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Tigers vs. Astros Preview: Jordan Zimmermann still looking to get on track

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2017 has not been kind to the Tigers’ right-hander so far.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No starting rotation is going to find much success with four of the five starters sitting above 4.00 in ERA, and the Detroit Tigers have not been the exception.

Aside from Michael Fulmer, the starting five has looked awfully questionable, struggling in almost every statistical area. The bullpen has fared slightly better as of late, but on the whole, the pitching staff has been disappointing so far this season.

No one personifies this struggle more than Jordan Zimmermann. An excellent starter during his time with the Washington Nationals, Zimmermann experienced a forgettable 2016 after a mid-season injury and a rough end-of-the-year stretch. The Tigers hoped his performance would revert to his pre-injury levels, but 2017 has proved to be the opposite so far.

There is no way around the numbers this year: Zimmermann has been awful. His ERA, FIP, and WHIP all rank among the bottom 10 of qualified starters, and he has allowed at least three runs in every start since Opening Day. He has yet to top six innings in one outing, and he is on pace for a career-low in strikeouts and his highest walk rate since 2010.

All of this adds up a dangerous outlook with a potent Houston Astros lineup at the plate. Do the Tigers even stand a chance with Zimmermann on the mound?

Detroit Tigers (21-22) at Houston Astros (30-15)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation blog: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV Free Game of the Day, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-2, 6.25 ERA) vs. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1, 2.65 ERA)

Game 44 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 44.2 14.0 7.0 6.06 -0.2
McCullers 54.1 27.2 6.8 3.07 1.3

Lance McCullers Jr. is in his third season in the majors, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. In 261 career innings, McCullers owns a 3.10 ERA and 3.19 FIP, striking out over 10 batters per nine innings while limiting opponents to a .234 batting average. Among American League starters with at least 250 innings since 2015, he ranks first in ERA and second in FIP.

After dealing with some elbow issues last season, McCullers has shown no setbacks in 2017. He again sits near the top of the statistical leader board and has formed an excellent partnership with Dallas Keuchel at the front of the Houston rotation.

McCullers enters Tuesday’s matchup on fire, having allowed zero earned runs in his last 22 innings, including three-straight scoreless starts. He has faced the Tigers just once before, surrendering a pair of runs over six innings back in 2015, his second career start.

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. scoring runs

While Fulmer was able to keep the Astros in check on Monday, it would be quite a surprise to see Zimmermann find the same level of success. For the Tigers to win, they will likely need a hearty volume of runs, which is no small task against a pitcher like McCullers. After struggling against Brad Peacock and the Astros’ bullpen, it is hard to be too optimistic about their chances.

Still, Detroit has the ability to bust out the bats, and McCullers is not unhittable. The Tigers offense has been silent the past few days, but is not far removed from a string of decent performances. McCullers has a 4.79 ERA during the first and second innings of his career; the Tigers need to jump on him early if they are going to find success.

Outlook

On paper, this matchup does not look good for the Tigers. Zimmermann appears as if his ceiling may be average at best, and an offense like Houston’s is bound to take advantage of his slow start. Meanwhile, McCullers has pitched like one of the top starters in the league so far this season. The Tigers bats are still waking up, and the offense falls in the middle of the majors in batting average and wRC+ this month. There is always a chance for the elite hitters to break out, but this matchup favors the Astros.

Prediction

Zimmermann gets roughed up and the Tigers drop Game 2.