Like many MLB teams, the Tigers had a quiet offseason. They all but closed their books after a decade of free spending, and entered the 2018 season with a payroll nearly $100 million lower than last year. They still invested in a few players, however, including four major league free agents.
We haven’t seen their two most expensive signings yet — don’t worry, Francisco Liriano will start on Monday — but the fourth, lefthander Ryan Carpenter, will make his major league debut in the second game of Detroit’s Easter Sunday doubleheader. Despite never appearing at the MLB level, Carpenter signed a major league deal* with Detroit in November, avoiding the Rule 5 draft. The 2018 season will be his first on an MLB 40-man roster, so he still has three minor league options remaining.
While expectations shouldn’t be too high for a 27-year-old making his big league debut, Carpenter has an intriguing profile. He is coming off an excellent 2017 season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he struck out nearly 25 percent of the batters he faced. He paired this with an excellent 5.9 percent walk rate and a home run rate of 1.10 dingers per nine innings. For a hitter-friendly environment like the Pacific Coast League, that’s a relatively pedestrian homer rate. His 4.15 ERA is better than you would think as well.
Perhaps the most encouraging stat from Carpenter’s 2017 season is Deserved Run Average, or DRA. Baseball Prospectus introduced this stat in 2015, and have been consistently making improvements on it ever since. It attempts to measure everything that could affect the outcome of a given plate appearance, from the umpire to the game situation to the weather. It is scaled to ERA, so Carpenter’s 2.39 DRA is quite spectacular.
Will that translate to the major league level? It’s possible. But with the Tigers likely headed for the bottom of the AL Central this year, they should continue taking chances on pitches like Carpenter. And thanks to a bit of rain, we get to see him earlier than expected.
*In fact, Carpenter was the first player to sign a major league deal with any MLB team last winter.
Pittsburgh Pirates (2-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-2)
Time/Place: 6:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Chad Kuhl (8-11, 4.35 ERA in 2017) vs. LHP Ryan Carpenter (10-9, 4.15 ERA in 2017)
Game 3 Pitching Matchup
Kuhl is a 25-year-old righty who was drafted out of Delaware by the Pirates in 2013. He throws hard — his sinker averaged 96 miles per hour last year — but he isn’t much of a strikeout artist. His 20.9 percent strikeout rate in the majors last season was his highest at any professional level, but this could be more than a blip on the radar. Kuhl struck out over a batter per inning in 13 starts after the All-Star break last year, though a similar jump in his walk rate left his fielding-independent numbers relatively unchanged.
There wasn’t any drastic change in Kuhl’s pitch usage or velocity readings to explain this phenomenon. He started throwing his curveball a bit more in the second half, leading to a slight jump in breaking ball usage relative to his fastball. His slider is a true swing-and-miss pitch — it generated a 21.6 percent whiff rate last year — but below-average command hurts his ability to put it where he wants. He frequently fell behind hitters last year, with one of the lowest first strike percentages among full-time starters. Lefties also gave him lots of problems, hitting .285/.383/.511.
The scouting report on Ryan Carpenter
Carpenter is a former seventh round pick out of Gonzaga in 2011. He was originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, but moved to the Rockies organization after the 2013 season. His numbers have not been too impressive, but his strikeout rate has taken a major step forward over the past two years since he started throwing his slider more.
The Athletic’s Emily Waldon (go subscribe!) has the lowdown on what Carpenter throws.
Carpenter works best from his above-average slider, the best of his off-speed mix, a low-80’s to mid-90’s late life fastball with average command, a 12-6 breaking curve that flashes above average and a developing below-average changeup. The southpaw is a starter by trade with his daunting build and pitch mix, and could be considered for a backend role with Detroit in 2018, depending on his performance in Lakeland next spring.
Key matchup: Carpenter vs. keeping the bases clear
Carpenter didn’t have many significant splits in Triple-A last season, save for one: runners on base. The batting averages and on-base percentages Carpenter allowed did not change much when a runner reached base, but opponents slugged over 120 points higher with runners on base. There are a number of reasons for this — including maybe just bad luck — but here’s a theory; Carpenter’s best pitch is his slider, and he also sports a decent curveball. His fastball isn’t bad, but not always his go-to offering. With runners on base, Carpenter may have relied on his fastball a bit more than other pitches, and hitters were able to take advantage.
Either way, he would do well to limit traffic on the basepaths.
Carpenter has a strong start but the bullpen costs him a chance at the win.
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