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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: The battle for 4th place in the AL Central begins

The Tigers and Royals square off after winless home series to begin the season.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Los Angeles Dodgers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers’ season got off to a whimpering start over the weekend, culminating in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even Mother Nature was a little sluggish in Detroit, raining out two scheduled games in three days. The Tigers, for their part, looked competitive — they were only out-scored by five runs in three games, and should have been -2 if MLB could get their replay straight. The Tigers’ offense looked potent as well, scoring 17 runs in the three-game set.

But just in case, they now get someone more their speed. The Kansas City Royals come into town this week having also lost all of their games played in 2018. The Royals jumped out to an early 5-0 lead against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day, only to cough up 14 (!) runs. The Royals bullpen also gave up a late lead on Saturday to fall to 0-2 (they were rained/snowed out on Sunday).

Early returns suggest this Tigers-Royals series will be a battle to stay out of the AL Central cellar in 2018. Both teams have iffy pitching staffs and lineups projected to finish below league average in a number of categories. The Tigers might have the worst staff in the league, while the Royals have already been hit by injuries, including starting catcher Salvador Perez.

But hey, bad baseball is still better than no baseball, right?

Kansas City Royals (0-2) at Detroit Tigers (0-3)

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 Jason Hammel (8-13, 5.29 ERA in 2017) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (6-7, 5.66 ERA in 2017)

Game 4 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Hammel 180.1 18.0 6.0 4.37 2.1
Liriano 97.0 19.4 12.1 4.64 0.8

I’m not sure what to make of Jason Hammel. He wasn’t very good last season, allowing a 5.29 ERA in 180 13 innings. His longevity was once again impressive — as FanGraphs pointed out, Hammel has made at least 29 starts in each of the past four seasons — and he posted a 4.37 FIP that was nearly a full run lower than his ERA. Simple analysis suggests he should be better in 2018, so long as his run of good health continues.

However, there are some concerning trends. Hammel’s swinging strike rate dipped to 9.5 percent last year, the lowest it has been since a very mediocre 2013 season with the Orioles. His fly ball rate climbed to a career-high 41.2 percent, a bad mix with baseball’s current climate. He lowered his walk rate slightly to 6.0 percent, but opponents teed off on him, collecting nearly 11 hits per nine innings. His four-seam fastball was especially bad, resulting in a .295 average and .484 slugging percentage.

Key matchup: Royals hitters vs. left-handed pitching

The Royals were one of the worst team in baseball against left-handed pitching last season. Their 89 wRC+ against southpaws was the second-worst in the American League, and they lost lefty masher Lorenzo Cain to free agency during the offseason. Their only returning hitters with a wRC+ above 90 (i.e. 10 percent below league average) against left-handed pitching last season are Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez, and Perez is currently sidelined with a knee injury.

So, what better way to welcome the Royals into 2018 by sending three left-handed starters to the hill in their first matchup of the year? Monday starter Francisco Liriano has been especially hard on lefties throughout his career, limiting them to a .297 on-base percentage and .603 OPS throughout his 12-year career. He struggled against hitters on both sides of the plate last season, but looked strong during spring training with 17 strikeouts in 16 innings.


Liriano and the bullpen struggle again, and the Tigers fall to 0-4.

Gameday reading