The Tigers are going to need to fight this weekend if they want to stay alive in the division, and they’ll need to face one of their toughest competitors over a four game series — including a Saturday double header — in order to do it. Last season the Cleveland Indians absolutely destroyed the Tigers, and though they’ve been less dominant this year, they’ll still be trouble for the flagging Detroit team.
We spoke to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian about what the Tigers can expect from the Indians this weekend, and also politely requested the return of Andrew Miller.
BYB: The Indians are on top right now, but by a pretty narrow margin and it took a lot longer for them to get there than everyone anticipated. What do you think kept them languishing in second so long, and do you think they’ll be able to create a bigger gap in the AL Central lead?
Jordan: There has just been far too much inconsistency, and a few impactful injuries early. Jason Kipnis had a delayed start to the season, Corey Kluber missed most of May and slumps hit key players like Edwin Encarnacion and Francisco Lindor. Maybe the biggest factor was troubles with the rotation. Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer struggled out of the chute, as did Danny Salazar, who's currently on the DL and fine-tuning his mechanics. As the lineup has gotten back on track, and the rotation has improved, Cleveland has started to climb to a more expected level. They're still the heavy favorites to win the division.
Edwin Encarnacion started the season pretty quietly, and is now hitting .259/.376/.481 with 17 home runs. Do you think he just needed time to find his grove, or were you seeing something more specific that was slowing him down?
Encarnacion has been a slow starter throughout his career. This season fell into a similar pattern as previous years, but was a little more drastic. What stood out early was his uncharacteristic strikeout rate. That has since levelled off to a more expected range. If you look at past years, he's now right around his typical production at this point. There could also be something to be said for the pressure that Encarnacion inherited. His contract was the largest free-agent deal in franchise history. That, combined with being on a new team for the first time in a long time, probably hindered his initial comfort level.
Is Trevor Bauer a bad pitcher who has lucky outings, or a good pitcher who struggles with command more than usual? 2016 was a great year for him, but it’s also the only season on his record with a W-L% over .500, and the lowest FIP of his career at 3.99. We won’t be seeing him this weekend, but he genuinely mystifies me.
Bauer's BABIP certainly suggests that he's had some tough luck this year, and he'll be the first person to point that out. Some of the peripherals (K-rate, strike rate, FIP) don't really align with the ERA. His HR/flyball rate was abnormally high early in, playing a big role in that. Lately, he's narrowed his arsenal and has focused on using his four-seam and curveball the most, mixing in his two-seamer, cutter and changeup when needed. He's been much more effective over the past month or so with that approach.
Can we have Andrew Miller back?
How about... no. The Marlins, Red Sox and Yankees might ask the same thing. His transformation from failed starter to elite reliever has been fascinating.
Lonnie Chisenhall has been really good this year, with a .312/.372/.584 line. Why aren’t more people talking about him and his performance?
Platoon players just don't get the love. He's been great on his versus-righties role and has earned more at-bats against lefties, too. His double on Thursday actually gave him the most pinch-hit RBI in the AL at the moment. With guys like Miller, Lindor, Kluber, Encarnacion, Kipnis, Cody Allen and Jose Ramirez, among others, it's easy to overlook a role player like Chisenhall. There's no doubt he's been a great part of the Tribe's offense to date, though.
Which Tiger do you think will be the biggest thorn in the Indians’ side this weekend?
Miggy. Always Miggy.
With a double header coming on Saturday which Triple-A guy do you anticipate the team going to for a spot start?
There's been no announcement as of this e-mail, but there's a strong chance lefty Ryan Merritt comes up as the 26th man. Indians could start him, or go with a "bullpen day" approach. We'll know more soon.
Thanks so much to Jordan for taking the time to talk with us. You can read his Indians reporting at MLB.com, his MLB blog, or follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.