After rain washed away part of their opening series in Chicago, the Detroit Tigers head home for the real Opening Day at Comerica Park. Awaiting them are the Boston Red Sox, an offensive juggernaut that won 93 games in 2016 and look even better on paper as the 2017 season opens. The Red Sox also had one of their three opening games rained out. They head into this series with a slightly juggled rotation — the Tigers will miss lefthander Drew Pomeranz — following a rainout on Thursday.
While their rotation has been scrambled somewhat, knuckleballer Steven Wright was scheduled for Friday all along. Wright did his best R.A. Dickey impression in the first half of 2016, limiting opponents to a 2.68 ERA in the first half. He struck out 94 batters in 114 first half innings, but also walked 43. A baserunning injury, of all things, limited him to just seven starts after the All-Star break, and they did not go well. Wright lowered his walk rate to 7.8 percent in those outings, but gave up a whopping 25 runs (24 earned) in 42 2⁄3 innings.
Meanwhile, the Tigers send reigning AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer to the mound for his first start of 2017. Can Fulmer bring home a W on Opening Day in Detroit?
Boston Red Sox (2-0) at Detroit Tigers (1-1)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Steven Wright (13-6, 3.33 ERA in 2016) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (11-7, 3.06 ERA in 2016)
Game 3 Pitching Matchup
Like R.A. Dickey, Wright was at his best when throwing his knuckeball a little harder than normal. Wright averaged close to 75 mph with the knuckler during the first half of last season, but tailed off a bit as the year went on. He doesn’t quite have Dickey’s velocity — the former NL Cy Young winner was in the high-70s in his knuckeballing prime — but Wright was still able to command it relatively well at higher speeds. Opponents swung and missed on Wright’s knuckler 11.6 percent of the time last season, and were above 13 percent for most of the first half.
The cooler temperatures in store for today’s game will also work to Wright’s advantage. Knuckleballers are prone to giving up more home runs than most pitchers — though Wright did well to limit homers last season — but the ball doesn’t fly well on cool days at Comerica Park. Would-be home runs could turn into long flyouts, especially against a defensive outfield that accumulated +42 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season.
Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. regression
This will be a key storyline all season long, but Fulmer is coming off a season in which his numbers looked a tad bit fortunate. He rode a 33 1⁄3 inning scoreless streak to a 3.06 ERA last season, but his peripheral numbers all suggested that his ERA should have been in the mid-3s. Fulmer lends himself to beating those peripheral numbers by keeping the ball on the ground and limiting walks, but he probably won’t reproduce a .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season. One game won’t be nearly enough to tell us whether regression is due in 2017 — remember, it took a few starts before he was Michael F’ing Fulmer last year — but it would be nice to see him get off to a good start.
Friday’s home opener will arguably be Fulmer’s biggest test of the season. He is pitching in a charged atmosphere on Opening Day, has to deal with cold, windy conditions, and is facing the best lineup in baseball. They led all of baseball with a 113 wRC+ last season, and hit 208 home runs. Luckily for Fulmer, David Ortiz and his 1.021 OPS are no longer around, but the Sox still have plenty of firepower up and down their lineup. Fulmer will need to work carefully and efficiently, especially at the top of the lineup. The Red Sox saw nearly four pitches per plate appearance last season, the second-highest total in the American League. Strike one is vital against this lineup, and Fulmer will need to get ahead to keep Boston’s dangerous bats at bay.
The Tigers make an early lead stand up and win on Opening Day.