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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: Struggling offense hoping to get on track against Jason Hammel

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Hammel has been the Royals’ worst starter so far in 2017.

Kansas City Royals v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Michael Fulmer faced off against a robust Houston Astros offense last Monday, we called it an instance where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. Fulmer held the Astros lineup in check, but a lackluster effort from a tired Tigers offense resulted in a hard-luck 1-0 loss for the reigning AL Rookie of the Year.

This week, we have the stoppable force heading towards a very movable object. The Tigers offense has been all but nonexistent on this road trip, scoring 23 runs in eight games. They only managed nine runs in their four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, including another disappearing act in a game Fulmer deserved to win.

They might have a chance to get right on Monday, though. Royals starter Jason Hammel has struggled to adjust to his new surroundings this year, allowing a 5.98 ERA in his first nine starts. He has scuffled both at home and on the road, and has allowed seven home runs in 46 23 innings. While he has worked deeper into games lately — he has gone at least six innings in each of his four May starts — the Royals are just 1-8 when he takes the mound.

A big reason for that awful record is a lack of run support. The Royals have scored just 2.09 runs per game with Hammel on the bump, and have objectively been the worst offense in the American League this year. With Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris also looking to get back on track, can they finally get into a groove against the last place Royals?

Detroit Tigers (23-27) at Kansas City Royals (21-28)

Time/Place: 7:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation blog: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.38 ERA) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (1-6, 5.98 ERA)

Game 51 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 49.1 19.3 10.1 3.81 0.8
Hammel 46.2 17.4 8.7 4.75 0.3

There isn’t one specific thing that has gone wrong for Jason Hammel this season. His strikeout and walk rates are both trending in the wrong direction, and his fastball velocity is down a bit. He has continued to allow home runs, and isn’t generating many pop-ups. Opponents are swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, and honing in on the ones inside the zone a bit more. His contact rate is at its highest since a rough 2013 season with the Baltimore Orioles.

Plus, he is working slower than ever (That’s not a reason for his poor performance, it’s just annoying).

However, there’s reason to believe he might regress in a positive way. His 5.98 ERA is over a full run higher than his 4.75 FIP. His home run rate hasn’t gone any higher since last season, and his increased fly ball rate should play well in Kauffman Stadium with a still-stingy Royals outfield behind him. His hard contact rate is identical to what he produced over the past couple seasons, and yet he is a victim of a .349 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Key matchup: Jason Hammel vs. right-handed hitters

Oddly, righties have gotten the better of Hammel this season. They are hitting .372/.429/.570 with five home runs off him this year, an OPS over 250 points higher than that of lefties. These splits probably won’t last — Hammel has been relatively neutral for most of his career, and lefties hit much better against him last season.

If there is anything to this year’s odd splits, it probably relates to predictability. Hammel has thrown either a fastball or slider to right-handed hitters 90 percent of the time over the past three years, with little variance between the two pitches from year-to-year. His fastball location has been a bit more condensed this year; whether its due to adjustment or iffy command, he is throwing up and in to righties more often. The slider, naturally, has been down and away.

Jason Hammel pitch location: fastballs (left) and sliders (right)

Is the binary pitch location a reason for his poor results? It’s possible. Let’s hope the Tigers can lay off that low-and-away slider in this game.

Outlook

What a difference a day makes. Daniel Norris was never scheduled to start against the Chicago White Sox over the weekend, but it’s probably a good thing he wasn’t. The Sox have been baseball’s best offense against left-handed pitching, producing an incredible 132 wRC+ as a team. They were slightly above average against southpaws last season, but have nearly been 2015 J.D. Martinez against them in every single at-bat this year.

The Royals, on the other hand, have a 65 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. That’s 35 percent worse than the league average hitter. Only Brandon Moss and Whit Merrifield have been above average hitters against southpaws, while key contributors like Salvador Perez (28 wRC+), Alex Gordon (50 wRC+) and Mike Moustakas (51 wRC+) have struggled in a big way. Norris will obviously need to hone his command, even against the aggressive Royals offense, but he has a great chance to get back on track against a subpar lineup.

Prediction

Norris improves but the Tigers offense struggles to get going yet again.