The Detroit Tigers are 18-30 in games started by Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez this season. This stat line makes sense, as both starters have an ERA at 5.00 or higher. Nearly every metric shows that, aside from a few exceptions — Anibal Sanchez delivered a wonderful five inning performance on Thursday — they have not pitched well enough to remain in a playoff team’s rotation.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have a trio of young arms that have all exceeded expectations. Michael Fulmer is just shy of the number of innings needed to qualify for an ERA title, but he otherwise leads the league in this category. His 3.88 FIP isn’t quite as great, but he has shown maturity beyond his years in big spots for the Tigers. Daniel Norris has struggled to stay healthy at times, but has performed at a Fulmer-like level over the past two months. The Tigers have won each of his past five starts. Matt Boyd is coming off the best outing of his career, an eight-inning masterpiece that silenced concerns over a subpar showing in his previous start. The Tigers are 27-18 in games started by this trio.
This weekend, the Tigers will rely on their young arms in a pivotal series against the Kansas City Royals. Detroit slid into the AL Wild Card lead after Thursday’s doubleheader sweep of the Twins, and has a chance to further entrench themselves in the playoff conversation with a solid showing against the Royals. If their young starters continue what they have done so far, they should be in good shape.
Game 1: LHP Danny Duffy (12-2, 3.18 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (10-7, 3.03 ERA)
Once thought of as a dark horse candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, Danny Duffy has fallen off the blistering pace he set for most of 2016. He allowed seven runs in an outing against the Red Sox on August 27, and has given up at least three runs in each of his four September starts. The Tigers tagged him for four runs in a win at Kauffman Stadium on September 2, but Duffy struck out eight and walked just one in 5 2⁄3 innings. His peripherals are still very strong; he has 32 strikeouts to just five walks in 26 September innings.
Game 2: RHP Yordano Ventura (11-11, 4.35 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.63 ERA)
You could describe Yordano Ventura’s 2016 season as an up-and-down year, but he has largely trended in the right direction over the last few months. Since the All-Star break, Ventura has a 3.42 ERA and a 4.55 FIP, both of which are improvements over his first half numbers. He has scuffled a bit lately with losses in each of his past three starts, but that doesn’t seem to matter when he faces the Tigers. In five matchups against Detroit this season, Ventura is 3-0 with a 1.76 ERA. They have put runners on base against him — his 1.40 WHIP is nearly as high as that ERA! — but have hit for almost no power. Only six of their 31 hits (in 30 2⁄3 innings) have gone for extra bases.
Game 3: RHP Edinson Volquez (10-11, 5.25 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (6-4, 4.16 ERA)
With a mutual option for 2017 in his contract and a weak free agent market looming, Edinson Volquez had a chance to make himself a lot of money with a strong 2016 season. He has failed to deliver on that front, allowing a 5.25 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 32 starts. Volquez has been particularly unreliable since the All-Star break, giving up a 5.89 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in 70 1⁄3 innings. He was scuffling through a particularly rough stretch prior to his last start, when he held the Cleveland Indians to a run on four hits in 6 2⁄3 innings. Volquez has won two of his three starts against the Tigers this season, with 16 strikeouts and two walks in 20 innings pitched.
#RoyalsDevilMagic is alive and well
Since August 1, the Royals are 28-21 and have scored 227 runs, an average of 4.63 per game that would rank in the top half of the American League over the course of a full season. However, Kendrys Morales is the only Royals hitter who has performed above the league average since the All-Star Break. Morales has hit .262/.331/.480 with 14 home runs, good enough for a 113 wRC+. No other Royals regular has fared better than a 96 wRC+ over that stretch, and three players -- Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and speedster Paulo Orlando — are below the 80 wRC+ threshold.
However, the Royals have managed a record above .500 while scoring at an above average rate, including a blistering 20-9 mark in August. My first inclination was to look at their baserunning numbers when trying to decipher how exactly the Royals have managed this feat, but even that yielded numbers that made no sense (Kansas City ranks 22nd among MLB teams with -6.0 baserunning runs in the second half). Can they continue scoring in mystery fashion against the Tigers? Or will their good fortune finally run out?
How the Tigers win the series
As odd as it is to say given what we have seen over the past few seasons, the Tigers need to do everything they can to get into Kansas City’s bullpen early and often during this series. All three scheduled Royals starters have pitched well against the Tigers this season, with Yordano Ventura’s numbers looking particularly dominant. Meanwhile, the Royals bullpen is no longer the dominant force it once was. They rank third in the American League with a 3.45 ERA, but advanced metrics peg them closer to the middle of the pack. Outside of Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, this unit is vulnerable.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Tigers offense appeared to wake up in their last series against Minnesota, but we have seen this song and dance before. Detroit scored 25 runs in a three-game series at Target Field in late August, but followed that up with just six runs against the lowly Los Angeles Angels over the next three days. The Tigers have scored more than five runs in just one of their past eight games against non-Twins competition, though they did score enough to take two of three from Kansas City in early September.