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Tigers vs. Astros Preview: Justin Verlander can deliver a series split for Detroit

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The Tigers need a happy flight to Chicago.

Detroit Tigers v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The travel-heavy month of May has been rough on the Detroit Tigers, and they aren’t out of the woods yet. The next few days may represent the toughest point in the entire schedule. With Thursday’s game to wrap the four-game set with the Houston Astros followed by a red-eye right into a Friday doubleheader against the pesky Chicago White Sox, the Tigers need a great outing from their starter. This is not just to secure a win and split the series, but to preserve the bullpen for what promises to be a long weekend.

Fortunately, they have just the guy for the task. Justin Verlander will look to handle the Astros while going as deep into the game as possible, as this four-game series concludes.

The story of Verlander’s season has centered around the ugly walk rate he has run so far. Still, even with his spotty control, the strikeouts are coming in bunches. He has had no trouble pitching into the seventh inning consistently either. The home run issues that bit him at times in 2016 have rarely reared their head so far this season. The Astros, however, are a team that will put that to the test.

What has gotten lost is just how fierce Verlander has looked when the command is on point. It’s easy to make a case that his raw stuff is even better than it was late last season when he was in Cy Young form. Known for ramping up his velocity throughout the year, Verlander is already averaging 94.9 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball. That’s nearly a full mile per hour harder than he threw on average last season. The increase in velocity has been even more striking with his slider, which is averaging over 90 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the spin rate on both pitches remains among the elite in the game.

Verlander has been his usual cryptic self about his adjustments this season. He has let slip that he has continued to look at film from his pre-injury peak in 2011-2013, working his mechanics back to that MVP form, and feels close to having it locked in. The leap in velocity seems to justify those changes. The walk issues may just indicate a need to harness this additional power. We’re not quite ready to predict four months of triple-digit fastballs to close out his starts, but it’s incredible that such talk isn’t far-fetched for the 34-year-old ace.

In his last outing against the Texas Rangers, Verlander walked just one batter for only the second time this season. Things seem to be trending in the right direction. Thursday would be a perfect time to put it all together. The Tigers really need a classic Verlander outing, and he tends to come through in those situations. But he’ll face a stern test from a deep and powerful Astros offense.

Detroit Tigers (22-23) at Houston Astros (31-16)

Time/Place: 8:10 p.m. ET/Minute Maid Park
SB Nation Blog: Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (4-3, 4.39 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (1-2, 5.14 ERA)

Game 46 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Verlander 55.1 22.6 7.3 4.01 0.8
Fiers 42 19.6 8.7 7.72 -1

As his numbers attest, 2017 has not been kind to Mike Fiers. We’re a few years on from his brief emergence as a quality starting pitcher now, and that window of success is just a memory. He was never really a strikeout artist, and now his control has grown suspect as well. But the real soft spot has been his propensity to give up home runs this season.

Fiers is currently running a rate of 3.64 home runs per nine innings, a dinger every two or three frames. That is Anibal Sanchez territory, and it makes one wonder how much longer the Astros can keep running him out there. Given their stellar record so far, it appears they have enough margin for error to see if Fiers can pull himself together.

More remarkable is that Fiers also holds a strand rate over 90 percent, and is running an extremely low BABIP of just .235. You could make a compelling argument that Fiers has actually been a bit lucky. On the other hand, just about everything hit hard against him has left the park. Fiers still holds a fairly solid whiff rate, but he isn’t putting hitters away. Hitters aren’t chasing out of the zone, and his contact rate within the zone sits at 89 percent.

Fiers’ high-spin, low velocity four-seam fastball remains his primary offering, but the pitch has been battered over the past two seasons. This year, he has allowed a .447 isolated power (ISO) off the fastball. In response, he has tapered his usage and added more of his cutter to compensate. The Tigers seem to struggle at times with pitchers who can mix fastball types with good location, but Fiers’ lack of velocity and command right now doesn’t bode well for him, even against a Tigers offense that has been quiet of late.

Fiers’ secondary pitches are a changeup and a slow, looping curveball of the sort that sometimes handcuffs the Tigers. Like his fastball, though, Fiers hasn’t been able to locate either one consistently. His saving grace is that after seeing his rising four-seamer, hitters tend to pound both off-speed pitches into the ground. Detroit’s hitters will need to hunt the fastball and cutter successfully in this one.

Key Matchup: Verlander vs. his walk rate

Justin Verlander has had plenty of success against many of the lefties Astros manager A.J. Hinch can employ against him. Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick both have struggled against the Tigers’ ace in large enough samples to expect the same in this game. The one wild card in that equation may be the hot-hitting Marwin Gonzalez.

On the other hand, Jose Altuve has a career OPS of 1.252 against Verlander. George Springer has also had some success, as has Carlos Correa, assuming he’s over his illness and back in the lineup. Verlander can, of course, handle these three, but not if they are coming to the plate with runners on base.

Verlander needs to take advantage of the rest of the Astros’ lineup to allow himself to pitch to their big three hitters with abandon. Cutting out the walks is the key to going deep in the game. Recent history suggests that the Astros will have their hands full despite a few individual success stories against the Tigers’ ace.

Verlander faced the Astros twice last season, allowing four earned runs in 15 innings of work. In particular, his outing against them on July 30 was a masterpiece. On that day, Verlander spun a complete game, allowing one run against 11 strikeouts. If he avoids the free passes, look for another dominant, deep outing against the aggressive Astros’ lineup.

Outlook

Despite what our friend stevenyc will tell you, there are few must-win games in the course of a season. This is probably one of them. Facing a doubleheader tomorrow, the team is going to be weary. They will presumably be running Buck Farmer out there for his first start of the season. The Tigers need their bats to take advantage of Fiers early and give their ace the margin to cruise.

Prediction

Bombs are hit on both sides, but Verlander limits the damage — and probably throws 120 pitches — en route to victory.