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Game 31 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Washington Nationals

The Tigers head into D.C. on a six-game losing streak. Their reward? Stephen Strasburg.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It's a sad state of affairs when you look at a game in which a pitcher allowed four runs in a single inning and think "Huh, that went well." However, that's exactly how Anibal Sanchez's last outing went. Outside of a bizarre fourth inning, Sanchez looked every bit as dominant as we have seen in a Tigers uniform. He held the Cleveland Indians to four hits, but took the loss thanks to the goose egg the Tigers offense put up against starter Corey Kluber.

Even worse, the outing lowered Sanchez's ERA. The seven-inning start was his longest of the season by far, but it put a sweeter taste in the mouth of Tigers fans following a pair of subpar performances in mid-April. In his last two starts, Sanchez has 16 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings while allowing just seven hits. Sure, he has walked 10 of the 54 batters he has faced during that stretch, but we're trying to accentuate the positive here.

Lucky for him, things may continue in this game. Sanchez is set to face a Washington Nationals lineup that isn't the strongest outfit, outside of otherworldly superstar Bryce Harper. As a team, the Nats have a .239 batting average, 11th in the National League. Their on-base percentage is equally woeful, and their slugging numbers would look the same if not for Harper's 10 home runs (a cool 27 percent of the team's total for the season).

Of course, Sanchez also has to face Stephen Strasburg, because things can't come easy when you're on a six-game losing streak.

Detroit Tigers (14-16) at Washington Nationals (19-12)

Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., Nationals Park
SB Nation blog: Federal Baseball
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-3, 5.87 ERA) vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg (5-0, 2.36 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Sanchez 30.2 23.6 13.6 5.09 0.1
Strasburg 42.0 29.2 5.6 1.79 1.7

Heading into 2016, there were plenty of articles written about Stephen Strasburg asking a simple, if puzzling question: "Is this The Year?" To an outsider -- even one living in our nation's capital -- the premise seems silly. Strasburg has a career 3.06 ERA and 2.78 FIP. He was worth 3.4 fWAR in just 127 1/3 innings last season, and struck out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced. Opponents have hit .227/.280/.347 against him in his career.

However, six games into the season, the answer appears to be "yes." Strasburg has dominated his opposition thus far, limiting opponents to a 2.36 ERA in 42 innings. He has worked six innings in every start, and has made it through seven in four of his six outings. He has fanned at least seven hitters in each of his past five starts, with only six walks during that stretch. He has allowed 11 runs all season (Mike Pelfrey has allowed 10 runs in May).

While he wasn't far off from this level, the big change from 2015 to 2016 seems to be the reappearance of his slider. Strasburg threw the pitch -- which averages 89.5 miles per hour, by the way -- just 11 times in 2015, but has already used it 90 times (14.9 percent rate) this season. FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan identified the new/old pitch early, and pointed out that Strasburgh has used it more like a cutter against left-handed hitters (though he still throws it more often against righties).

The targets: in above the knees, in above the knees, in above the knees, in above the knees, and in above the knees. They weren’t quite in on the hands, but Strasburg wasn’t trying to bury these sliders in the dirt, like, say, Tyson Ross. It’s like he was looking for weak, sawed-off contact.

The result? A 49.5 percent ground ball rate, up from 42.2 percent in 2015. Strasburg has allowed one home run in 2016, and lefties are now hitting .155/.221/.155 against him this season.

Hitter to fear: Bryce Harper (.333/.300/1.111 in 10 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Stephen Drew (.188/.270/.344 in 37 plate appearances)

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon gave us some hard evidence in the "What if we walk Bryce Harper every time?" theory over the weekend. Harper walked six times on Sunday, a major league record, and did not record an official at-bat in seven plate appearances (he was also hit by a pitch). Ryan Zimmerman, Washington's cleanup hitter, went 1-for-7 and left 14 runners on base, also a major league record. While there is no statistical proof that lineup protection exists, I'd much rather walk Harper and face the guy hitting .242/.303/.343.

Every. Single. Time.

Zimmermann is 11-for-48 (.229) in 54 career plate appearances against Sanchez, for what it's worth.

Outlook

The one saving grace for Tigers fans dreading what Stephen Strasburg could do to this lineup are his reverse platoon splits. Right-handed batters hit .270/.293/.444 against him last year, and have continued to hit a non-Strasburgian .278/.305/.392 in 2016. This season's efforts may be BABIP-aided, but his more predictable arsenal -- he's basically a two-pitch pitcher early in the count -- may be a reason for their relative success. The Tigers have struggled lately, but have had a knack for showing up against big-time starters not named Corey Kluber. I wouldn't bet on it, but we've seen that show before.

Prediction

Strasburg shuts down the Tigers and the Nats snap their own losing streak.

★★★

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