Let’s start with the good news: the Tigers are already faring better this season than they did last year against the Indians. The bad news? They are going into a four-game series against their division rivals with an ace-off between Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander scheduled, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez both off to smoking hot starts, and Jason Kipnis back from the disabled list.
Needless to say, it’s going to be a tough series for the Tigers. At least they have home-field advantage on their side, and are coming off an offensively hot win against the White Sox on Sunday.
We chatted with Joseph Coblitz from Burning River Baseball about how the Indians are doing, what struggles they have had, and why Matthew Boyd might just be the Tigers’ best weapon against Cleveland this week. Follow Joseph on Twitter @BurningRiverBB
BYB: The Tigers will likely be seeing a Trevor Bauer/Daniel Norris match up on Tuesday. Bauer has been struggling so far this season, with his pitches per inning over 18 on average. The Tigers have done well against him in the past, but might still be missing Miguel Cabrera from their lineup for the opening of the series. What do you think has been Bauer’s biggest difficulty this year so far?
BRB: Bauer’s command on the mound has suffered. His success is entirely based on getting ahead of the count early so he can go to a plethora of breaking pitches. This obviously backfired against Detroit last time around as he regularly threw pitches down the middle, resulting in two home runs and six runs allowed in five innings. When he does get ahead early, he has the kind of movement on his curve and speed on his fastball to garner plenty of swings and misses and has struck out 11 per nine innings so far this year.
Last time the Tigers faced the Indians, Corey Kluber wiped the floor with them (sorta). The only Tiger with much success historically against Kluber is Victor Martinez, who has three career home runs off him and has shown signs of getting hot again in this most recent series with Chicago. How do you see the Kluber/Verlander match-up playing out?
Familiarity breeds contempt and there are plenty of reasons for Verlander to hate the Indians (although stealing signs is not one of them). In his career, Cleveland has owned Mr. Kate Upton with a 4.68 ERA in over 300 innings. Of teams he has played at least four times, only the Blue Jays have been better against him. The fact is, the Indians line-up has seen Verlander as much as any pitcher, know what he brings and can hit it.
To be fair, the Tigers also have hit Kluber well historically (4.31 ERA) although much of that success came from 2014 or earlier. He had a rough start to the season, but in his last two starts he’s had a complete game shut out against Chicago and a 7 inning, 10 K, 3 ER affair against Houston. If history is any indicator (which it usually isn’t), the Tigers have a decided advantage in game one, but the Indians should be the favorite in the battle of aces.
Jason Kipnis has returned, but is off to a slow start. Do you see any lingering concern from his injuries, or is he just shaking his minor league dust off?
Kipnis tried to work through the injury early in Spring, pushing back his ultimate recovery and forcing him to miss the rest of Spring Training. Because of that, he’s about a month behind the rest of the league and it isn’t surprising to see him start off slow because of it.
Let’s talk about Jose Ramirez. He’s already smashed six home runs this season and is batting .333/.388/.609 so far this season. This is a tremendous and unexpected start to the season from him. What is he doing differently, and do you think it’s sustainable?
Ramirez hit .312 for the entire 2016 season with 46 doubles and even received two vote points for AL MVP (tied with Verlander). The only real surprise is that his home run numbers have increased, but this could be one of three things; a continuation of whatever is increasing home runs around baseball as a whole, improved strength in his second full season (he definitely put on some muscle in the off-season) or a random variance where a bunch of his homers got lumped together. My guess is it’s a combination of the three and that he’ll end up slugging somewhere slightly under .600.
Which Tiger do you think will be the biggest problem for the Indians this series?
Without Cabrera playing, probably Matthew Boyd. The Indians have improved dramatically against left handers over the past few seasons, but they are still significantly weaker than against right handers. Boyd in particular has seen some success against the Indians hitters (minus Encarnacion) and with the next off day for the Indians coming on May 11th, there’s a great chance they’ll use this opportunity to bench Kipnis and Michael Brantley. Since Francona has been using the struggling Brandon Guyer as #3 hitter with Brantley out, the Indians line-up will be significantly shortened.
Cleveland has struggled to maintain their hold on first place, especially with so much inter-division play starting the season. Do you think there’s anything specific causing difficulty for them, or is it just the usual early-season standings shuffle?
While the schedule has been divisional heavy, the Indians biggest problem was a three game sweep by the Diamondbacks the second series in the season. No one expected the DBacks to be as good as they have been and that really set the Tribe back. Of course, the rest of the division will have to play them as well as the surprisingly hot Rockies and the Dodgers as well, who were expected to be good. The Indians going 9-4 in their last 13 heading into Sunday including a series win against early AL favorite Houston has helped maintain confidence.
Do you think the Indians can take it a bit easier on the Tigers than last season? (Please and thanks)
Do you think I was born yesterday? Remember 2011? The Indians came in second in the AL Central and went 6-12 vs Detroit. 2013? The Indians came in second in the Central, won the Wild Card, but lost the one game play-off. They went 4-15 vs Detroit. In 2014 and 2015 the Indians were over .500, but missed the play-offs and went a combined 15-22 vs Detroit. The Indians owe the Tigers at least three more years of utter domination to make up.
Thanks a ton to Joseph for taking the time to chat about our favorite love-to-hate division rivals. The next four games should be interesting ones for both the Tigers and the division standings in general.