Some say that when you play a baseball team is an important predictor of success. Whether you believe in hot/cold theories or not, it certainly makes for an interesting storyline heading into this weekend's series with the Toronto Blue Jays. When the Jays came to Comerica Park in early June, they were riding a mini-hot streak, having won nine of their previous 11 games. However, they were only four games above .500 at that time and their vaunted lineup was struggling. The Tigers took two of three.
Those struggles appear to be over. The Jays are 16-10 since leaving Detroit and have won seven of their last nine, including five in a row. Their offense perked up, posting the second-best wRC+ in baseball in June. They have outscored opponents 203 to 147 since June 1, a +56 run differential that would rank third in the American League on its own. Their +29 run differential in July is higher than what the Tigers have managed all season. Baseball Prospectus' third-order win percentage puts them second in the American League.
This is the mountain that Justin Verlander faces on Thursday. The Blue Jays are smashing people again, as FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan put it, and a four-game series in Toronto at the end of a long road trip seems like one of the most daunting tasks the Tigers have faced all season. Starting the series off with a win would be huge.
Detroit Tigers (45-40) at Toronto Blue Jays (48-39)
Time/Place: 7:07 p.m., Rogers Centre
SB Nation blog: Bluebird Banter
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (8-6, 4.11 ERA) vs. RHP Drew Hutchison (1-0, 5.40 ERA)
The Tigers caught a break earlier this week when Blue Jays All-Star starter Marco Estrada was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a back injury. Estrada, a 33-year-old righthander who was re-upped for two years and $26 million last offseason, has made that deal look like a bargain with a 2.93 ERA and 1.8 fWAR in the first half. Estrada has posted the lowest hits-per-nine rate of any qualified AL starter over the past two seasons, and is a sneaky-good mid-rotation starter, if a little brittle.
Starting in Estrada's place will be Drew Hutchison, a 25-year-old righty who won 13 games for the Blue Jays in 2015. However, his gaudy win-loss record was largely a result of ample run support; he posted a 5.57 ERA and 4.42 FIP in 150 1/3 innings. Hutchison has spent most of 2016 in the minor leagues, limiting opponents to a 2.78 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 87 1/3 innings at Triple-A Buffalo. He has only made two major league appearances this season: a spot start in April and a short relief outing on Saturday in which he allowed a pair of runs.
Analyzing Hutchison is a little more complicated than staring at his ERA, but not much. He held opponents to a 2.91 ERA and 3.95 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 home starts last season, but was 2-3 with a 9.83 ERA on the road. He was better in nearly every facet despite Rogers Centre's cozy confines, posting superior strikeout, walk, home run, and strand rates at home. While his ERA splits weren't so significant in 2014, he managed better peripherals at home that season as well.
That's not the whole story, though. Right-handed batters abused Hutchison last season, hitting .330/.384/.522 with 11 home runs in 318 plate appearances. His platoon splits were the opposite (i.e. normal) in 2014, however, so it's tough to decipher which side of the plate truly has the upper hand on him. His 2015 provide some compelling evidence, though, as righties hit his slider at a robust .303 clip. While they didn't hit for much power against the slider, eliminating that pitch as a threat allows them to sit on his fastball, which got punished for a .358 average and .272 ISO.
Hitter to fear: Justin Smoak (.333/.444/.933 in 18 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Michael Saunders (.150/.150/.200 in 20 plate appearances)
Verlander has posted solid numbers against the Blue Jays' current roster, but the results haven't always been there. He owns a 4.90 ERA in 10 career starts against the Jays despite (a) throwing a no-hitter against them in 2011, and (b) limiting them to a .292 on-base percentage. And while none of the Jays' current crop of sluggers have really punished Verlander -- Jose Bautista and his 1.118 OPS are currently on the disabled list -- there aren't any tomato cans here either. Edwin Encarnacion is hitting .143 but has homered twice. Russell Martin has a homer off Verlander. Josh Donaldson is always dangerous. Devon Travis is a former Tiger, so he will hit roughly 7.000 with 12 home runs this weekend.
No pressure, right? Verlander has a chance to clinch a winning record for the Tigers on their 11-game road trip, but has to work through a bear of a lineup to do so. The Jays have scored over five runs per game at home this season, and while Verlander has pitched well in Toronto in the past, he hasn't pitched there since 2013. Given the uncertainties in the Tigers' rotation behind Verlander this weekend, they could really use a #MustSeeJV performance and a series-opening win. Hutchinson's home/road splits are a concern, but the Tigers' righty-heavy lineup should have the edge.
An inefficient Verlander picks up his ninth win of the season.
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