The innings leader for the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros will be on the Minute Maid Park on Friday evening. But, just as his 2018 results have somewhat baffled fans and analysts alike, the surprising answer to the above trivia nugget isn’t Astros lefthander Dallas Keuchel; it’s Mike Fiers.
The 2017 season wasn’t a great individual one for Fiers, though. He allowed a 5.22 ERA in 153 1⁄3 innings with the Astros, and led the league with 13 hit batters. His advanced metrics were just as ugly, with a 5.43 FIP and a career-worst 9.2 percent walk rate. While his cheap contract makes sense given last season’s spotty results, the iffy command makes his 2018 success all the more surprising. He has almost cut his walk rate in half, and, according to Baseball Reference, is already nearly three WAR better than he was last year.
There are still some reasons to worry, particularly in this matchup. The Astros lineup is a modern day Murderer’s Row, with a team wRC+ of 114. They were at 121 last season, the best team wRC+ since — no joke — those Ruth and Gehrig-led Yankees teams of the 1920s and early ‘30s. While they have fallen off that ridiculous pace this year, the Astros have seven regulars at 110 or better while also sporting baseball’s best rotation. This includes Keuchel, who has the AL’s second-best home ERA since his breakout season in 2014.
Detroit Tigers (40-55) at Houston Astros (62-34)
Time/Place: 8:10 p.m., Minute Maid Park
SB Nation site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Fiers (6-5, 3.65 ERA) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (6-8, 3.95 ERA)
Game 98 Pitching Matchup
A casual glance at Dallas Keuchel’s career numbers would suggest he has had an up-and-down last few seasons. He put up a 4.55 ERA in 168 innings in 2016, then produced a 2.90 ERA in 2017 to earn his second career All-Star bid. This year, Keuchel has struggled a bit again, allowing a 3.95 ERA.
However, a closer look tells us a much different story. For one, Keuchel’s FIP has been nearly identical in each of those three seasons. His 3.79 FIP this season is identical, in fact, to what he produced last year. His 2016 struggles were also a tale of two halves; his called strike rate plummeted in the first half — likely due to measured changes in how umpires called strikes — before he adjusted and returned to form in the second half. His 2018 results have been better than the overall numbers indicate too, with a few bad starts ballooning his overall ERA.
If there’s one question mark, it’s Keuchel’s strikeout rate. He has only fanned 17.8 percent of hitters this year, his lowest rate since arriving in the big leagues in 2012. However, it’s similar to what he produced in 2014, one of his better seasons, and is offset by a drop in walk rate. Opponents are also hitting more home runs off him — he’s on pace for a career high in homers allowed — but he hasn’t allowed a dinger in over a month.
Key matchup: The Tigers vs. Keuchel at home
As mentioned above, few pitchers have been stingier at home over the past several years than Keuchel. The lefthander has pronounced home/road splits over the years, with an ERA nearly a run and a half better at Minute Maid Park than on the road. His strikeout and walk numbers are similar, but he has limited opponents to just 0.69 home runs per nine innings at home, resulting in a 3.39 FIP nearly a full run below what he has produced on the road. Opponents don’t make as much hard contact against him, hit more balls on the ground, and generally hit worse against him when he’s on the mound at Minute Maid. Those splits have reversed themselves this year — he has a 4.50 ERA in nine home starts in 2018 — but opponents are still only getting on base at a .295 clip.
Fiers and the Tigers win game one because baseball.