This has not been a fun season for the Detroit Tigers. Things started poorly, when J.D. Martinez was injured in the final days of spring training. Miguel Cabrera landed on the disabled list at the end of April, Ian Kinsler did the same in May, and Justin Verlander has followed up a Cy Young caliber 2016 season with a clunker this year. With no one able to step in and fill those gaps, the Tigers have faltered to a 39-48 record, third-worst in the American League.
Things haven’t been much better north (east) of the border. The Toronto Blue Jays faceplanted at the start of the season, winning just two of their first 13 games. They were 6 1⁄2 games out of the AL East race by April 18, and haven’t been closer than five games out since. Things looked better when they went 18-10 in May, but a 15-20 record since the start of June has all but ended their hopes of climbing back into the division hunt.
Shockingly, the biggest problem has been the offense. A once-mighty unit has fallen on hard times in 2017, and currently ranks second-to-last in the American League in runs scored. The advanced metrics aren’t very optimistic either. The Jays have the fourth-lowest wRC+, and have managed a below-average isolated power (ISO). This is especially shocking when you consider that this roster still contains the likes of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, and Russell Martin. All five have been varying degrees of disappointing; Justin Smoak (!) leads the team in nearly every major offensive category.
If the Blue Jays decide to sell, they are loaded with plenty of mid-tier options. Both Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada are pending free agents, perfect low-cost options for teams not interested in ponying up for a Justin Verlander. Tigers legend Jason Grilli has already been dealt, and veterans Joe Smith and Aaron Loup could also fetch a lottery ticket prospect or two.
Of course, the Jays could also decide to stay in the race. Their core is still largely intact for 2018, and Donaldson, Tulowitzki, and flamethrower Aaron Sanchez have all missed significant time this year. They will need to show some fight quickly, though; after this three game series in Detroit, they travel to Boston and Cleveland before closing out the month at home.
Game 1: RHP Aaron Sanchez (0-2, 4.85 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (5-6, 4.73 ERA)
After winning an ERA in his first full season as a starter, expectations couldn’t have gotten much higher for Aaron Sanchez heading into this year. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had a chance to live up to them; a blister issue has limited Sanchez to just six starts in 2017, and he hasn’t made it out of the second inning in two of them.
As such, we can throw most of his numbers out the window. Fortunately, the ones that matter (velocity readings) are just fine. Sanchez hasn’t lost any zip on his mid-90s fastball in limited action this year, and he is still spinning plenty of curveballs. He will likely be on a pitch count in this outing, which is good news for Detroit; he struck out 16 and allowed just eight hits in two starts against them last year.
Game 2: LHP Francisco Liriano (5-4, 5.56 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (9-6, 3.19 ERA)
The Blue Jays have not listed their starters for Saturday’s or Sunday’s games yet, but Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith deduced that the Jays will likely give pending free agent Francisco Liriano the ball on Saturday in order to squeeze in an extra start before the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. Liriano impressed after the Blue Jays made a then-puzzling trade for him last year, but has regressed to replacement level in 2017. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is under 2.00 for the second consecutive season — though it peaked at 3.25 in his 49 1⁄3 innings with Toronto last summer — and he has a 5.56 ERA in 14 first half starts. His velocity hasn’t changed much, but he is inducing ground balls at just a 44.9 percent rate, his lowest since before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2013.
Game 3: RHP Marco Estrada (4-6, 5.17 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (1-0, 5.89 ERA)
Toronto’s starting pitching hasn’t been a problem this year in the same way that the offense has, but their arms haven’t done the bats any favors either. Their 4.74 ERA is over a full run higher than last year’s AL-best 3.64, and their 4.57 FIP is a half run higher as well.
Chief among the underachievers has been Marco Estrada, who has finally run into home run trouble. A fly ball artist by trade, Estrada allowed a combined 47 homers in 2015 and 2016. This isn’t all that impressive of a total — Anibal Sanchez allowed just 13 in his first two seasons in Detroit, for instance — but it was a passable total for Estrada, who allows fly balls roughly half of the time. This year, Sanchez has already coughed up 17 home runs. Opponents are also managing over a hit per inning against him this season, well above the sub-7.0 H/9 rates he posted in the two years prior.
That said, he could get a lot better. His FIP is nearly a full run lower than his ERA, and his strikeout rate is at its highest since 2012.
Who’s hot: Justin Smoak
How under-the-radar was Justin Smoak’s All-Star first half? It took the hard-working folks at FanGraphs until June 8 to write something about his hot start, and many others probably still haven’t realized that he has been their best hitter by a mile. He leads the team in batting average, slugging average, home runs, RBI, wRC+, you name it. He has cut his strikeout rate dramatically — we’re talking from 32.8 percent in 2016 to 19.2 percent (!) this year — and has upped his isolated power (ISO) by over 100 points. If these improvements hold, the Jays will have one of the best bargains in baseball on their hands; Smoak is under club control through 2019.
Who’s not: Troy Tulowitzki
Troy Tulowitzki was once considered one of the best players in all of baseball... when healthy. However, those days appear to be long gone. Tulowitzki was last a superstar-caliber player in 2014, when he posted 5.2 fWAR with the Colorado Rockies. Since then, he has managed just 5.5 WAR, and his health isn’t an excuse. He has made nearly 1300 trips to the plate during that stretch, including 939 with the Jays. Now, we’re left to wonder if the Rockies actually won the trade. Tulo has been worth just 0.4 fWAR in 54 games this year, and is due $54 million over the next three seasons (plus a team option for 2021).
How the Tigers win this series
The Blue Jays have struggled to score runs this year, but might see an uptick in offensive production as water (i.e. Josh Donaldson) finds its level in the second half. The Tigers have produced better offensive numbers overall, but have had their own struggles at times this season. With Toronto opting to push two of their better starters back into next week, the Tigers need to take advantage of the soft(er) schedule. Both Estrada and Liriano have struggled to keep runs off the board this year, and Sanchez’s pitch count could result in a heavier load for the Blue Jays bullpen.