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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber face off at Progressive Field

The American League’s two best pitchers in 2016 go toe-to-toe for the first time in 2017.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After just one game against the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tigers are already in a much better place than they were last year. As Tigers fans know, the Indians won the first 11 meetings between the two clubs in 2016, and ultimately 14 of their 18 games against one another. It was... not fun, to say the least.

While the Tribe could still go on a similar run in 2017, the Tigers have already avoided their patented early season sweep at Progressive Field. It happened in 2011, when the Indians jumped out to an early division lead before the Tigers ran away with their first AL Central title. It happened again in 2012 and 2014, the latter coming after the Tigers’ infamous 27-12 start. Altogether, the Tigers are now just 6-12 in their first series of the season at Cleveland since 2011.

They have a chance to improve that record on Saturday, as Justin Verlander takes the ball against Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. Verlander has had his struggles in Cleveland — more on those in a minute — but has looked sharp in his first two starts of 2017. Can he keep things rolling against the Tribe?

Detroit Tigers (7-3) at Cleveland Indians (4-6)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (1-0, 1.35 ERA) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (0-1, 5.25 ERA)

Game 11 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Verlander 13.1 26.9 7.7 1.73 0.5
Kluber 12.0 19.6 7.8 6.60 -0.2

The 2016 AL Cy Young final vote and subsequent conversation centered around Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, but Corey Kluber was just as deserving of his second career Cy Young Award. Kluber posted his third consecutive season at 5.0 fWAR or better, and limited opponents to a 3.14 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 215 innings. He struck out over a batter per inning, walked just 6.6 percent of hitters, and somehow avoided the home run spike that plagued most other pitchers around baseball.

Oh, and he finally made his first All-Star team. All-Star voting is dumb.

There aren’t many flaws in Kluber’s game, but he seems to be having the same early season issues that plagued Justin Verlander for a number of years. Kluber has allowed eight runs (seven earned) in his first two starts, and has posted subpar April ERAs in each of the past three seasons. He has a career 4.12 ERA in March and April, though his 4.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings insists that he has been much better.

Key matchup: Justin Verlander vs. Progressive Field

Throughout his career, no team has given Verlander trouble quite like the Cleveland Indians. Sure, the Chicago White Sox have a higher OPS (.712) against him than the Indians do (.702), but that is largely thanks to those slugger-heavy Sox teams Verlander faced earlier in his career. Meanwhile, the Tribe have made his life difficult over the past several years. This has been especially true in Cleveland, where Verlander owns a career 9-14 record and 5.37 ERA in 162 23 innings.

Fortunately, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Verlander was 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA against the Indians last year, but pitched very well in three of their five meetings. In two September matchups — including one at Progressive Field — Verlander held the Cleveland lineup to five hits in 14 scoreless innings with 19 strikeouts.


It will be interesting to see how Kluber approaches the Tigers lineup after the warnings issued in Friday’s game. The Indians deliberately pitched inside against the Tigers’ big bats last season to great success, and Trevor Bauer’s post-game comments were not without some merit. The Tigers have gone to the opposite field more than any other AL team so far this season, and will need to adjust if they are going to have success against all the inside fastballs Kluber will likely throw. If Miguel Cabrera and others can anticipate those pitches and start to pull the ball more, the Tigers might be able to scratch across enough runs to clinch a series win.


The Indians get to Verlander early and make a slim lead stand up for the win.