I have never spent time in a professional sports team’s locker room, but knowing how demoralizing late-game losses are to a fan, I can only imagine how frustrating they are to the players involved in the competition. They do a good job of hiding their anger and frustration from the media — they are professionals, after all — but too many losses like that probably start to wear on a team over time.
After two ninth inning losses in Oakland over the weekend, the Detroit Tigers are looking for a bit of redemption. They travel to Arizona for a quick two-game set against the Diamondbacks, who are dealing with their own issues right now. After a 15-9 start with series wins over the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians, and Los Angeles Dodgers, the D’Backs have come back to earth a bit. They are just 3-6 in their last nine games, losing consecutive series to the Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals, and Rockies again.
Surprisingly, the Arizona offense has been the main reason for their recent slump. They are scoring just three runs per game in their recent skid, and have fallen back from a torrid run scoring pace to start the year. They won’t stay down for long, though. Paul Goldschmidt is terrorizing the National League once again, and is joined by sluggers Jake Lamb and Yasmany Tomas, a healthy A.J. Pollock, and breakout candidate Chris Owings.
The real shocker, however, has been their pitching. As a team, they own a 3.90 ERA, good enough for fourth in the National League. Their 3.58 FIP is second in the NL, and they are striking out 24.3 percent of all batters faced, also second in the the league. Their starters are going deeper into games, and the bullpen has been useful so far — well, outside of former Tigers pitcher Fernando Rodney.
Preseason expectations may have been low for the D’Backs, but they look the part of a .500 ballclub (if not an outright contender) so far. Can the Tigers get back on track against Arizona?
Game 1: RHP Justin Verlander (2-2, 4.21 ERA) vs. LHP Robbie Ray (2-2, 3.47 ERA)
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to regret their team parting ways with lefthander Robbie Ray. In 2015, Ray was worth 2.1 fWAR for the Diamondbacks, posting a 3.52 ERA with decent peripherals in 127 2⁄3 innings. He followed that up with an odd 2016 season in which his ERA skyrocketed to 4.90 in 32 starts. However, Ray improved his strikeout rate to 28.1 percent, tied for the fourth-highest among qualified MLB pitchers.
The player Ray tied with? Justin Verlander, who has seen his strikeout rate drop to just 22.6 percent in his first six starts. The lack of Ks aren’t a problem yet. Verlander has two outings with eight-plus strikeouts already and his 7.6 percent swinging strike rate is bound to improve. He has a good matchup against the whiff-happy D’Backs on Tuesday.
Game 2: LHP Matt Boyd (2-2, 3.78 ERA) vs. RHP Zack Godley (0-0, 3.60 ERA)
For a pitcher that projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter, Godley had some interesting peripheral numbers in 2016. In 74 2⁄3 innings with the D’Backs last season, Godley induced a 53.8 percent ground ball rate and generated a swinging strike rate of 11.8 percent. However, he wasn’t able to turn many of those whiffs into strikeouts, with just 60 in those 74 2⁄3 frames. When hitters did make contact, it was loud; Godley allowed 1.57 home runs per nine innings, a big reason why he finished the year with a 6.39 ERA.
Who’s hot: Paul Goldschmidt
Already one of the best hitters in the game, Goldschmidt is on another level right now. Over the past two weeks, he is hitting a white-hot .409/.519/.727, good enough for a “just walk him already” 219 wRC+. He is hitting .316/.451/.561 with seven home runs (and eight steals!) on the season. While his swinging strike rate is higher than last season, he has more walks than strikeouts. His hard contact rate is 46.7 percent, the 15th-highest rate in baseball.
Yeah, he’s good.
Who’s not: Jake Lamb
Jake Lamb did his best Brennan Boesch impression in 2016. The 26-year-old lefty slugger hit .291/.371/.612 with 20 home runs in the first half. While it didn’t earn him an All-Star bid, it caught the eye of the sabermetric community. Lamb had more than doubled his isolated power thanks to the same “drop the hands, elevate everything” focus that has permeated baseball locker rooms over the past few seasons. While his second half production cratered, he still finished the year with 29 home runs, a .260 ISO, and a 114 wRC+.
On the whole, the 2017 season has been more of the same for Lamb. He has a 115 wRC+ this time around, with seven home runs in his first 30 games played. However, Lamb has fallen off recently, batting just .171/.292/.390 in the past two weeks. His walk rate and power indicate that this slump should be short-lived, but the Tigers would sure like it if his skid continued for another couple days. Of note: Lamb is striking out 32.1 percent of the time this year, up from a 25.9 percent clip in 2016.
How the Tigers win this series
The Diamondbacks have been one of baseball’s best offensive teams this season, scoring 4.82 runs per game. This is nothing new for Arizona, who managed to field above-average lineups in 2015 and 2016 despite losing a combined 173 games in those two seasons. They have been even more lethal at home this season, scoring 110 runs in their 17 games at Chase Field.
They have fallen off a bit lately, though. The D’Backs have lost six of their last nine games and are scoring just three runs per game in those contests. While it’s easier said than done for the Tigers to continue limiting Arizona’s high-octane offense, the numbers suggest that they could succeed. Justin Verlander should rack up several swings and misses against an offense that has the fourth-highest strikeout rate in baseball. Matt Boyd is facing a lineup that has a 78 wRC+ this season against left-handed pitching. If the bullpen can continue pitching well — we have a suggestion for improvement — the Tigers could escape the desert with a win or two.