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Tigers vs. Astros Preview: Michael Fulmer looking to slow down powerful Houston offense

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The unstoppable force meets the immovable object on Monday.

Baltimore Orioles v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation was projected to be a strength of the team prior to the 2017 season. With a trio of young starters and should-be Cy Young winner Justin Verlander at the helm, they were supposed to paper over any rough patches from the bullpen or top-heavy offense. Instead, the rotation has been a weakness, ranking second-to-last in the American League with a 4.63 ERA. Other statistical measures are a little more forgiving, but not enough to project major improvements from this starting five.

I shudder to think of what those numbers would be like without Michael Fulmer. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year has been the rock of the Tigers’ rotation, pitching to a 2.72 ERA and 3.25 FIP in eight starts. He has shown no ill effects of a major increase in his workload last season, throwing eight consecutive quality starts to begin the year. As a result, the Tigers have won six of those games, including three in a row on the road.

Already this month, Fulmer has opened road series against AL West foes with dominant outings. The Houston Astros offense is a different animal than what he faced in Oakland and Anaheim, though. Can Fulmer make it three in a row against the high-powered Astros on Monday?

Detroit Tigers (21-21) at Houston Astros (29-15)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (5-1, 2.72 ERA) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (2-0, 1.10 ERA)

Game 43 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Fulmer 53.0 21.3 6.0 3.25 1.3
Peacock 16.1 33.3 15.2 2.37 0.3

Brad Peacock is a mystery. A mediocre pitcher heading into this season, he has fanned 22 batters in 16 1/3 relief innings. From the series preview:

Something has been different this year, though. Peacock has doubled his swinging strike rate, and is fanning 12 batters per nine innings. He also has a 15.2 percent walk rate, but the massive strikeout rate has helped him limit opponents to a .127 batting average and 1.10 ERA. The difference seems to be a slider that he started throwing much more often last season; it is generating a 24.7 percent whiff rate this year despite averaging just 80.7 miles per hour.

This isn’t even one of those “I’mma throw a bunch of high fastballs” situations either. Peacock has gone inside with his heater a little more often this year, but is otherwise working with the same mediocre arsenal that resulted in a mid-4s ERA when he was a full-time starter. Let’s hope the uptick in strikeouts is simply a coincidence related to the small sample of innings -- remember when Andrew Romine had an OPS north of 1.000? — and he regresses to the mean on Monday.

Key matchup: Astros hitters vs. lots and lots of strikeouts

In recent years, the Astros have had some of the highest strikeout rates in baseball. Some of the years they spent atop that particular leaderboard can be attributed to the threadbare rosters they fielded. But, they still managed to whiff quite a bit even after their recent resurgence. They had the second-highest strikeout rate in baseball during their 2015 Wild Card season, and were fourth in MLB last season, fanning 23.4 percent of the time.

This year, they have completely reversed course. The Astros currently have the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, a full four percentage points lower than last season’s rate. As one might imagine, they have one of the better contact rates in the league. While this has had some adverse effects -- they lead the league in double plays, for instance -- it has generally helped them become an even more dangerous offense than before.

Outlook

While the Astros aren’t striking out as often, their contact-heavy approach has turned them into one of the more aggressive offenses in the game. They are swinging at the first pitch of a plate appearance 30 percent of the time, one of the highest rates in the American League. They are also seeing just 3.82 pitches per plate appearance, the third lowest figure in the AL. This aggressive approach worked well against Fulmer in his last start, when the Orioles scored four runs off him. Also, the Astros have been baseball’s best offense against fastballs this year, but their numbers against off-speed pitches are slightly below average. If Fulmer adjusts and goes to his slider or changeup early, he could have a lot of success.

Prediction

Fulmer keeps on rolling and the Tigers take game one.