The Detroit Tigers may have caught the Baltimore Orioles at the right time earlier this week. After losing four straight games heading into the mid-week series, the Orioles were nearly swept out of town by an opportunistic Tigers club. While Detroit dropped a heartbreaker on Tuesday, they came back to clinch an important home series win over another playoff contender.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for this weekend. The Tigers’ next opponent, the Texas Rangers, have won nine consecutive games. The winning streak has injected life into a Rangers team that struggled out of the gate. They moved from last place to second in the AL West standings, and enter Friday just a half game out of the second AL Wild Card position. They have not allowed more than five runs in a game on their current streak, and have only one so once since losing a series in Houston in early May.
However, their winning streak deserves a slight asterisk. The Rangers have fattened up against the San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, three teams who are a combined 46-75 this season. The A’s and Padres are in last place, while the Phillies are a half-game out of the cellar. Additionally, eight of Texas’ nine consecutive wins have come at Globe Life Park, where they are 15-8 with a +29 run differential this season. Away from home? The Rangers are just 6-12, with all but two of those games coming against divisional foes. They are just 5-11 against teams above .500 this season, including series losses to the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins.
It takes two to tango, though. The Rangers have done well to beat up on the bad teams they have faced, and have given the Tigers trouble at Comerica Park before. Texas comes in scoring 4.73 runs per game, the fifth-highest rate in the American League. They sit third in the AL with 57 home runs, and lead the league with 34 steals. Their pitching staff has the fourth-lowest ERA in the league, though a 4.62 FIP suggests some regression may be on the way. Like the Tigers, the Rangers’ starting rotation is the strength of the staff, while their bullpen has improved after an early season implosion from their closer, Sam Dyson.
Still, this is a winnable series for Detroit. Texas will be missing two of their best players in Adrian Beltre and Cole Hamels, along with rejuvenated center fielder Carlos Gomez. The Tigers will also be missing Andrew Cashner, who starred in Texas’ win on Wednesday.
Game 1: RHP Nick Martinez (0-2, 5.04 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.34 ERA)
Nick Martinez looked like a good back-end starter when he limited opponents to a 3.96 ERA in 125 major league innings during the 2015 season, but a 4.98 FIP suggested otherwise. The advanced numbers were right, as Martinez has struggled to a 5.35 ERA in 69 innings over his past two seasons. This includes a 5.04 ERA and 5.64 FIP in 30 1⁄3 innings as a starter this season. He has added a cutter and slashed his walk rate this season, but is still giving up too many hits and home runs to be trusted as a permanent option in the rotation.
Game 2: RHP A.J. Griffin (4-0, 3.15 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (3-3, 4.47 ERA)
A.J. Griffin’s four-seam fastball has averaged 88.04 miles per hour this season. While this isn’t quite in Jered Weaver territory yet — Weaver’s heater is down to 84.4 mph, FYI — it certainly doesn’t fit the profile of an undefeated starter with a low-3s ERA and a 3.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has gotten by as an extreme fly ball artist; his 56.1 percent fly ball rate is head and shoulders above everyone else (minimum 30 innings pitched), and only 13.3 percent of balls in play have been line drives. Griffin will probably regress some, as his .209 BABIP won’t last for the whole season.
Game 3: RHP Yu Darvish (4-2, 2.76 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (2-3, 5.18 ERA)
There’s not much to nitpick with Yu Darvish. Sure, his walk rate has been slightly higher this season, and he isn’t striking out quite as many hitters as in recent years. But, he is allowing fewer hits and baserunners per inning, resulting in a lower ERA. He’s the type of ace you hope has an off night when you face him.
Who’s hot: Jonathan Lucroy
The Rangers’ backstop got off to a horrible start this season, hitting .184/.231/.265 through the first three weeks of the season. Since then, however, Lucroy has been on fire. Since April 24, Lucroy is hitting a scalding .351/.397/.491 in 63 plate appearances. He only has one home run during this stretch, but has five doubles and has only struck out three times. He has a 150 wRC+ in the past two weeks, the best on the team.
Who’s not: Rougned Odor
Odor turned heads with a pair of home runs against the Indians on Opening Day, but things have gone downhill from there. The 23-year-old second baseman is hitting just .200/.256/.363 this season, and has just six home runs on the year. He looked poised to break out of his slump when he homered in back-to-back games in early May, but has limped to a 72 wRC+ over the past two weeks. Once he sorts out the pop-ups — he’s doing that almost three times as often this year — he should be just fine.
How the Tigers win this series
There is perhaps no team in the AL more reliant on the home run ball than the Rangeres this season. They have hit 57 home runs as a club and scored 202 runs, yet rank as a below average offense by many statistics. Their 92 wRC+ is tied for fourth-worst among AL teams, and they rank below the league median in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average. They walk at a below average rate and strike out more than all but two AL teams.
How are they so potent, then? The Rangers rank fourth in the AL in isolated power (ISO) and percentage of hits that go for extra bases. Nearly every hitter in their lineup has the ability to change a game with one swing. This might not be the best matchup for the Tigers, who have allowed the third-highest home run rate in the American League this year. However, it’s an important one if they want to come away with a series victory. Texas scores a high percentage of its runs via the home run ball, so it’s crucial that Detroit keep them in the park.
Luckily, the Tigers will be starting a pair of lefties. Texas hitters have only managed a meager 47 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season, and are missing two of their best right-handed bats in Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez. While Boyd’s matchup against Yu Darvish is a tough one, the Tigers should expect to take two of three, especially if their offense keeps clicking with J.D. Martinez back in the fold.