After a sluggish April in which he hit .270/.337/.472, a lot has been made of Miguel Cabrera's resurgence. Whether people expected that his April production -- a 117 wRC+, for what it's worth -- was the new norm is unclear, but the resounding "He's back!" outcry for a player who posted a 165 wRC+ in what was considered a "down" season is a bit surprising.
Equally surprising is the lack of recognition for Justin Verlander's recent hot streak. As we know, Verlander was not himself through his first six starts of the season, allowing a 6.49 ERA and .857 OPS. While those numbers are inflated by a pair of seven-run outings, the other five starts weren't the same type of Verlander dominance -- #MustSeeJV, if you will -- that we saw down the stretch in 2015.
Well, he's back. Verlander had another stellar outing in his last start, striking out 10 Twins in 6 1/3 innings for his third win of the season. He now has a 1.61 ERA in his last three outings, a figure that would be lower if Alex Wilson knew how to strand an inherited runner or two. Verlander has 27 strikeouts in his last 22 1/3 innings in large part thanks to better offspeed stuff, which was missing during the early part of the season. We said before his last start that he induced 28 whiffs on his three offspeed pitches in his first six starts; he has 24 offspeed whiffs in his last three starts.
Philadelphia Phillies (25-20) at Detroit Tigers (22-22)
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 Jeremy Hellickson (4-2, 3.99 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (3-4, 4.58 ERA)
You may remember Jeremy Hellickson from his days with the Tampa Bay Rays. Hellickson pitched in Tampa for five seasons, allowing a 3.78 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 640 innings. He was named the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year and posted a robust 125 ERA+ through his first two-plus seasons in the major leagues. He outperformed his FIP by nearly a run and a half during that stretch, but many chalked it up to his extreme fly ball tendencies and a penchant for inducing lazy contact.
However, the league figured him out. Hellickson showed warning signs in 2012, allowing hard contact nearly 30 percent of the time the ball was put in play, but it wasn't until 2013 that the wheels fell off. He allowed a 5.17 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 174 innings, then had offseason elbow surgery. After missing the first half of 2014, Hellickson's hellish run continued with a 4.52 ERA in 13 starts.
Things appear to have turned around, though. Hellickson had another subpar season with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015, but has gotten off to a hot start in 2016. He is striking out more batters -- maybe too many, depending on who you ask -- and advanced measurements like SIERA and xFIP actually think he has been even better than his 3.99 ERA suggests. The Good Phight is optimistic about his chances, even hinting that a contender might pony up for his services later this season.
Hellboy Prime powered through the Marlins in his last start, bumbling initially, but needing only 49 pitches to get through innings 2-5. He tosses a simple change-up, but it has worked well enough to be pivotal in his minor resurgence, one that has people recalling his Rookie of the Year days and analysts already plotting his trade value.
Unfortunately, one thing that has not improved is Hellickson's glacial pace; at 24.2 seconds between pitches, he is one of the slowest workers in baseball.
Tigers hitter to fear: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.320/.433/.800 in 30 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Mike Aviles (.250/.308/.333 in 14 plate appearances)
The respective track records that these two teams have against the opposing pitcher in this game is striking. In one corner, you have Justin Verlander, who has limited this current Phillies roster to a .378 OPS in 39 combined plate appearances. Of course, Verlander has only faced five of the players on this Phillies team and 19 of those plate appearances belong to David Lough, so this isn't a representative sample. However, the offensive struggles identified in Monday's game preview still apply.
In the other corner, we have Jeremy Hellickson, who has been battered, beaten, and bruised by this Tigers roster. The former Ray held Detroit in check while he was pitching in spacious Tropicana Field, but this particular group of hitters is batting a robust .317/.423/.695 in 98 plate appearances against him. Jarrod Saltalamacchia leads the way with three home runs in 25 at-bats, but five different Tigers have an OPS over 1.000 in at least nine plate appearances.
Pitting a red-hot Verlander against one of the worst offenses in baseball seems like a slam-dunk matchup for the Tigers, but baseball is unpredictable. One key for Verlander tonight will be getting through the first inning unscathed, something that has been difficult for him this season. The Phillies are the most aggressive offense in the National League, swinging at 48.7 percent of all pitches they see. This game may be a good opportunity for Verlander to work backward early, establishing his offspeed stuff against an offense that swings and misses nearly 11 percent of the time. Things should go well once he gets settled, but the Tigers could find themselves in an early hole if Verlander gets fastball-happy.
The Tigers move back above .500 behind another strong outing from Verlander.
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