Here’s an understatement for you: Justin Verlander did not have a good outing in his last start. He was historically bad, in fact, allowing a career-high nine runs to the Cleveland Indians in a better-if-you-didn’t-watch-it 13-6 loss. That the Tigers still somehow won the series speaks to the level of talent they now have around Verlander in the starting rotation. Guys like Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd might be inexperienced, but they are talented.
Teams still need a stopper sometimes, though. The Tigers are currently on a three-game losing streak after the series from hell in Tampa. While they are still above .500 and tied for first place in the AL Central, the club was obviously hoping for better after a big series win over their division rivals. This weekend provides a chance for redemption. The Tigers have been quite good at Target Field since it opened in 2010, and they have a decisive advantage in this weekend’s starting pitching matchups.
It all starts with Verlander. The Tigers need their ace to be exactly that on Friday, especially as they go up the stingy Hector Santiago, who has gotten off to a great start in 2017.
Detroit Tigers (8-7) at Minnesota Twins (7-8)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation blog: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (1-1, 5.71 ERA) vs. LHP Hector Santiago (1-1, 1.47 ERA)
Game 16 Pitching Matchup
Everything about Hector Santiago’s 2017 numbers screams “regression is coming!” He has a 1.47 ERA through three starts, but an FIP nearly two full runs higher. His strikeout rate has dropped considerably — perhaps a point in his favor if it regresses upward to career norms — and he has induced a .222 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) despite allowing hard contact on 41.8 percent of balls in play. For a pitcher with a history of high fly ball rate and plenty of home runs allowed, a career-best ground ball rate and just one big fly given up doesn’t pass the sniff test.
These trends will correct themselves over the course of a full season, but won’t necessarily reverse course in one night. Santiago held the Tigers in check on April 11, holding them to two runs on just three hits in 6 1⁄3 innings. He has a history of doing this to the Tigers, with a 3.45 ERA in 75 2⁄3 career innings. The current roster has just a .669 OPS against him, including .533 and .333 marks from Victor Martinez and Nick Castellanos, respectively. Most of Santiago’s success has come at Comerica Park — he has allowed just 13 runs (11 earned) in 35 innings there — but his typical fly ball tendencies should play well at Target Field too.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. left-handed pitching
Last season, the Tigers hit .260/.328/.426 against left-handed pitching, good enough for a 102 wRC+. This was tied for the eight-highest mark in baseball, and trailed just two American League teams. Not bad, right?
Well, sort of. The Tigers may have outpaced other AL teams against left-handed pitching last season, but they were a shadow of their former selves. In 2014 and 2015, the Tigers posted wRC+ figures of 121 and 120, respectively. This means that they were a whopping 20 percent better against southpaws relative to the league average hitter. Players like Miguel Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, and even James McCann downright abused left-handed pitching to the point that fans would have salivated at Friday’s matchup.
The jury is still out this season. The Tigers have a 104 wRC+ against lefties in 2017, but have had to go through pitchers like Jose Quintana and Chris Sale to get there. Santiago also shut the Tigers down 10 days ago, but is now out of a relative comfort zone in Comerica Park.
For all of his offensive struggles, Byron Buxton has still been a phenomenal defender for the Twins this season. He already has +3 defensive runs saved in center field, and has made 15 out of zone plays (OOZ), tied for the second-highest total among MLB center fielders. He may strike out three times against Justin Verlander tonight, but could zero that out with a spectacular play or two in center field. If Santiago can keep the Tigers in the park — something he has excellend at so far this season — then Buxton and the Twins’ other outfielders could help keep this close enough for the Twins offense to make a late push.
A certain someone might have other ideas, though.
Verlander takes out his frustrations on the Twins lineup and the Tigers get back into the win column.