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Game 49 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics

Rich Hill and the still-winless Mike Pelfrey face off in the rubber match of the Tigers-A's series.

Kenny Karst-USA TODAY Sports

It's getting hard to cheer for Mike Pelfrey these days. Yes, he plays for my favorite baseball team and seems like a great person as well, but his presence in the Tigers' rotation is actively making the team worse. They are 3-6 in games he has started this season, and are just now starting to pick up wins after escaping their early season run-scoring phobia when he was in the game. He has only made it through six innings on three occasions, and has just one quality start to his name. Pitcher wins are close to the most imperfect stat in baseball, but they're pretty telling here.

We have spent most of the season looking for silver linings from Pelfrey's starts. After his first few outings, he had an unsustainable walk rate, which has since come back to earth. His strikeout rate has ticked up somewhat as the season has gone on, but at 12 percent is still one of the lowest in baseball. His home run rate appears unsustainable at first glance, but makes a little sense when you consider how hard opponents are hitting the ball against him (his 36.6 percent hard hit rate is well above the league average of 31.0 percent).

As I alluded to on Saturday, the Tigers have some decisions to make in their starting rotation. Pelfrey's performance is not cutting it, and the Tigers need more if they are going to sniff the postseason. Can he start the turnaround today?

Detroit Tigers (24-24) at Oakland Athletics (21-29)

Time/Place: 4:05 p.m., O.Co Coliseum
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-4, 5.55 ERA) vs. LHP Rich Hill (7-3, 2.18 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pelfrey 47.0 12.0 8.3 5.92 -0.3
Hill 57.2 27.3 8.8 2.77 1.7

Heading into the 2016 season, the A's starting rotation was projected as a unit led by a dominant ace without much after that. Now we're eight weeks into the season and... well, the projections weren't wrong. All-Star righthander Sonny Gray has struggled with a 6.19 ERA and now finds himself on the disabled list. However, Rich Hill has taken Gray's place atop the rotation, and even leads the American League with a 2.18 ERA. The 36-year-old lefty has traveled a road back to the majors worthy of a movie, but is offering much more than a single ride off into the sunset as the credits roll moment.

The Tigers faced Hill earlier this season and things did not go well. Hill tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits while striking out eight. Luckily -- or unluckily, depending on how you look at it -- everyone else has suffered the same fate. Hill has not allowed more than three earned runs in a start so far this season, with seven outings of six strikeouts or more. While his command has been spotty at times, Hill has held opponents to a .206 batting average and .296 on-base percentage, resulting in an excellent 1.10 WHIP.

With Hill pitching so well and the Athletics currently mired in last place, the conversation naturally shifts from his performance to his trade value. Hill is now riding a 14-start stretch of dominance on par with the very best pitchers in the game, and is on a cheap, expiring contract. He is arguably the top starting pitcher on next winter's free agent market after Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year contract extension, and should fetch the A's a solid return for a two-month rental.

And should he dominate the Tigers again, they may be the ones coughing up young talent for him.

Hitter to fear: Coco Crisp (.250/.200/1.000 in 5 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Billy Butler (.250/.250/.375 in 8 plate appearances)

Outlook

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of a season wrought with confusion is how poorly the Tigers' offense has performed against left-handed pitching. Expected by many (ourselves included) to absolutely throttle lefthanders, the Tigers are hitting just .242/.311/.384 against southpaws this year. Even worse are their numbers against lefty starters, which come to an Avilesian .211/.269/.348 in 325 plate appearances. While they have faced some names, to be sure -- Cole Hamels is quite good and Dallas Keuchel looked his old self for one night -- their poor numbers are still quite bizarre.

Prediction

Hill picks up win number eight and the Tigers overpay for him at the trade deadline.

★★★

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