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Tigers vs. Red Sox Preview: Detroit takes aim at spot starter Brian Johnson

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Early offense will probably win the day in this game.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

For all the jokes we toss at Dave Dombrowski and his awful bullpen building, the Boston Red Sox have actually done quite well in the later innings this year. Their 3.19 bullpen ERA is the fifth-lowest in baseball, while their 3.27 FIP is just a hair higher. They are one of seven teams with at least 3.0 fWAR from their ‘pen thus far. Closer Craig Kimbrel is better than ever, with an obscene 55.2 percent strikeout rate in 26 23 innings. The rest of the unit has been solid as well.

So, if you’re the Detroit Tigers, you better score early.

Luckily, the Tigers will have a shot at that. Lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez, one of the breakout stars of the early 2017 season, is on the disabled list with a knee injury. He has been replaced by another lefty, Brian Johnson. While the 26-year-old is a former first round pick, he doesn’t come with the same pedigree as Rodriguez, a consensus top-100 prospect when the Sox originally acquired him in 2014.

However, Johnson still has potential. He tossed a shutout in his last major league start, an eight-strikeout performance against the Seattle Mariners on May 27. He only has two MLB starts under his belt this season, but has held opponents to a 2.72 ERA in eight starts at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The Tigers have struggled at times against no-name lefties, and Johnson certainly fits that bill. However, they will need to break the mold in order to back starter Jordan Zimmermann before getting into the teeth of Boston’s reloaded bullpen.

Detroit Tigers (29-30) at Boston Red Sox (32-27)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-4, 5.98 ERA) vs. LHP Brian Johnson (2-0, 2.57 ERA)

Game 60 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 61.2 18.9 5.3 4.45 0.5
Johnson 14.0 24.6 5.3 3.57 0.3

The scouting report on Johnson is a simple one. He throws a fastball in the high-80s roughly 50 percent of the time, but gets a little heater-happy when he falls behind in the count. Once he gets ahead, he will add in a plethora of curveballs to right-handed hitters. The curve is his best pitch, a low 70s offering that opponents have whiffed on nearly 24 percent of the time this season. When they aren’t coming up empty, they pound it into the ground at a healthy rate. Johnson also throws a slider against lefties, but probably won’t have the luxury of facing one in this game.

Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. his pitch mix

Throughout his career, Zimmermann has thrown his four-seam fastball approximately 60 percent of the time. For most of his nine years at the MLB level, it has been a good one; it sits in the low-to-mid 90s with enough late action to induce a few whiffs and a healthy ground ball rate. It also set up his secondary pitches nicely.

This year, things have changed.

Zimmermann is shying away from his fastball more than ever before. Why? Opponents are hitting the snot out of it, with a .365 batting average and .823 slugging average (!) in 96 at-bats.

FanGraphs Eno Sarris wondered aloud if pitchers would continue to throw more breaking balls as their fastballs declined, and cited Zimmermann as a potential test case.

Given his success, Clayton Kershaw probably doesn’t need to change anything up, despite his excellent command of his breaking balls. But Yovani Gallardo? Bronson Arroyo? Kenta Maeda? Ricky Nolasco? Jordan Zimmermann? Over the last few weeks, you could add Adam Wainwright and Josh Tomlin, and that would make sense. There’s enough struggle in their recent histories and enough upside in this idea that they might be inclined to go for it. They’ve each got multiple breaking balls and above-average command of those breaking balls — by this incomplete measure at least.

Zimmermann certainly seems to be heading in that direction. Forty-nine of the 93 pitches he threw in his last start were off-speed pitches, his highest total of the season. It was the first time he threw fewer than 30 four-seam fastballs — though Brooks Baseball also credited him with 16 sinkers. He threw a season-high 33 sliders to boot.

Outlook

I’m not sure how much to trust FanGraphs’ pitch values as a predictive measure, but they certainly paint an interesting picture for this game. The Red Sox offense has been respectable against fastballs this season, producing at roughly a league average rate. However, they have been one of the worst teams in the game against sliders, and have been even worse against changeups. While Zimmermann has not trusted his changeup much in his career, he does throw one from time to time. It will be interesting to see if he breaks it out against the Red Sox given their struggles against that particular pitch. Expect a slider-heavy approach either way, as Zimmermann tries to follow up on one of his best outings of the year.

Prediction

A weirdly low-scoring game that the Red Sox pull out in the later innings.