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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: The Francisco Liriano Show rolls on

Liriano and the Tigers could clinch a 6-1 homestand with a win on Sunday.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to Michael Fulmer, Francisco Liriano has been the Tigers’ best starter this season. He currently owns a 2.55 ERA, and has yet to allow more than two runs in any of his three starts. The Tigers have won two of those games, and ran into the buzzsaw that is Corey Kluber in the third.

There are some warning signs to be found, though. Liriano is currently benefitting from a .217 batting average on balls in play, an unsustainably low mark. He is also stranding 87.2 percent of baserunners, well above his career rate of 71.4 percent. These numbers would make some sense if Liriano were generating a lot of soft contact, but he is not. Opponents are making hard contact on nearly 44 percent of balls in play according to FanGraphs, one of the highest rates in baseball (minimum 10 innings pitched). He has allowed one of the higher average exit velocities in the game too, and opponents are barreling the ball at an alarming rate (check out No. 1 on that list).

Advanced metrics don’t necessarily like what Liriano has done so far, but he also hasn’t been any worse than he was in 2016 or 2017. His 4.39 FIP and 4.56 xFIP are slightly better than what he produced in the past two seasons, and he might end up out-performing those if he maintains his current batted ball profile. Opponents are hitting more fly balls than ever (39.8 percent), and are hitting most of them to the middle of the ballpark.

There will be regression at some point, but it’s not clear just how far Liriano will fall. Some of it may come today — the Royals are one of baseball’s better teams against lefties so far this year — but he might just keep on rolling too.

Kansas City Royals (4-14) at Detroit Tigers (8-10)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Eric Skoglund (0-2, 9.31 ERA) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (2-1, 2.55 ERA)

Game 20 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Skoglund 9.2 14.6 6.3 6.25 -0.1
Liriano 17.2 20.0 11.4 4.39 0.1

Eric Skoglund certainly seemed like a promising young arm after his major league debut. That game, a 1-0 Royals win in which he out-dueled Justin Verlander, saw Skoglund limit the Tigers to just two hits and five strikeouts in 6 13 innings. Skoglund was coming off a couple of strong minor league seasons with solid peripheral numbers, and he seemed like he could become a decent back-end starter for a Royals club in need of cost-controlled innings.

Things haven’t exactly gone to plan since then. Skoglund only made it through 3 13 innings in his next two starts combined, allowing six runs on 11 hits. He was demoted to the minor leagues, where he got back on track. But upon his return to the majors, the Indians knocked him around for seven runs in just 1 13 innings.

The 2018 season hasn’t gone much better. Skoglund has given up five runs in both of his starts thus far, and struggled with his command in his first outing. He has seven strikeouts in 9 23 innings, but has fanned just 14.6 percent of batters in those frames. His stuff isn’t going to blow hitters away at the MLB level — his fastball sits around 93 mph with three average-ish secondary pitches — but he was a KATOH darling last year based on his minor league numbers.

Key matchup: Tigers pitchers vs. whatever is going on with their velocity

Much was made of Daniel Norris’ low velocity in his start on Friday evening, but this seems to be a team-wide issue. I don’t remember Mike Fiers getting any higher than 86 miles per hour with any pitch in his start on Saturday, and Matthew Boyd’s velocity has been down as well. Even Liriano has seen a dip in his velocity in 2018. His two-seam fastball has averaged 92.2 miles per hour this year, down from almost 94 mph last year. His velocity has generally held steady throughout his career, though, so this year’s dip could simply be an age-related decline.

If anything, it may be worth looking into his slider. It has averaged just 83 miles per hour this year, a dip of nearly three miles per hour from last season. He is throwing it more than ever, but it isn’t generating quite as many whiffs — although this rate has been on the decline for years now. He is getting more movement on it, though, including more vertical drop, indicating it might be acting more like a curveball. We’ll look deeper into it after another start or two, but keep an eye on that pitch for now.


Skoglund shapes up and the Royals take the series finale.

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