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Game 147 Preview: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians

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The Tigers head to Cleveland for the biggest series of the season (for now).

MLB: All Star Game Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t heard, the Tigers have struggled a little bit against the Indians this season. Wait, of course you’ve heard. Fans on both sides love to point out that the season series currently stands at 11 wins for the Tribe to only one win for the Tigers, a fact that accounts for much of the AL Central’s current standings.

But despite what many fans seem to think, a 1-11 record against the Indians does not ensure a series loss this time around. Nor does it mean that the Tigers are “due,” and are bound to rout the Indians from here on out. It’s an interesting factoid — that a good team can dominate a slightly less good team so thoroughly over 12 games — but ultimately has little bearing on the future. As a wise man once said, the past can hurt. You can either run from it, or learn from it.

That said, those 11 losses still count in the standings, and they’re a big reason why the Tigers currently sit two games out of the playoff picture with only 16 games remaining on their schedule. Five other teams are within two games of the Tigers as well, so there should be plenty of action as we head down the stretch.

Going 4-6 over the last three series was certainly a hit to the Tigers’ playoff chances, but there is still time to secure a Wild Card spot. With only 16 games left, and with the remaining schedule no longer looking so favorable, the Tigers’ margin for error is razor thin. They probably need to win every three-game series they have left in order to secure a playoff spot, and that has to start this weekend as they face Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer in Cleveland.

Detroit Tigers (78-68) at Cleveland Indians (84-62)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (10-6, 2.76 ERA) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (16-9, 3.05 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 143.2 20.3 6.3 3.81 2.6
Kluber 197.2 26.5 6.5 3.13 5.0

Corey Kluber is currently sporting a 3.14 FIP, which leads all qualified American League starters, and would also be his highest FIP figure since 2013. That probably tells you all you need to know about Kluber — he’s good. Since winning the Cy Young award in 2014, his K-BB% trails only Chris Sale in the AL (Carrasco, tomorrow’s starter, is a close third).

Last season, Kluber followed up his Cy Young win by leading the AL in losses, posting a 9-16 record in 32 starts. This tells you more about the efficacy of a pitcher’s record than about Kluber’s performance, though. His ERA was only 3.49, more advanced stats all sat around 3.00, and he was worth a whopping 5.6 fWAR. This season, he is repeating the same excellence, posting eerily similar stats across the board (except for the win-loss record).

Kluber likes to work a three-fastball mix, throwing a fourseamer and a sinker in the mid-90’s, with a cutter a few miles per hour slower. He’ll throw one of the fastballs about 75 percent of the time, but also mixes in a nasty biting slider at about 85 miles per hour, especially when he gets ahead in the count. He’ll offer a changeup occasionally, but only to left-handed batters.

He’ll face the Rookie of the Year front-runner in Michael Fulmer tonight, who is working with six days rest as the Tigers try to limit his innings. Fulmer hasn’t been quite as lights-out since struggling against the Red Sox’s potent lineup on August 19th. The Tigers made sure to get him extra rest before each of his past three starts, and he responded by holding batters to a .666 OPS. The end results weren’t ideal — Fulmer posted a 4.00 ERA, and the Tigers lost two of three — but the underlying talent is still evident.

Hitter to fear: Carlos Santana (.260/.424/.490 last 30 days)
Hitter to fail: Mike Napoli (.165/.291/.299 last 30 days)

Remember how, when he first came up, Fulmer struggled a bit with major league hitters? Yeah, it’s easy to forget. In his first four starts he allowed a 6.52 ERA, and the Indians were one of the teams that knocked him around. However, when they met again in July, Fulmer held the Indians to one earned run, though he was worked for 95 pitches through only six innings and managed only two strikeouts that day.

Two starts isn’t enough to know whether Fulmer has the Indians figured out, or vice versa, but we do know that Carlos Santana is seeing the ball really well right now. He has always had a good eye at the plate, but has gone to another level over the last month, drawing 27 walks to only 14 strikeouts. Santana is showing everyone why batting average doesn’t paint a complete picture.

On the other side of the ball, Miguel Cabrera’s pure ownage of Kluber is fascinating. In 44 plate appearances — a huge sample in the world of pitcher-batter matchups — Miggy is hitting .500/.523/.905 against one of the best pitchers in the game. Baseball, man. It’s weird sometimes. Hopefully facing Kluber is just what Miggy needs to break out of his mini-funk.

Outlook

The Tigers have their work cut out for them. They have to make up two games on the Orioles and Blue Jays, and fend off the hottest of the remaining Wild Card contenders (looking at you, Mariners). They have seven games left against the Indians, and they simply have to find a way to win at least four. Kluber-Carrasco-Bauer is a tough draw this weekend, but so is Fulmer-Verlander-Norris.

If you’re not excited about baseball right now, check your pulse.

Prediction

A 7-12 season series against the Indians won’t sound so bad.