Expectations are a funny thing in baseball. Take the Detroit Tigers, for example. Prior to the season, fans were hoping that they could keep pace with the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, or at least contend for a playoff spot. Through 20-plus games, they have done exactly that. They are a game behind Cleveland in the division — and have a 2-1 record against the Tribe this season — and are a half-game out of the final AL Wild Card spot. Sure, there are some underlying issues, but things have largely gone as expected (and hoped for) in 2017.
On the other hand, you have the Chicago White Sox. They entered the season in the early stages of a rebuild, but have jumped out to an 11-9 record after winning four consecutive games. They haven’t even come close to matching last season’s 23-10 start, but fans are still enjoying the ride. Our friends at South Side Sox published an article titled “Five reasons why the White Sox have been fun to watch,” which speaks volumes about how their collective fanbase — a relatively pessimistic bunch, I’ve found — views the team’s early season success.
Hopefully their fun will stop this weekend. The White Sox travel to Comerica Park for a three-game series against the Tigers, and do so without ace Jose Quintana, who collected his first win of the season on Wednesday. The Tigers will face a trio of veteran starting pitchers with checkered pasts, including former teammate Mike Pelfrey on Friday.
Game 1: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-1, 4.15 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (2-1, 3.86 ERA)
Tigers fans are plenty familiar with Pelfrey, who managed a 5.07 ERA in his lone season in Detroit. Pelfrey’s peripheral statistics have never been great, but his strikeout and walk rates both declined last season, resulting in a 1.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his worst full-season rate of his career. He also could not manage to limit home runs -- something he was actually quite good at previously — allowing a career-worst 1.19 per nine innings. It doesn’t seem as if anything has improved in 2017; he gave up 15 runs in 17 spring training innings with the Tigers, and allowed four runs in 4 1⁄3 innings in his first start with the White Sox last weekend.
Game 2: LHP Derek Holland (2-2, 1.99 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-1, 2.88 ERA)
There is no team in baseball better at keeping pitchers healthy than the Chicago White Sox. Lefthander Derek Holland was likely banking on this when he signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Sox during the offseason. He has missed large swathes of the past three seasons with knee and shoulder injuries, including microfracture surgery in 2014. His latest attempt at a bounce-back season is off to a great start, but his low ERA hides the fact that he has allowed more unearned runs (six) than earned (five) so far. One trend to watch: his average fastball velocity is down to just 92.6 miles per hour, nearly two mph slower than his career norms.
Game 3: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (3-0, 2.00 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (2-1, 6.35 ERA)
Surprisingly, Miguel Gonzalez has the best recent track record of the three starters scheduled to pitch for the White Sox in this series. He was worth 2.7 fWAR for the Sox in 135 innings last season, limiting opponents to a 3.73 ERA. He somehow halved his home run rate from the season prior, and cut his walk rate slightly to boot. He didn’t change much, aside from throwing his slider slightly harder and slightly more often. Of course, his ERA has typically out-paced his advanced numbers, so the impending regression in home run rate shouldn’t affect him much.
How the Tigers win this series
In prior years, the best way to beat Chicago was to avoid playing against Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. This speaks to their quality, obviously, but also to Chicago’s striking lack of depth. They face the same issues in their lineup, with few power threats outside of the middle of their order.
Oddly, those veteran power bats aren’t the problem right now. Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier have all struggled in the first three weeks of the season, with Abreu’s .629 OPS leading the bunch. The bulk of Chicago’s offense has come from elsewhere, with players like Matt Davidson (1.000 OPS), Avisail Garcia (1.020 OPS) and Leury Garcia (.900 OPS) leading the way.
While there may be a chance one of that group has figured something out — my money is on Matt Davidson, a former top-100 prospect — players like Abreu and Frazier can still change a game with one swing of the bat. Keeping the heart of Chicago’s order in check for the next few games will be crucial for Tigers pitchers, especially if the offense continues to struggle with Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez out of the lineup.