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Tigers vs. Athletics Preview: Buck Farmer has quietly improved in 2017

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Farmer and the Tigers kick off a series against Oakland on Monday.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

A couple weeks ago, I harkened back to Buck Farmer’s first two starts of 2017. It was almost a punch line of sorts, pointing out just how long and arduous this Tigers season has felt. Buck pitched well in those outings, even leading some to wonder if he should stay in the Tigers’ rotation.

Unfortunately, he answered that question rather emphatically in his next two outings, allowing a combined 13 runs in 4 23 innings. Relative to his career numbers, the second pair of starts seemed more familiar. Farmer entered the season with a 6.84 ERA in a small sample of innings, and a 6.62 ERA in eight starts this year has not lowered it much.

ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, though. By that measure, Farmer has been two runs worse in 2017 than he was last year in a handful of innings. By others, Farmer has taken clear steps forward in each of his three MLB seasons with at least 20 innings pitched. His FIP and xFIP have gone down in each of the past three years, and his 4.23 SIERA is second-best* among all Tigers starters.

*Anibal Sanchez has the best mark at 4.18, so take it with an appropriate grain of salt.

Farmer’s improvement is even more apparent when you look at his strikeout and walk rates. He is fanning 24.4 percent of batters this year while walking just 8.3 percent. His 16.0 percent K-BB% is more than triple what he produced last year, and would rank 23rd among qualified MLB starters if he had thrown enough innings.

It remains to be seen if Farmer can continue to build on his incremental improvements over the past few years. He still needs to sharpen his command, and has been bitten by the home run ball a bit too often this year. However, there’s still potential for him to remain in the rotation if his ERA regresses towards what advanced metrics are telling us.

Oakland Athletics (66-83) at Detroit Tigers (62-87)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jharel Cotton (8-10, 5.81 ERA) vs. RHP Buck Farmer (4-3, 6.62 ERA)

Game 150 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Cotton 124.0 18.0 9.5 5.85 -0.2
Farmer 35.1 24.4 8.3 4.94 0.3

After impressing in five major league starts to close out the 2016 season, Jharel Cotton was a trendy breakout pick in spring training. The 25-year-old righthander put up excellent strikeout and walk numbers in Triple-A the year before, and featured an above-average fastball and plus-plus changeup. He was the centerpiece of the trade that brought him to Oakland, and was ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects heading into this year. Statistical projections like ZiPS thought he would parlay all of this potential into a solid ERA around 4.00.

Cotton still features that solid arsenal, but 2017 has been a major setback. He has struggled with his command, walking nearly four batters per nine innings. His strikeout numbers are solid, if unspectacular, but even that ridiculous changeup isn’t missing bats like it should. Both his changeup and cutter — pitches he uses a combined 45 percent of the time — have whiff rates under 15 percent. Opponents have also homered in bunches, though not at an unsustainable clip given his high fly ball rate.

As one might expect with an ERA close to 6.00, Cotton hasn’t fared well with any of his pitches. His fastball has only been part of the problem, but it might be the first part of the solution. Cotton has only thrown first pitch strikes 59.2 percent of the time this season, one of the lower rates among MLB starters. Certain pitchers like Yu Darvish (59.0%) and Jon Lester (58.7%) can get away with falling behind 1-0, but Cotton cannot; he has been good about throwing his secondary pitches in hitter’s counts, but will do much better if he can dip into that bag when ahead in the count. If opposing hitters have to think about his fastball, cutter, and changeup while trying to protect the zone, they’re toast.

Key matchup: Tigers pitchers vs. the home run ball

The A’s have been one of baseball’s worst teams for the past few years, and are headed for their third consecutive last place finish. This season has been a little more promising than the last two, and not just because they will likely crack the 70-win mark. The A’s have a nice crop of prospects heading through their pipeline — their Double-A club just won its fourth consecutive Texas League title — and have hit the cover off the ball in the second half.

Since the All-Star break, the A’s have a 111 wRC+ as a team. Only the Cubs and Twins have been better. Leading the way have been a trio of Matts; rookies Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, and former Tigers outfielder Matt Joyce have combined for 42 home runs since the break. Add in Khris Davis’ 15 second half homers, and those four have nearly as many (57) as the entire Tigers club (72).

Pick to click: Jeimer Candelario

While Cotton hasn’t allowed any significant platoon splits in 2017, his underlying performance against left-handed hitters has been much worse than against righties. Lefties are walking at a healthy 11.8 percent rate against Cotton this year, and have struck out just 40 times in 246 plate appearances (a 16.3 percent rate). Candelario is both Detroit’s best left-handed bat and one of their hottest hitters at the moment; he has hit a robust .377/.476/.585 in 16 games with Detroit, and has more walks (10) than strikeouts (8). Look for him to keep getting on base frequently against Cotton and the A’s.

Note: I will be playing with the format of the game previews over the next couple weeks in hopes of offering more relevant information and removing redundant sections. One possible addition will be the above “Pick to Click,” which we could potentially turn into a season-long contest next year (I’ll explain more in the comments). Suggestions for this contest as well as other preview section ideas are welcome and much appreciated.

Prediction

Farmer picks up a win with another strong performance.