's stuff is. To wit: Velasquez is surrounded by names like Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw on FanGraphs' leaderboards. Expect a few whiffs in this game.
Hitter to fear: Ryan Howard (.356/.463/.600 in 54 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Peter Bourjos (.000/.000/.000 in 6 plate appearances)
Now, hold on. Before you make any jokes about the shell of Ryan Howard teeing off on Mike Pelfrey, remember that these two go way back as NL East rivals. Howard was a very good hitter once upon a time, and put up numbers like these against a number of starters. In fact, the two have faced off just three times since 2011 (Howard's last good season), and Howard is 0-for-2.
Of course, lefties are hitting .391/.433/.598 off Pelfrey this season, so maybe we shouldn't be so cocky...
There are a number of ways that this game could go, but all signs point to the Tigers offense struggling against Velasquez's electric stuff. They still own one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball, and the young righthander has one of the toughest fastballs to hit in the major leagues right now.
However, Velasquez hasn't been all that efficient this season. He has made just one start longer than six innings, and has been a bit more wild lately, with 12 walks in his last 29 innings of work. The Tigers are one of the best fastball-hitting teams in the majors, according to FanGraphs' pitch values, and have made life difficult on some power pitchers so far this year. If they can get Velasquez out of the game early, good things will happen.
Pelfrey finally gets his first win of the season.
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