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Tigers vs. Rays Preview: We’re still waiting for Justin Verlander to get back on track

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Sitting, waiting, wishing...

Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Rays (35-33) at Detroit Tigers (30-34)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Alex Cobb (5-5, 4.29 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.68 ERA)

Game 65 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Cobb 79.2 16.8 6.8 4.34 0.8
Verlander 75.0 20.7 11.1 4.58 0.8

Cobb’s overall numbers look rather pedestrian, but that underlies how good he has actually been. From this week’s series preview:

Alex Cobb’s full-season return from Tommy John surgery doesn’t look to have gone to plan, but he has the Seattle Mariners to blame for that. At the start of June, Cobb had managed a respectable 3.67 ERA, though a meager strikeout rate had left him with a slightly higher FIP, at 4.22. The Mariners tagged Cobb for nine runs on 14 hits in that early June meeting, ballooning his ERA to 4.52. He enjoyed a nice bounce-back outing against the Oakland Athletics in his last start, but his 4.29 ERA is still a bit higher than what he had sustained for the first two months of the year. He has been significantly better against the Tigers throughout his career, limiting them to just nine runs (eight earned) in five starts.

While his ERA has been rather tidy for most of the year, there are a couple of worrying trends. He has only struck out 16.8 percent of batters, well below his career rate of 20 percent. His swinging strike rate is also down nearly three percentage points from a peak in 2015, which doesn’t bode well for his future success.

The reason? Cobb’s velocity has dropped somewhat from his pre-surgery days, but not to the extent that you would blame his fastball for his strikeout shortcomings. No, the answer seems to be in his out-pitches — specifically, his splitter. Normally his go-to offering with two strikes, Cobb’s splitter isn’t falling out of the strike zone as often these days.

Prior to his surgery, Cobb was generating whiffs nearly 20 percent of the time on his splitter. This year, he is down to just 12.8 percent; I would imagine this is because he isn’t getting quite as much movement on the pitch.

Key matchup: Justin Verlander vs. himself

Copied and pasted from Verlander’s last start:

The real question remains whether Verlander is healthy enough to give his team the outing they need to make some success against Sale count. Assuming that he is, the fastball should be plenty good enough to do its part. The velocity and life are as good as we’ve seen in years. But, if that’s all he’s got, the Red Sox are going to hammer the fastball no matter who is throwing it. So, the questions continue to revolve around Verlander’s command and breaking pitches.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to expect that Verlander will simply flip the switch on Saturday night. The minor groin strain that ended his last start prematurely may be behind him, but he probably didn’t get much work in this week beyond just trying to get right physically. So we probably can’t expect to see a set of breaking balls cured of their 2017 ills just yet.

That didn’t happen. Verlander struggled to locate yet again, walking four in five very inefficient innings against Boston. He only struck out three. The Tigers need Verlander to be something closer to the Cy Young winner he should have been in 2016 if they are going to make a playoff push this year.

Outlook

Our friends at Beyond the Box Score did the dirty work for us in identifying a true cause for Justin Verlander’s issues: opponents aren’t chasing as often as they did last season. By forcing Verlander to pitch within the strike more, he has been hit harder, especially when he elevates his fastball.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why all of those sliders and curveballs aren’t quite as enticing this season. The Tigers have been quick to comment on how good Verlander’s stuff looks, but his rotten command has made those quotes moot. If Verlander can’t rediscover his mechanics or grip or whatever seems to be ailing him when he gets away from his fastball, he will be in trouble against a Rays lineup that loves to aggressively attack fastballs in all counts.

Prediction

Cobb rolls again and the Tigers lose their third in a row.