Depending on when you watch these Detroit Tigers, you could have wildly differing opinions on how good they are. In particular, the Tigers’ offense has been a bit more “feast or famine” than usual. They have been shut out five times already, and have lost by a 1-0 score three times in the first month of the season. They have also exploded for nine runs or more in six games, and have scored six runs or more in 11 of their 26 games.
The result is a roughly league average offense. They rank just below average as a team, with a 96 wRC+. They’re among the worst teams in baseball at hitting home runs, but rank ninth among all MLB teams with a .254 batting average. Their .413 slugging average is 12th. They have even graded out positively on the basepaths; they are fourth (!) in MLB with 2.4 baserunning runs (2.7 BsR) on the year.
The best part? They have gotten better as the weather has improved. Over their past 13 games, the Tigers have scored 73 runs, or over 5.6 runs per game. They haven’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of pitching staffs along the way — the Royals and Orioles have two of the highest ERAs in baseball so far — but the Rays haven’t been much better. Monday starter Jake Faria shut the Tigers down last year, but has struggled mightily so far in 2018. Can the Tigers take advantage and finish out April with a win?
Tampa Bay Rays (12-14) at Detroit Tigers (11-15)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jake Faria (1-1, 6.33 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-0, 7.91 ERA)
Game 27 Pitching Matchup
The Rays’ pitching staff has been eviscerated by injuries already this season. Young righthanders Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell have already undergone Tommy John surgery, sapping some valuable depth from a team that needed every bit of it to compete in the AL East. In particular, the injuries have put a lot of strain on Tampa’s four-man starting rotation. The idea was born because of the Rays’ light early schedule, but has not panned out as the team would have hoped. They currently ranked eighth-worst in baseball with a 4.71 ERA, and their peripheral numbers aren’t much better.
One of the biggest problems has been righthander Jake Faria. The 24-year-old was a bit of a surprise last season, as he produced 1.4 rWAR and a 3.43 ERA in 86 2⁄3 major league innings. He came out of the gate flying after his early June call-up, with three consecutive wins (including one over the Tigers) and a 2.00 ERA through his first seven starts. Though he cooled somewhat after that, there wasn’t anything in his profile that suggested he would fall apart heading into 2018.
But fall apart he has. Faria has all but lost the strike zone this year, walking 14 batters in his first 21 1⁄3 innings. A lot of that damage came in one bad start against the Boston Red Sox on April 7, but he has two other outings with three walks, including in his last start against the Baltimore Orioles. His strikeout rate has also taken a slight dip, as opponents are hardly ever offering at his pitches outside the strike zone.
And... well, I can’t blame them.
Oddly, Faria is getting strike one much more often than he did last year. That’s about the only positive, though. Opponents aren’t offering at his pitches as often, and are hardly whiffing on his changeup/splitter after fanning nearly 25 percent of the time last year. He has gotten a bit more predictable with it after getting ahead, which could be one reason why hitters aren’t fooled by it nearly as often this season.
Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. not giving up runs in bunches
Those that have followed these previews consistently this season know how flummoxed I am by Zimmermann’s profile. He finally has his strikeout and walk rates sorted out, and is generating more swings and misses than ever before thanks to an uptick in slider usage. However, like Anibal Sanchez last year, that shiny strikeout rate can’t mask what happens when hitters make contact. Zimmermann’s home run rate has come back to earth in his last two starts, and he has given up at least four runs in each of his four full* starts.
The underlying numbers aren’t any better. Opponents are still making hard contact over 38 percent of the time, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Though the Statcast numbers appear somewhat better — Zimmermann’s average exit velocity ranks 43rd among 147 MLB pitchers (minimum 50 batted ball events) — they are masked by his knack for generating weak ground balls. On grounders, Zimmermann’s exit velocity is identical to Michael Fulmer’s. But in the air? Opposing hitters have an average exit velocity of 96.7 miles per hour against Zimmermann on line drives and fly balls, the seventh-highest figure in baseball.
*The only exception is that start against the Indians where Zimmermann left in the first after getting hit in the head by a line drive.
Faria finds the strike zone and the Rays win easily.