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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Mike Fiers is still pitching better than we expected

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Fiers has been one of Detroit’s most reliable starters this year, even if the stats say it won’t last.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Not too long ago, the Mike Fiers train looked like it was skidding off the tracks. He gave up five runs on six hits in just four innings against the lowly Kansas City Royals on May 3, ballooning his ERA to 5.00. While Fiers had been solid before that, every other stat in the book indicated that this was simply a mirage. That performance at Kauffman Stadium in early May looked like the start of some ugly regression for a pitcher entering the twilight of his career.

Instead, Fiers has continued to dance his way out of trouble. In his six starts since that game, Fiers has a 3.78 ERA in 33 13 innings. Opponents are hitting .280/.331/.508 against him during that stretch, but he has allowed just 14 runs (all earned). A gaudy 85.5 percent strand rate is the main culprit here — and still an unsustainable trend going forward — but Fiers’ approach lends itself to this “bend but don’t break” style of pitching. He has continued to limit walks, with just eight in those six starts and 13 all season. He generates a ton of fly balls, and more importantly, a healthy amount of pop ups. Though opponents are making a lot of hard contact against him, much of it is lofted enough that his outfielders have a chance to run balls down.

Fiers’ best start during this run came against the Indians at Comerica Park on May 14. He held them to one run on just three hits in six innings, and struck out five. Can he shut the Tribe down again on Saturday?

Cleveland Indians (33-28) at Detroit Tigers (30-35)

Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Clevinger (4-2, 3.36 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (5-3, 4.33 ERA)

Game 66 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Clevinger 77.2 20.5 8.3 3.51 1.6
Fiers 60.1 16.1 5.0 5.10 0.2

As he moved his way up the minor league ranks, Mike Clevinger was viewed as a potential mid-rotation starter who might settle in as a nice No. 3 or 4 on a good team. However, thanks to some fairly tantalizing raw stuff, there has always been potential for more. He has a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider, and has gotten more comfortable with his changeup against lefties. But his command has always been a bit of an issue; he struck out over 10 batters per nine innings last year, but still walked nearly four and a half hitters per nine.

While the command didn’t necessarily slow him down last year — he still managed a 3.11 ERA in 121 23 innings — it has been a bit of a detriment this season. Clevinger started out hot, posting a 2.56 ERA in five April starts. He walked just nine batters in those 31 23 innings, or roughly two and a half per nine innings. But he has struggled to find the zone at times since then, walking 17 batters in his next 46 innings. He has a 3.91 ERA during that stretch, with a couple of rough-ish outings in his past three starts.

I don’t know if I would expect that to continue in this game, though. Clevinger has been slightly worse against right-handed hitters compared to lefties this season, but limited righties to a scant .570 OPS and .259 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in 121 23 frames in 2017. The fastball-slider combination is one that the Indians used to great effect against Detroit’s right-hand heavy lineups over the past couple years, and the Tigers don’t have the same heavy hitters they used to on their roster.

Key matchup: Indians hitters vs. the high fastball

One slight adjustment Fiers has made over his last six starts is an increased focus on using his fastball. He threw it nearly 40 percent of the time in his start against Cleveland back in May, and has tried to establish it in a similar manner in a couple of his other better starts. Opponents are hitting just .253 against it on the year, a fairly low batting average against a fastball. They also hit it in the ball more often than any other pitch Fiers throws, resulting in a .286 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). If Fiers is able to establish that high fastball early, it also opens up his secondary pitches as he starts to navigate Cleveland’s lineup a second and (hopefully) third time.

Prediction

Cleveland pulls away late against the Tigers’ struggling middle relief corps.

Gameday reading