Earlier this season, I scoffed at the Tigers for not juggling their rotation to get a start against the Cleveland Indians. The start instead went to rookie Michael Fulmer -- this was before he was Michael Fulmer -- and the Tigers lost their sixth in a row to the Tribe. Zimmermann was in the middle of an epic scoreless streak at that point, and pitched well enough to win the following night on an extra day's rest.
While it didn't take any juggling to get Zimmermann a matchup with Cleveland this time, he still gets a chance to be their stopper. Although he struggled, Zimmermann looked sharper in a start against the Chicago White Sox on June 14, notching 12 whiffs in 107 pitches. He followed that up with 10 whiffs on 93 pitches against the Kansas City Royals five days ago, a brilliant eight-inning performance that probably could have gone longer if it weren't a bazillion degrees outside.
Zimmermann's upswing comes at the right time for the Tigers, as he faces a bear of a matchup on Friday. The Indians are scoring 4.8 runs per game in June and are currently riding a six-game winning streak. Their 108 team wRC+ in June ranks sixth among MLB teams (the Tigers are third), and they are limiting opponents to 2.86 runs per game. Can Zimmermann and the Tigers finally beat Cleveland?
Cleveland Indians (41-30) at Detroit Tigers (38-35)
Tigers fans are well familiar with Danny Salazar by now, having dealt with the hard-throwing righthander for three seasons. However, it's somewhat hard to believe he's still only 26 years old. And, as 26-year-olds tend to do, he's still getting better. Salazar posted a 3.45 ERA and 3.0 fWAR in 185 innings last season, which qualified as a bit of a bounce-back year after allowing a 4.12 ERA in 2014. He improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio slightly, lowered his WHIP to a paltry 1.13, and improved his ground ball rate by a fair margin.
Salazar is blowing most of those numbers out of the water in 2016. He currently owns a 2.23 ERA and has limited opponents to two runs or fewer in 11 of his 13 starts this season. He is striking out 29.5 percent of batters, a clip that nearly matches what he was able to do in his limited showing in 2013. Opponents are hitting .183 with a .292 slugging average against him. His only blemish to date is an 11.7 percent walk rate, well above what he has allowed in his previous three years at the major league level.
If that last paragraph is terrifying -- it should be -- take slight comfort in the fact that Salazar has not fared quite as well against right-handed hitters this year. They are getting on base at a respectable .311 clip and have hit five of the six home runs Salazar has allowed this season. He is walking them at a higher rate too, and "only" striking righties out 27.9 percent of the time. Salazar also hasn't fared quite as well away from Progressive Field, allowing a 2.84 ERA and .638 OPS against on the road.
Tigers hitter to fear: Miguel Cabrera (.346/.393/.615 in 28 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Jose Iglesias (.200/.273/.200 in 11 plate appearances)
Many Tigers fans remember the epic battle that took place between rookie fireballer Danny Salazar and reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera in 2013. They remember the game-tying home run that Cabrera sent over the right-center field wall. They don't always reminisce about the three strikeouts Salazar racked up prior to that show-stopping at-bat. Salazar has had moments of brilliance against the Tigers, including an 11-strikeout performance in 2015 and a September 2014 shutout, but his overall numbers are fairly subpar. The current Tigers roster is batting .317/.363/.516 with six home runs against him.
With two ace-level pitchers on the mound, this should be a low scoring game. Salazar has taken a step forward this season and has dominated the Tigers at times, while Zimmermann appears to be coming out of a mini-slump that coincided with his groin injury earlier this year. Both offenses have looked great in June thus far, but can be silenced with the right pitchers on the mound. Given the Tigers' recent bullpen surge -- never thought I'd type those words -- and sterling home record of late, they should have the edge in this game.
Zimmermann cruises and the Tigers snap their losing streak against the Indians.
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