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Tigers vs. Rangers Preview: Jordan Zimmermann is the Tigers’ best starter right now

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We’re living in a strange world.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s go back to early 2016. The Tigers, coming off an injury-riddled last place finish in 2015, had spent an offseason rehabbing and reloading for another run at the playoffs. They signed Jordan Zimmermann (yay!), Mike Pelfrey (ugh), and Mike Aviles (wtf), and finally inked Justin Upton to a big six-year deal. Fans were a bit skeptical their team could overtake the reigning champion Kansas City Royals, but there was reasonable optimism the Tigers could make the playoffs.

Had you told us then that Jordan Zimmermann would be the Tigers’ best starter in two years, it wouldn’t have been a stretch. Some might inquire as to what went wrong with Justin Verlander, but Zimmermann was healthy and productive enough with the Washington Nationals that this seemed like a fairly safe bet.

Welp.

Despite all of his struggles the past two years, the 2018 version of Zimmermann is closer to what the Tigers anticipated when they signed him to a five-year deal in late 2015. He is limiting home runs, attacking the strike zone, and sports a healthy 4.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 3.91 ERA is a little high, but he has a 3.21 FIP that would rank ninth in the American League had he thrown enough innings (it’s better than Corey Kluber’s right now).

Given those numbers, it’s pretty safe to say that Zimmermann is the Tigers’ best starter. He has their second-best ERA — behind Mike Fiers, of all people — and his FIP is miles better than anyone else in the rotation. He’s on a roll lately too, with a 2.12 ERA and 13 strikeouts to just one walk in his last three starts. Can he keep it going against a red-hot Rangers lineup?

Texas Rangers (39-49) at Detroit Tigers (38-51)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Lone Star Ball
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Bartolo Colon (5-5, 4.76 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-0, 3.91 ERA)

Game 90 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Colon 92.2 14.5 3.9 5.25 0.0
Zimmermann 48.1 22.6 5.0 3.20 1.3

What is there to say about Bartolo Colon at this point? The portly righthander is 45 years old and still keeping his head above water on the mound. He has been exactly replacement level according to FanGraphs, but Baseball Reference has him on pace for roughly 1.5 WAR over the course of a full season. Colon continues to pound the strike zone with his 90 mile-per-hour fastball, which he throws nearly 80 percent of the time. He has walked just 15 hitters in 92 23 innings this season, good enough for a 3.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio that leads the Rangers’ rotation.

Key matchup: Bartolo Colon vs. first-pitch swings

For someone with such a predictable pitch mix, Colon has done an excellent job of limiting the damage on the first pitch of an at-bat. Opponents are hitting .367 against Colon on first-pitch swings, but have just four extra-base hits in 60 such plate appearances. Only one of the 20 homers Colon has allowed this season have come on the first pitch of an at-bat. The league average OPS on the first pitch of an AB is .915; Colon is down at .833 despite throwing first-pitch fastballs over 80 percent of the time.

The Tigers are at the other end of the spectrum. As a team, they are hitting a robust .373 with a .603 slugging average on the first pitch of an at-bat. This includes 16 of their 72 home runs this year (22 percent), as well as a healthy percentage of their doubles and triples. The Tigers struggle against righties in general, but it will be interesting to see if their luck changes with a more predictable approach in this game.

Prediction

Zimmermann improves to 4-0 with another strong outing.

Gameday reading