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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: No, these Tigers are not as bad as 2003

The Tigers will look to surpass the 2003 team’s win total in Kansas City on Tuesday.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for a “told you so.” Last offseason, a vocal minority of the Tigers fanbase bemoaned the team’s moves over the past several months. The tear-down didn’t sit well with this group, and some pondered if the 2018 Tigers would be as bad as the infamous 2003 club. That team was the worst in American League history, finishing with a 43-119 record. We didn’t think it would happen, but that didn’t stop some of the doomsayers.

Well, here we are. It’s July 24, and the Tigers already have 43 wins on the season, same as the 2003 team. The 2018 version hasn’t been great — they only have seven wins over the last calendar month — but they have proven to be miles better than that ‘03 side.

At least they will be, assuming they win one of their final 60 games.

That 44th win could come as early as Tuesday evening, when the Tigers send Jordan Zimmermann back to the mound. The 32-year-old veteran is in the middle of a bounce-back season, with a 3.71 ERA in 63 innings. He was knocked around a bit in his last start, but that was back on July 11, nearly two full weeks ago.

Can Zimmermann and the Tigers make it two in a row — and three of five since the All-Star break — on Tuesday?

Detroit Tigers (43-59) at Kansas City Royals (30-69)

Time/Place: 8:15 p.m., Kauffman Stadium
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-1, 3.71 ERA) vs. RHP Burch Smith (0-1, 5.98 ERA)

Game 103 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 63.0 23.6 4.3 3.40 1.6
Smith 43.2 23.2 11.3 5.42 -0.4

On Monday, both we and the Tigers debunked the theory that something called “Heath Fillmyer” could be anything other than a 35-year-old middle reliever. “Burch Smith” sounds (and looks) like he is cut from a similar cloth, but the 28-year-old is slightly more interesting than that. Smith was drafted three different times earlier this decade, twice by the Cleveland Indians. He eventually signed when the San Diego Padres took him in the 14th round of the 2011 draft, and made a largely forgettable MLB debut in 2013. He was part of the Wil Myers-Trea Turner trade in 2014, and moved from San Diego to Tampa. He didn’t throw a pitch for the Rays, though, in part due to injury; he missed all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery. After a solid 2017 season in the minors, Smith was selected by the Royals (via the Mets) in the Rule 5 draft.

That’s about as interesting as it gets, though. Smith has struck out about a batter per inning this season, but has an ERA approaching six. His walk rate is too high, and there isn’t a ton in his profile to latch onto going forward. He has a decent fastball that sits anywhere from 93 to 95 miles per hour, along with a curveball and changeup that he throws about 20 percent of the time. He has used those three pitches to induce swinging strikes 10 percent of the time this year, but unless his command takes a big step forward — unlikely, even if he’s less experienced than your typical 28-year-old pitcher — he’s probably nothing more than a decent middle reliever at best.

Even then, that should be enough for six solid innings against the Tigers in this game.

Key matchup: Zimmermann vs. the Royals offense

We outlined just how bad the Royals offense is in Monday’s preview, but let’s review. Kansas City sits second-to-last in all of baseball with an 82 wRC+. Only the Baltimore Orioles are worse. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Royals have also struggled to hit against Zimmermann. Even though he has been well below average for most of his Tigers tenure, Zimmermann has still dominated Kansas City; he is 4-0 in seven career appearances (six starts) against the Royals, and has allowed a 1.48 ERA in 42 23 innings. Royals hitters are batting .226/.259/.270 against him, and those numbers only improve slightly against their current roster. Only Whit Merrifield (of course) has enjoyed a fair amount of success, and we’re just talking about four hits in 11 at-bats.

Prediction

Zimmermann and the Tigers win another nailbiter.

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