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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Michael Fulmer still searching for answers against Cleveland

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Fulmer hasn’t yet figured out the Tribe in his young MLB career.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not even three full seasons into Michael Fulmer’s MLB career, but the “Fulmer struggles against Cleveland” narrative is already A Thing. This is for good reason, because Fulmer has struggled against the Tribe. He has a 6.11 ERA in seven career starts against the Indians, and a 6.30 ERA in two meetings this year. Those numbers are affected by just a few bad outings — one of which was his third career start — but the good ones have just been that: good, not great.

The lone exception is his last start against them. Fulmer tossed seven strong innings against Cleveland on June 8, allowing just one run while striking out seven. He also didn’t walk a batter, just one of four such starts in 2018 (coincidentally, he didn’t walk anyone in his other start against the Tribe).

That outing was certainly one of the instances where we thought Fulmer was “back to normal,” but this hasn’t come to pass. Fulmer’s up-and-down season has continued since he came off the disabled list in late August; in his two starts against Not the White Sox, he has given up 12 runs (10 earned) in just 10 innings. There is still little rhyme or reason to his struggles this season, and facing an Indians team in a ballpark he has not pitched well in — he has a 7.20 ERA in five starts at Progressive Field — doesn’t bode well for him turning things around on a dime.

Facing Mike Clevinger doesn’t help either.

Detroit Tigers (60-87) at Cleveland Indians (82-65)

Time/Place: 3:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-11, 4.56 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Clevinger (11-8, 3.16 ERA)

Game 149 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Liriano 118.0 18.2 12.9 5.46 -0.1
Bieber 98.0 25.1 4.6 3.00 2.6

You would think Mike Clevinger’s numbers against the Tigers this season would be better. They’re certainly not bad — he has a 3.09 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in two starts — but he’s the exact kind of pitcher Detroit has struggled mightily against in 2018. They are the American League’s worst offense against right-handed pitching, the AL’s worst offense against four-seam fastballs, and pretty far down the list against sliders too. Clevinger throws his four-seamer over 50 percent of the time, and has upped his slider usage to nearly 22 percent. And he throws one of those two pitches nearly 90 percent of the time against right-handed hitters.

I’m interested to see how he does against the Tigers now, though. They are still fairly right-handed (five of Friday’s nine starters batted right-handed), but have a couple more lefties in prominent spots in the lineup. Jim Adduci has continued to get on base, even if he’s not walking or hitting for much power, and Christin Stewart has looked capable in his first week of MLB action. The Tigers have also gotten more production from Jeimer Candelario and Victor Martinez lately. This bodes well against Clevinger, who still presents with fairly significant platoon splits. Lefties are hitting .244/.323/.413 against him this year, a far better stat line than the .606 OPS righties have produced.

Key matchup: Christin Stewart vs. making contact

Stewart has looked the part of a major league hitter so far, reaching base in each of his four big league starts. He has a good approach at the plate, and has already drawn four walks in just 20 plate appearances. But there will be an adjustment period, and we might be seeing the start of it. Stewart has just three hits so far (all singles) and has punched out six times in just 16 at-bats. That may even out over time — his 13.1 percent swinging strike rate is manageable — but September could be a little rough as he gets used to seeing big league caliber pitching.

It’s not a big deal, it just may be frustrating early on.

Prediction

Clevinger and the Tribe win easily and clinch the AL Central.

Gameday reading