There are few sports that generate the same unbridled optimism that baseball does at the beginning of the season. Even fanbases of teams who aren’t expected to be very good still get caught up in the hoopla of Opening Day and the start of a new season. That optimism can fade quickly, though, especially if a team gets off to a slow start. Even teams expected to compete for a championship — the 2008 Tigers sadly come to mind — can see their fan’s mood sour quickly if the team doesn’t perform well out of the gate.
We seem to have reached that point with the 2018 Tigers. Between a rough series against the Cleveland Indians last week and the extended break provided by last weekend’s weather, Tigers fans have settled into the same malaise that has permeated the fanbase over the past few years. Fans aren’t showing up to the ballpark — the weather certainly shares the blame there — and few people even want to talk about the team, even as they have showed some fight in their games played outside of Ohio.
One bright spot has been lefthander Matt Boyd, who has continued where he left off in 2017. Boyd finished the season strong, posting a 2.95 ERA in six September starts. He has been even better so far this year, but a low BABIP and lower strikeout rate suggest it may not continue. However, advanced metrics still like what he has done so far — limiting home runs sure helps — even if he hasn’t generated as many whiffs as we would like.
Baltimore Orioles (5-12) at Detroit Tigers (5-9)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Camden Chat
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kevin Gausman (1-1, 6.60 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 1.38 ERA)
Game 15 Pitching Matchup
Every year feels like The Year for Kevin Gausman, but 2018 might actually be it. He shrugged off his usual slow start (more on that below) and finished last season with a flourish, posting a 3.41 ERA with over a strikeout per inning in 15 second half starts. While his overall numbers were a step back from 2017 — his ERA jumped by a full run and his walk rate went the wrong way — his strikeout rate held steady and he finally made a full season’s worth of starts atop the Orioles rotation. Add in the customary strong finish (he pulled a similar trick in 2016) and it was still a promising season for the hard-throwing righthander.
But why is this year different? For one, Gausman is already going to the splitter a lot. As Paul Sporer pointed out on Gausman’s FanGraphs player page, Gausman has shied away from the splitter (his best pitch) early in the season before bringing it out more in the summer months. That his results follow this pitch pattern is no surprise; opponents have hit .199 against Gausman’s splitter in his career, and have slugged just .330. Paired with a fastball that averaged 95 miles per hour and a slider to keep hitters honest, Gausman’s splitter has a chance to make him a true upper-rotation arm. He just has to find a groove earlier in the season to actually reach that level.
Key matchup: Gausman vs. April and May
For one reason or another, Gausman can’t quite seem to get going early in seasons. He has allowed an OPS of .845 or higher in both April and May, with an ERA above 5.00 in both months. Part of this may be due to his role — he has been jerked between the rotation and the bullpen throughout his four-plus year career — but he has posted strong second half numbers in both the rotation and bullpen in the past. The same issues befell him last year too, when he was in the rotation full-time. Like usual, however, he was able to turn it around; From June 27 onward, Gausman limited opponents to a 3.31 ERA with 116 strikeouts to 32 walks in 106 innings. He hasn’t solved the early season issues so far in 2018, but has looked better in his last couple starts, both Orioles wins.
Gausman shuts down the Tigers for his second win of the year.