Once you look beyond the stellar numbers and the Cy Young Awards adorning their respective trophy cases, there aren’t many similarities between Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. Tigers fans expected greatness from Verlander the day he was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2004. He hardly spent any time in the minors and, aside from a brief hiccup in his 2005 call-up, has been everything we had hoped for. He is a six-time All-Star, his Baseball Reference page is littered with black ink, and he is just a few votes away from being the 10th pitcher in MLB history with three Cy Youngs.
Kluber is a bit different. A relatively unheralded fourth round pick out of Stetson University, Kluber struggled with his command a bit early in his time in the San Diego Padres farm system. He was a part of the infamous Jake Westbrook deal in 2010 — we all remember how that one turned out, right? — and had a rather inauspicious MLB debut with the Tribe in 2011. He improved in 2012 and 2013, but it wasn’t until his Cy Young-winning season in 2014 that the rest of baseball really took notice.
It wasn’t until 2016 that their season-long numbers started to mirror one another, but one trend emerged a bit earlier: both have struggled to get going in April. Kluber has a career 4.04 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in the first month of the season (relative to 3.36 and 1.14 for his career), while Verlander’s well-documented April struggles have resulted in a career 4.00 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Those early season jitters reared their ugly heads in the first meeting between these two; the 15 earned runs they combined to allow was the highest ever total for a head-to-head meeting between two Cy Young winners.
Their numbers have been much better in May and beyond, though. Can the respective offenses keep up?
Cleveland Indians (14-11) at Detroit Tigers (13-12)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Corey Kluber (3-1, 4.19 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-2, 4.60 ERA)
Game 26 Pitching Matchup
Part of this may be due to his April struggles, but Kluber’s batted ball profile has taken a turn for the worse in 2017. Opponents managed a 23.9 percent line drive rate off him last month, resulting in a 4.19 ERA. He allowed hard contact on 42.4 percent of balls put in play, much higher than his career rate of 27.6 percent. Opponents also pulled the ball 46.7 percent of the time, a sign they are seeing the ball well out of his hand.
Of course, one bad start can skew all of those numbers right now. Justin Verlander has only allowed six earned runs (eight total) in his four starts outside of Cleveland, but has also seen his batted ball rates trend in the wrong direction. His line drive, hard contact, and pull rates are up to 22.9 percent, 36.1 percent, and 44.6 percent, respectively. All would be career-worsts if the season ended today.
Key matchup: Corey Kluber vs. Miguel Cabrera
Saying Kluber is the unluckiest pitcher in baseball probably is not accurate -- he is blessed with a mid-90s fastball, after all -- but I’m sure he feels like it this week. The reason? Miguel Cabrera was activated off the disabled list earlier Tuesday afternoon. While Cabrera is a menace to all pitchers, he has been particularly problematic for Kluber throughout his career. In 53 plate appearances, Cabrera is hitting a robust .440/.472/.800 with five home runs. Kluber got the best of the Tigers’ slugger last season, limiting him to a single hit in 13 plate appearances. Cabrera tagged Kluber for a double in their first meeting this season, however, signaling that he has adjusted to whatever the Klubot managed to fool him with last year.
A lot has been made of Verlander’s struggles against the Indians since his rough outing a couple weeks ago, but most of those issues have come in Cleveland. Verlander has a career 5.72 ERA at Progressive Field, but a 3.45 ERA against the Indians at Comerica Park. His peripherals against the Tribe at home are strong as well, with a 25.9 percent strikeout rate in 140 innings. While those numbers are skewed by his strong early work — he was tagged for eight runs on nine hits in a start at home last season — he should bounce back at least somewhat against the Tribe tonight.
Runs are hard to come by but the Tigers sneak by with a close win.