Artie Lewicki has an impossible task in front of him. While no one expects him to replace the departed Justin Verlander, Lewicki is still the first pitcher taking Verlander’s spot in the Tigers rotation. Worse yet, he does so with the team riding a four-game losing streak and a hungry playoff contender coming into town.
No pressure, right?
Expectations are low for the former eighth round pick, but he will likely be putting plenty of pressure on himself in his major league debut. As the team heads down the stretch with a pair of rotation spots up for grabs — remember, Michael Fulmer is on the shelf for a couple weeks — Lewicki has a chance to establish himself among the pitchers vying for a job in 2018. Even the strongest of months won’t lock up a spot, but a solid start or two could give him a leg up on others he will be competing with in spring training.
So, can he do it? Lewicki won’t overpower hitters with amazing raw stuff, but he still works in the low 90s with a fastball that can reach as high as 95 miles per hour. He also throws a slider, curveball, and changeup, none of which grade better than major league average. Advanced metrics love his minor league profile as well. Not only did he strike out nearly four batters for every walk this year, but he generates plenty of ground balls and pop-ups.
The major leagues are a different animal, though. Can Lewicki keep the Royals in check?
Kansas City Royals (67-68) at Detroit Tigers (58-78)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jake Junis (6-2, 4.41 ERA) vs. RHP Artie Lewicki (14-4, 3.38 ERA in minors)
Game 137 Pitching Matchup
Jake Junis was also an unheralded pitcher throughout his time in the minor leagues. He put up solid numbers at Double-A last year, with a 3.25 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 119 innings. However, a brief promotion to Triple-A did not go well — he gave up 1.8 home runs per nine innings en route to a 7.20 ERA in six starts. This season, Junis put the screws on Triple-A hitters. He improved his strikeout rate to nearly 30 percent in 71 innings, earning multiple calls to the major leagues.
Junis’ first prolonged stint in the Royals’ rotation did not go well. He made five starts for Kansas City in June, but allowed a 6.35 ERA and nine home runs in 28 1⁄3 innings. This included a 7-3 loss to the Tigers on June 29 in which Junis gave up six runs on seven hits at Comerica Park.
Lately, things have been going much better. Junis made five starts in August and limited opponents to a 2.96 ERA with 27 strikeouts to just two walks. He was also able to keep the ball in the park, allowing just a single home run. FanGraphs’ Nick Pollack pointed out that Junis started throwing his slider nearly half the time to great success. While this seems a little high — Brooks Baseball says he only threw it 30 percent of the time in August — it’s still a new wrinkle the Tigers will have to contend with.
Key matchup: Lewicki vs. right-handed hitters
Normally, we would be concerned about a young pitcher’s ability to get opposite-handed hitters out. This may still be the case for Lewicki, but he has posted fairly significant reverse splits in the minor leagues over the past two seasons. These were more pronounced in 2016, when he held lefties to a paltry .477 OPS in 98 2⁄3 innings. Righties hit .301/.331/.438 off him that year. The splits are a bit more even this year, but still skew towards righties. They have produced a .702 OPS against Lewicki, while lefties have hit .236/.275/.360 (a .635 OPS).
Keeping righties in check will also help Lewicki navigate the heart of the Royals lineup. Righties Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain hit in the top two spots in all but one game in August, with bigger bats like Eric Hosmer and Melky Cabrera behind them.
Outlook... for BYB
We haven’t done one of these in a while, and it can get very repetitive to write about starting pitching matchups that skew strongly towards the opposing team. However, we want to know what you think! Is this format still working? Do we need to change anything, both with these game previews or our overall coverage? We’re always open to suggestions, and the next month of games is an excellent time for us to experiment as a site.
(It’s also a nice time for you to experiment, Tigers. Put Nick Castellanos in the outfield.)
Lewicki is inefficient but makes it through five innings and gets the win.