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Tigers vs. Rangers Preview: Justin Verlander is still trying to find his rhythm

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The Tigers’ ace currently has the highest walk rate of his career.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

It was about this time last year that Justin Verlander turned it on. He had allowed a 6.49 ERA through his first five starts, and was coming off a brutal outing in a loss against the Cleveland Indians. A seemingly ill-timed tweet followed, and so too did the Justin Verlander we know and love. He held opponents to a 1.91 ERA with 44 strikeouts in his next five starts, and finished the season as a Cy Young finalist.

The timeline is a little delayed this year, but the same pieces are there. Early season struggles? Check. Flashes of dominance without putting it all together? You got it. A really bad loss to the Indians? That’s there too. He has even seen the wrath of the run support gods, as the Tigers have twice given him just one run in starts against AL West opponents.

The only thing different this year is Verlander’s command. Last year, Verlander walked 13 batters in his first five starts, a rate of 3.37 per nine innings. This year, he has walked 12 batters in May alone, and currently has a career-worst walk rate of 11.8 percent. His 1.43 WHIP is also the highest of his career, and his 1.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his worst since 2008.

Luckily, that seems to be the only thing ailing the Tigers’ ace. Verlander is throwing harder than he did in 2016, and the movement on his other pitches hasn’t suffered. He is throwing first-pitch strikes 63.7 percent of the time, a near-identical rate to what he managed last season. Opponents have managed just 44 hits in 48 13 innings, and have only homered five times.

So, we’re left guessing at why Verlander’s command is so spotty. Will he get it sorted out against the Rangers on Saturday?

Texas Rangers (23-20) at Detroit Tigers (20-20)

Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lone Star Ball
Media: FOX, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP A.J. Griffin (4-0, 3.15 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (3-3, 4.47 ERA)

Game 41 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Griffin 34.1 21.7 6.5 4.81 0.4
Verlander 48.1 23.1 11.8 3.96 0.7

Like Nick Martinez on Friday, A.J. Griffin should not be pitching this well. He has limited opponents to a 3.15 ERA in six starts, including a shutout against the woeful San Diego Padres on May 9. The Rangers have won all six of his starts, in large part thanks to a boatload of run support — they have scored at least six runs in each of those games.

However, there’s a bit more to Griffin’s game. He has only averaged 88 miles per hour with his fastball this season, but has racked up 30 strikeouts in 34 13 innings and generated an impressive (for him) 9.3 percent swinging strike rate. The key has been a big, looping curveball that opponents are swinging through 13.3 percent of the time. While it hasn’t generated as high of a swinging strike rate as his changeup (16.7 percent), the curve is his go-to pitch when ahead in the count. He throws it nearly 40 percent of the time when he gets ahead against right-handed hitters, and about 25 percent of the time in like situations against lefties. When they don’t whiff on it, opponents are pounding it into the ground 48 percent of the time.

The key for the Tigers will be to lay off that curveball. At just 67 miles per hour on average, it has enough of a velocity differential from his other pitches to tie hitters up. The Tigers have had trouble with similar slow curves before, and their lineup is right-handed heavy. They will see plenty of this pitch; how they deal with it will likely determine the outcome of this game.

Key matchup: Rangers hitters vs. history

If there’s a matchup that could help Verlander turn his season around, this is it. He has limited the Rangers to a 2.71 ERA in 17 career meetings, with 103 strikeouts in 106 13 innings. Rangers hitters have batted just .222/.281/.327 against him, with just seven home runs in 438 plate appearances.

It gets even better, though. Of the 40 runs Verlander has allowed to the Rangers in his career, 17 came in just two outings: a 10-4 loss in May 2013, and a 12-4 beatdown in May 2014. This gives Verlander a 1.65 ERA in his other 15 starts against Texas.

Plus, no Nelson Cruz.

Outlook

Heading into the season, we pointed at May as a dangerous month for the Tigers. They were scheduled to play a ton of road games, and an early April rainout tacked on one more for good measure. So far, they have held their own, managing an 8-8 record with a +3 run differential. However, with another long road trip looming — and no off days in between — grabbing another series win at home is important. Verlander has a great history against the Rangers, but his mysterious command issues are a bit worrying. Plus, with Griffin pitching well and Victor Martinez away, run support could be hard to come by again. Let’s hope Miguel Cabrera is healthy enough to play in this one.

Prediction

The Tigers offense gets shut down again and they drop their second in a row.