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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: The Jordan Zimmermann renaissance might have been short-lived

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Zimmermann has struggled in his last couple starts.

Detroit Tigers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After two years of subpar performance and trips to the disabled list, Jordan Zimmermann was all but written off by the Tigers fanbase. The team stuck with him — they had 74 million reasons to do so, of course — and he finally repaid them with a 3.71 ERA and solid peripherals in the first half. Of particular note was a four-start stretch after he came off the disabled list; Zimmermann limited opponents to a 1.80 ERA with 24 strikeouts and one walk in 25 innings. The final start was his coming out party of sorts, an 11-strikeout performance that caught the national media’s attention.

FanGraphs’ Scott Strandberg all but pronounced Zimmermann “back”:

Digging into his data a bit further, I found a relatively simple explanation for why he’s been so good this year: His slider is as effective as it’s ever been, and he’s throwing it far more frequently than ever before. Zimmermann’s throwing his slider 34.9% of the time this year, which is a major departure from last year when he threw just 24.3% sliders. It’s also way beyond his career average of 22.5% sliders. In fact, only six qualified pitchers in baseball this year are throwing sliders more frequently than Zimmermann is, and only one of them (Luis Severino, 2.74 wSL/C) is throwing them more effectively than Zimm (2.20 wSL/C).

Unfortunately, this short stretch of solid outings might have been just that. Zimmermann has allowed four runs in both of his past two starts, his first two losses of the season. He is still maintaining solid strikeout and walk numbers — he fanned nine batters to two walks in those two outings — but he gave up 18 hits in just 11 23 innings along the way.

While some might see this as a blip, this has been the problem with Zimmermann for the past two-plus years. His command has never been too bad, but opponents have had no problem squaring him up. He has given up four home runs in his past two starts, and still struggles with the long ball at times (1.32 home runs per nine innings this year).

Cleveland Indians (56-47) at Detroit Tigers (45-61)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Corey Kluber (12-6, 2.88 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-2, 3.97 ERA)

Game 107 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Kluber 137.2 25.1 3.4 3.52 2.8
Zimmermann 68.0 23.1 4.3 3.69 1.4

I have good news and bad news. The good news, for our purposes, is that Corey Kluber’s strikeout and home run rates have regressed considerably compared to the past few years. Of particular note are the 1.31 home runs per nine innings he has allowed, the highest of his career. The bad news? Even with the uptick in dingers, Kluber is still really good. He is “only” striking out 25.1 percent of hitters this year, and has lowered his walk rate to just 3.1 percent. His 21.7 K-BB% ranks 12th among qualified MLB pitchers. His 2.88 ERA is 11th. His 7.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in the game.

Here’s further optimism for Detroit; Kluber’s typical late season surge hasn’t started yet. In fact, he has been downright mediocre lately, allowing a 5.21 ERA in his last seven starts. This includes five starts with at least three earned runs allowed, and four more unearned runs that could have further elevated his ERA. Opponents are slugging .497 against him in those seven starts, with eight home runs.

But that might not mean much against a generally lifeless Tigers lineup, though; Kluber’s last start prior to his recent skid was an eight inning, two-run performance at Comerica Park on June 10.

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. making contact

We have previously detailed Detroit’s issues with making contact. While they sit in the middle of the pack with a 22.1 percent team strikeout rate, they swing at more pitches outside the strike zone than any other team in baseball. They have also fanned 21 times in 16 innings against Kluber this season, and no longer have Miguel Cabrera to prop up their numbers against him; of the 61 career hits the current Tigers roster has against Kluber, 23 belong to Cabrera (including six of 10 home runs).

Prediction

Kluber cruises and the Indians take the series.

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