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Tigers vs. White Sox Preview: Jordan Zimmermann is still searching for answers

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The Tigers’ $110 million man has been the AL’s worst starter this season.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

While the offense has disappeared at times and the bullpen had a rough April, most of the blame for the Detroit Tigers’ slow start should fall on the shoulders of the starting rotation. Statistically speaking, they have been one of the worst units in baseball. Their 4.60 ERA is the fifth-highest in the American League, and their strikeout rate is below league average. They sit in the middle of the pack in other categories (FIP, walk rate, etc.), but this is not what we expected out of them in spring training. The only metrics in which they truly rate above average are home run rate (1.17 per nine innings) and innings pitched (5.8 per start).

Even though Matt Boyd was optioned to the minor leagues following Friday’s game, Jordan Zimmermann has been the real problem. His 6.47 ERA and 6.64 FIP rank dead last among qualified AL pitchers. He has also been the American League’s worst pitcher in terms of WAR (-0.5), strikeout rate (13.6%), and home run rate (2.59 per nine innings).

Yeah, it’s that bad.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix. The Tigers have too many dollars and years invested in him to simply cut bait, and, for all his faults, is still eating innings for a rotation that struggled to do so earlier in the year. His fastball velocity in May was higher than at any point in 2016, but still hasn’t reached what he averaged during his heyday with the Washington Nationals.

If the Tigers are going to make a playoff push, they need Zimmermann to improve. He may not ever become the No. 2 starter fans expected when he signed a five-year, $110 million contract in November 2015, but even just getting on the right side of replacement level would do wonders for a team that has struggled to prevent runs this season.

Chicago White Sox (24-29) at Detroit Tigers (26-28)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (4-5, 4.43 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-4, 6.47 ERA)

Game 55 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Gonzalez 63.0 14.3 7.4 4.46 0.7
Zimmermann 55.2 13.6 6.8 6.64 -0.5

Remember earlier this year when I said that Miguel Gonzalez — who had a 3-0 record and 2.00 ERA at the time — was due to regress? Yeah, it happened quickly. Gonzalez went out and coughed up seven runs (six earned) to the Tigers in that start, then proceeded to allow a 5.70 ERA in five May starts. Were it not for a lackluster performance from the Tigers on May 28, Gonzalez would have gone winless in the month.

Still, it was a brutal stretch from the 33-year-old Mexican. He only struck out 18 batters in 30 May innings, and allowed 45 baserunners. He had three consecutive starts with at least five runs allowed before keeping the Tigers in check last Sunday, and his old home run troubles started to come about again. The real problem, however, may have been his command. He walked 11 batters in May alone, and currently has the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career.

Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Chicago’s awful platoon splits

The White Sox have been baseball’s best offense against left-handed pitching this season. They are hitting .298/.367/.463 as a team against southpaws. That .830 OPS is better than what All-Stars like Anthony Rizzo and Corey Seager have produced this season.

Unfortunately for them, Jordan Zimmermann is right-handed. For as good as the Sox have been against lefties this year, they have been equally bad against right-handed pitching, hitting just .235/.289/.386. That .675 OPS against righties is the worst in the American League, and is lower than what Dixon Machado (.689) and Andrew Romine (.686) have produced this season. Zimmermann has his own issues, but at least he has a favorable matchup in this game.

Outlook

This is the third Gonzalez-Zimmermann matchup we have seen this year, and it’s only June 3. The teams split the first two meetings with identical 7-3 scorelines, but neither starter has looked particularly sharp in either game. Gonzalez notched a quality start in his last outing against the Tigers, but has allowed a 5.20 ERA and 13 walks in six road starts this year. Meanwhile, Zimmermann has been slightly better at home than on the road. His 4-1 record at Comerica Park is a bit misleading, though, because it’s entirely thanks to his offense scoring 8.2 runs per game in those five starts.

Prediction

Zimmermann struggles again and the White Sox even the series.