There are many quirks in a 162-game MLB schedule, and the Detroit Tigers have seen them in spades recently. They just closed out the month of May with their first series against the Kansas City Royals, their division rivals that they will play 16 more times over the final four months of the year. That series also capped off a brutal May slate headlined by an 11-game road trip against the Royals, Houston Astros, and Chicago White Sox. Overall, the Tigers played 29 games in May, and 20 took place away from Comerica Park.
One final scheduling quirk? After dropping three of four games to the White Sox last weekend, the Tigers have a chance to exact some quick revenge this weekend. They welcome the Sox in to Comerica Park, where they have won 12 of 22 games this season. The Tigers have outscored their opponents by a total of eight runs at home in those 22 games, an impressive feat considering their -21 run differential on the season.
Meanwhile, the White Sox have been nearly the opposite. They are just 12-17 on the road this season, but have a run differential of just -1. While we are still dealing with a small sample of games — their 16-1 blowout of the Seattle Mariners on May 20 sure looks to be skewing things — they have certainly looked feistier than their sub-.500 record lets on. They have given Detroit fits, outscoring the Tigers by 20 runs in just nine meetings this year.
A big reason for Chicago’s success is their bullpen. Their ‘pen’s 2.84 ERA is third-best in all of baseball, trailing only the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers. Three relievers — David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Anthony Swarzak — have already accumulated a combined 2.3 fWAR, and they are tied for the fewest blown saves in baseball. They also have one of the highest strikeout rates in the game, yet have only worked 167 2⁄3 innings, the ninth-lowest total in the game.
In other words, the Tigers better score early.
Game 1: LHP Derek Holland (4-4, 2.37 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (5-3, 2.65 ERA)
Early on this season, Derek Holland looked like a surefire regression candidate. His ERA was just 1.99 entering a start against the Tigers in late April, and he wasn’t striking out many batters.
May was a different story, though. While his ERA went up slightly to 2.56, he struck out 29 batters in 31 1⁄3 innings. His FIP rose by half a run, but only because of an elevated home run rate. xFIP may be a better indicator of what Holland was able to produce; it decreased from 5.05 in April to 4.49 in May. He also induced more soft contact and ground balls, even with the slight home run spike.
Game 2: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (4-5, 4.43 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-4, 6.47 ERA)
Gonzalez held the Tigers in check in his last start, working 7 2⁄3 innings with six strikeouts. This snapped a streak of three consecutive starts with at least five runs allowed by Gonzalez, one that saw his ERA increase from 3.18 to 4.55. The Tigers roughed him up in his only visit to Comerica Park this season, collecting 14 hits in six innings. He has not fared well in Detroit throughout his career, allowing a 1.087 OPS in four appearances.
Game 3: LHP David Holmberg (0-0, 2.51 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.50 ERA)
Justin Verlander was bested by an unheralded lefthander in his last outing, but David Holmberg is a little bit different (read: worse) than Eric Skoglund. A second round pick in the 2009 draft, Holmberg has only logged 76 1⁄3 major league innings since his brief debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He has allowed a 5.54 ERA with nearly as many walks (40) as strikeouts (41) during that span. FanGraphs gave three of his four pitches below average grades, with a plus changeup the lone exception. While this sounds exactly like the kind of pitcher that will stifle the Tigers offense for six innings, remember that he also couldn’t manage that at Triple-A. In nearly 300 innings at the highest level of the minors, he has a 4.27 ERA and a 1.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Who’s hot: Matt Davidson
AL Central fans have a right to be ticked off with former Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers. Not only did he trade Adam Eaton to the White Sox for pennies on the dollar, but he also coughed up a valuable prospect for reliever Addison Reed. That prospect was Matt Davidson, who is coming into his own this season after finally sorting things out at Triple-A last year. Davidson is currently hitting .258/.303/.515 with 10 home runs in 142 plate appearances. He has been their best hitter over the past two weeks, producing a 153 wRC+ in 14 games played. Strikeouts will be an issue for him — he has 54 in just 41 games played this year — but he is hitting for power against both righties and lefties.
Who’s not: Yolmer Sanchez
He had an excellent May, producing a 114 wRC+ in 27 games played, but Sanchez’s BABIP luck might be running out. Over the past two weeks, Sanchez hit .220/.291/.320 with zero home runs, just a 65 wRC+. His BABIP during that stretch was .282, which lowered his month-long BABIP to a still-unsustainable .403. He has done well to improve his strikeout and walk rates this year, but is still swinging at 35 percent of pitches outside the strike zone without improving his contact rate at all. Nearly all of that value has come against left-handed pitching too; against righties he has a .658 OPS with 23 strikeouts to just three walks.
How the Tigers win this series
It should have been abundantly clear after the introduction of this post. The Tigers need to avoid the teeth of Chicago’s bullpen in this series by scoring early and often against their mediocre starters. While Holland has proven to be a solid mid-rotation option this year, Gonzalez and struggled and Holmberg is an uninspiring option who will probably be on a short leash. The Tigers offense needs to make life difficult for all three pitchers, and get back to working counts with the same intensity they showed earlier in the season.
Manager Brad Ausmus also deserves some credit for juggling his rotation for this series. With an off day Monday, the Tigers could afford to bump Justin Verlander up for a start against a Sox lineup that has struggled to hit right-handed pitching this season. Their 80 wRC+ against righties is third-worst in baseball. Getting lefty Daniel Norris out of dodge — the Sox have been baseball’s best offense against southpaws — was just as important as moving Verlander up for another start against a divisional foe.
Now it’s up to the offense to give him and the rest of the pitching staff some run support.