Following a long road trip that saw the Detroit Tigers come within a botched double play ball of a 5-4 record, the club had a chance to bank some more wins during a long homestand. We have spoken ad nauseum about the team’s brutal May schedule, but for good reason. Following a home series agains the Cleveland Indians, 20 of their next 26 games are on the road. One would have hoped the Tigers could have handled a pair of flawed opponents in the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox before the going gets tough.
Unfortunately, the Tigers will be lucky to scrape .500. After exploding for 19 runs on Tuesday, the Tigers offense has looked rather lifeless in recent nights. They have scored just four runs in their last three games, all losses. The team is a combined 2-for-19 with runners in scoring position during this stretch, and they have left 20 runners on base. This will happen over the course of a 162-game season. Teams will struggle to score at times, especially when they are missing their two best hitters. Only the best (and most fortunate) teams go without a three-game losing streak at some point.
The Tigers are already better off than last year thanks to their starting pitching; there are no near-guaranteed losses on the schedule anymore. This is especially true when Michael Fulmer takes the ball. While he has looked shaky at times, he has made a quality start in each of his four outings this year. Given their recent struggles at the plate, they could use a fifth one today.
Chicago White Sox (12-9) at Detroit Tigers (11-11)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Derek Holland (2-2, 1.99 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (2-1, 2.88 ERA)
Game 23 Pitching Matchup
Don’t be fooled by Derek Holland’s shiny ERA. The 30-year-old lefthander has looked good at times and is currently sporting his highest strikeout rate since 2013, but there are a few red flags in his profile. The most glaring is his actual number of runs allowed; while Holland has only been charged with five earned runs this season, he has given up 11 runs in total. Five of the six unearned runs came in his start against the New York Yankees on April 17. Following an error by first baseman Jose Abreu, Holland gave up four consecutive hits (including a home run), but was not charged with any of the five runs that scored.
Holland has also had a chance to pad his stats against the Cleveland Indians. While this seems odd to say, Holland has had his way with the Tribe throughout his career, something Indians announcers were quick to bemoan in his first start against them on April 12. In 11 career meetings, Holland has limited Indians hitters to a .644 OPS and 2.27 ERA. His peripheral numbers aren’t spectacular, but he has a 2.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing only 58 hits in 67 1⁄3 innings. This year, Cleveland has managed just four hits in two matchups against Holland.
Additionally, Holland’s fastball velocity has dropped. After sitting in the 94-95 mile-per-hour range for most of his career, Holland’s velocity dropped to 93 mph last season. He has seen another slight decline in 2017, down to 92.6 mph.
While velocity declines with age, this sharp of a decline is a warning sign, especially for a pitcher with Holland’s injury history. The White Sox have historically been great about keeping pitchers off the disabled list, but there just might not be much left in that arm.
(Now that I’ve said all of those bad things about him, watch Holland throw seven shutout innings.)
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. the unknown
While Holland’s career has largely been marred by injuries, he is still in his ninth MLB season. One would think that a veteran-laden team like the Tigers has faced him several times before, right?
Well, sort of. Holland has faced the Tigers four times in his career with surprising success. He has limited them to a .699 OPS and 2.70 ERA in 23 1⁄3 innings, with 27 strikeouts to boot. However, only five players on the Tigers’ active roster have faced Holland before. Victor Martinez is the only one to have seen him more than four times, and you can bet your last dollar that Alex Avila and his 0-for-4 line won’t be in Saturday’s lineup.
That leaves over half of the Tigers lineup in unfamiliar territory. Can Ian Kinsler solve his former teammate? Can Nick Castellanos snap out of the mini-funk he has been in lately? Can lefty mashers James McCann and John Hicks solve a soft(ish) tosser like Holland?
While a starting pitcher’s performance doesn’t guarantee victory — look at Friday’s game for proof — the team with the better starter generally takes home the W. The Tigers will have to figure out a way to solve Derek Holland, but the White Sox could have an equally tough time solving Michael Fulmer. The young righthander held them in check in an early August matchup at Comerica Park last year, limiting them to a run on five hits in 6 2⁄3 innings. Fulmer has been particularly stingy at home in his brief career, holding opponents to a 2.88 ERA in 12 games. He has a 3.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those 72 innings, which he should improve today against a White Sox lineup with the second-worst walk rate in baseball.
Fulmer delivers his best start of the season and the Tigers snap their skid.