If there’s one wild card for the Detroit Tigers heading into 2017, it’s Jordan Zimmermann. The 30-year-old righthander was a non-factor for the Tigers throughout most of last season, logging just 105 1⁄3 innings with an ERA near 5. He only pitched in four games after July 1 and was absolutely brutal in them; he gave up 15 runs on 17 hits in just 9 2⁄3 innings across those four outings. While Zimmermann’s velocity ticked upward during spring training, the neck injury that sidelined him for so long last season is still a concern after he gave up 15 runs on 20 hits in 14 1⁄3 Grapefruit League innings.
However, look at what the Tigers did as a team last season. They won 86 of their 161 games, and were within sniffing distance of the playoffs as late as the last weekend of the season. Now, remember that they did this almost entirely without their presumed No. 2 starter. Sure, Michael Fulmer stepped into that void wonderfully, but having a healthy and effective Zimmermann for the whole season likely would have vaulted the Tigers into that AL Wild Card matchup. From there? Who knows what could have happened.
It’s too early in the season to draw definitive conclusions from such small samples. Justin Verlander looked ace-like again on Opening Day, while Matt Boyd looked destined for a demotion two days later. These things may change from start to start (especially with a young pitcher like Boyd). That said, we should get a good feel of how Zimmermann’s injury is affecting him on Saturday. Is his velocity back to pre-2016 levels? Can he spot his fastball and keep the vaunted Red Sox lineup in check?
Boston Red Sox (2-1) at Detroit Tigers (2-1)
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: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (3-7, 4.71 ERA in 2016) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (9-7, 4.87 ERA in 2016)
Game 4 Pitching Matchup
Eduardo Rodriguez had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2016, but flashed considerable promise at times, such as when he struck out 13 Tampa Bay Rays in a road start on September 25. He wasn’t quite that dominant for the entire year, but had an excellent second half with a 3.24 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 77 2⁄3 innings after July 16. What was the difference? FanGraphs’ Trey Baughn explored the conundrum on Rodriguez’s player page.
Whatever the 24 year old lefty adjusted in just two Pawtucket starts stuck, as “E-Rod” was recalled again in mid-July and was an entirely different (better) pitcher over his next 76 innings, pitching to a 3.68 ERA, striking out more than a batter per inning (10.4 K/9), and giving up just 60 hits in the process. In fact, in the 60 innings he pitched in August and September combined, Rodriguez held batters to a .185/.268/.294 and gave up just four home runs, and issue that had plagued him heavily earlier in the season (1.35 HR per nine innings). What changed to make E-Rod a different pitcher in the 2nd half of last season? Much of E-Rod’s second half improvement seems to have come from gradually increasing his two-seam fastball and changeup usage over his slider, thereby giving him a more effective four pitch repertoire to keep batters guessing. His changeup was particularly effective (18.9% swinging strike rate), which bodes well for future improvement against right handed hitters.
Rodriguez, a former top-100 prospect, is an X-factor for the Red Sox rotation. Rick Porcello and Chris Sale should be fine, but David Price’s questionable health leaves the Red Sox with three relatively unproven starters at the back end. If Rodriguez can step up and deliver more performances like what he produced late last summer, the Sox should be just fine.
Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. gusts of wind
Two years ago, a windy day like Saturday would not have fazed Zimmermann in the slightest. He was more of a ground ball artist back then, generating grounders at rates as high as 47.6 percent in 2013. As such, he was very good at limiting home runs. Over the past two years, things have changed. Zimmermann has started allowing more fly balls than before, including a 38.9 percent in 2016. Naturally, this has led to more home runs. Zimmermann gave up 1.2 home runs per nine innings last season, the highest rate of his career. He has also allowed a home run on more than 10 percent of the fly balls he has allowed over the past two years. While this is not all that high compared to others — AL pitchers gave up home runs on 13 percent of fly balls last season — it is higher than what Zimmermann has done before.
Anyway, let’s hope the wind is blowing in today.
I think a number of fans were surprised when manager Brad Ausmus brought out Francisco Rodriguez for a four-out save on Friday. Ausmus has been resistant to that ploy in the past, but ultimately relented in the summer months last season. To do it on April 7 is a bit different, though, and it speaks to the close playoff race the Tigers expect to be in later this season. We can argue about whether Rodriguez is the right reliever for this role, but grabbing wins against good competition like the Red Sox is important no matter the date. It’s nice to see Ausmus getting aggressive with his bullpen usage; hopefully the pitchers he calls upon can keep leads late in games.
The Red Sox mount another late inning comeback, but hold their lead this time.