Heading into the season, there wasn’t much for Tigers fans to be excited about. The team was projected to be among the very worst in Major League Baseball, and most of their top prospects are still a couple years away from the majors, if not further.
Early returns are actually somewhat promising, though. The Tigers’ starting pitching has been solid so far, limiting opponents to a 3.42 ERA (2.61 if you exclude Ryan Carpenter’s spot start on Sunday). Francisco Liriano and Jordan Zimmermann looked better than expected, while Michael Fulmer was his usual self on Sunday afternoon. The bullpen is... well, the bullpen, but the Tigers are a blown call away from a .500 start through four games.
Then there’s the offense. The Tigers have scored 22 runs through their first four games, including three games with six or more runs plated. They are sixth in baseball in runs scored, and in the top 10 in on-base percentage and wRC+. Nicholas Castellanos has been excellent so far, and Miguel Cabrera looks like his old self. Jeimer Candelario is drawing plenty of walks, while Dixon Machado and JaCoby Jones have looked more comfortable in the early going. Even Victor Martinez showed signs of life on Monday, driving in three runs in Detroit’s first win of the year.
The Tigers will have hot stretches like this throughout the year, but it remains to be seen if they can maintain it for an entire year. Projection systems weren’t kind before the season — PECOTA projected them as the second-worst offense in the American League — and we’ve seen what injuries can do to their sluggers.
Kansas City Royals (0-3) at Detroit Tigers (1-3)
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 Jake Junis (9-3, 4.30 ERA in 2017) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (6-11, 5.27 ERA in 2017)
Game 5 Pitching Matchup
Junis’ profile might work a little better if he were left-handed. The former 29th round pick worked his way to the major leagues by limiting walks and missing barrels, and mostly did the same in 2017. He managed a strikeout rate just below league average in 98 1⁄3 innings last year, and held opponents to a 5.9 percent walk rate. Sure, those opponents hit 15 home runs, or 1.4 per nine innings, but he still only allowed a .762 OPS against. It was a solid rookie debut for any pitcher, let alone one without much of a prospect pedigree.
But what happens in year two? Junis developed a bit more of a strikeout touch in the minors over the past couple years — he fanned 86 batters in 71 Triple-A innings last year — but isn’t turning into Max Scherzer anytime soon. His oft-used slider generated a modest 15.6 percent whiff rate, but opponents pummeled his four-seam fastball to the tune of a .313 average and .538 slugging average. His platoon splits weren’t too bad, but his strikeout and walk rates both dipped against left-handed hitters.
On the positive side, Junis did fairly well last season as teams saw him for a second time. He improved against both the Tigers and Cleveland Indians after disastrous first outings, and posted a 3.52 ERA and 4.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final eight starts of the year.
Key matchup: Matthew Boyd vs. some really, really bad career numbers against the Royals
We shouldn’t be too surprised that Boyd has struggled so much against the Royals. He had to face them three times as a rookie in 2015, the year they won the World Series. Their offense hasn’t been too potent over the past couple seasons, but they have still managed to torment him all the same. Through nine career starts against Kansas City, Boyd has a 7.91 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP. Royals hitters are batting .353/.383/.559 against him, with 22 extra-base hits in 180 plate appearances. Their best performance came at the tail end of 2016, when they scored four runs on five hits against him before he even recorded an out.
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