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Tigers vs. White Sox Preview: Blaine Hardy goes for the sweep

Hardy has been a revelation as a starter, but this is probably his last one.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers are on a roll again. Now winners of four straight, they survived consecutive series with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians early in June, and have settled back in to handle a pair of weak AL Central teams in the Twins and White Sox. Currently they’re just two-and-a-half games back of the Cleveland Indians, with the 7th best record in the American League. A win on Sunday would bring the Tigers to a 36-37 record.

No one expects the Tigers to run down the Indians, and yet it would be awfully fun to see this team work their way into first place, if only for a short while. The Tigers are obviously flawed, and yet they continue to play a scrappy, entertaining brand of baseball while getting surprising contributions from unlikely sources. Few have been a bigger surprise than Blaine Hardy.

Over the last 30 days, Hardy is 15th in fWAR among all major league pitchers. Other than one rocky start against the Red Sox on June 6th, Hardy hasn’t allowed more than two runs in his last five outings. It’s been an incredible turnaround for a pitcher who was released in spring training, re-signed, and then converted to a starting role for the first time in his major league career. Dominant work as a starter for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens in April gave way to a fine, if brief career as a major league starter.

With Francisco Liriano looking likely to return to the Tigers’ rotation next week, Sunday’s outing against the White Sox is probably Hardy’s last start for the foreseeable future. He’ll slide over to a Tigers bullpen that desperately needs a quality left-hander. It’s also a rematch of the May 27th contest between the two teams at Comerica Park. Hardy out-pitched Shields with seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball to earn the victory in that game.

Detroit Tigers (35-37) at Chicago White Sox (24-45)

Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Blaine Hardy (2-1, 3.55 ERA) vs. RHP James Shields (2-7, 4.63 ERA)

Game 73 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Hardy 38.0 17.9 6.0 3.56 0.8
Shields 89.1 15.8 8.9 4.43 0.9

For years now, James Shields has belonged to that group of formerly good pitchers whose fastball has gone bad with time and with the increase of home runs. His fastball rate is down to 36.6 percent this season as Shields has continued to use his secondary pitches more often. He hasn’t posted a positive fWAR since 2015 when he was with the San Diego Padres.

In two seasons with the White Sox, he’s tinkered with his secondary pitches and tried to mix things up in a last ditch attempt to find his way back to being a good starting pitcher again. At age 36, that’s probably not going to happen, but so far Shields has posted a 4.43 FIP this season and stabilized a messy White Sox rotation on the mound and in the clubhouse. He’s on a nice roll over the past month. The Minnesota Twins lit him up on June 7th in Minneapolis. Otherwise, Shields hasn’t given up more than three runs since May 12th and has gone seven innings on five different occasions.

While Shields raw stuff isn’t impressive, he does have a few new wrinkles to try to add to his deception. He’s dropping his arm angle purposely, and showing hitters a consistent four-pitch mix to try and keep them guessing. It’s not a radical reinvention, but the tinkering has given him a little more funk to keep hitters off his faded raw stuff. So far, the moves have worked out for Shields reasonably well.

The Tigers saw him at Comerica Park back on May 27th, and Shields limited them to three runs and five hits across seven innings. They had a little more success back on April 5th, scoring three and knocking him out after just five innings. Shields usually manages to compete against the Tigers. He’s going to mix his pitches well, but struggles to limit the walks as a result of throwing so much offspeed. The Tigers will need to be patient, but ready to jump on a cookie on Sunday.

As for Hardy, he handled the White Sox with ease in that game. Tomorrow will be a test of whether the Sox can adjust against Hardy by virtue of having seen him recently. Still, the White Sox are one of the worst hitting teams in baseball against left-handers. The goose is still employed. Hardy’s chances of having another strong outing seem good.

Key Matchup: Starting pitchers vs. Guaranteed Rate Field

Reactions to the home surge—which seems to have stabilized so far this season—have typically gone in two ways. Either you strikeout more batters, or you try to get more groundballs to limit the potential for home runs. However both Blaine Hardy and James Shields have gone the opposite direction, becoming more extreme fly ball and pop-up pitchers. It’s a dangerous game, particular for guys with middling stuff, but so far both have found reasonable success this year by getting easy outs in the air without getting crushed by the long ball. That’s going to be extra tough to do on Sunday.

Temperatures in excess of 95 degrees are expected in Chicago. We have two pitchers on the mound whose 2017 seasons were ruined by their inability to limit home runs. Neither tops out over 90 mph very often. Both are relying more on fly balls for outs this season. We have a ballpark that has an only mildly overstated reputation as a launching pad. Probably fireworks are in order. Hardy has the better peripherals, has been on fantastic run, and there will be a better defensive unit behind him than Shields will enjoy. The odds seem in the Tigers’ favor, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a wild, high-scoring game on Sunday afternoon, either.

Prediction

Hardy outduels Shields, but both take some damage and the Tigers can’t hang onto a late lead.

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