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Tigers vs. White Sox Preview: The Tigers will finally face a lefty!

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Chicago’s Carlos Rodon is the first left-handed starter the Tigers will face in 2019.

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Our long nightmare is over!

Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that long — we’re not even a month into the 2019 season yet, after all — and the real nightmare might still be looming, but after 18 games, the Detroit Tigers will finally face a left-handed starting pitcher. Chicago White Sox lefthander Carlos Rodon, himself looking to shake off some nightmare injury-riddled seasons, will break the Tigers’ weird (if not all that long or arduous) streak when he takes the Comerica Park mound on Friday evening.

Why are we so focused on this anomaly? It’s weird, for one, which is always fun. But it also represents a chance for the Tigers offense to break out of an early season funk. Though the Tigers have added a pair of solid switch hitters in recent years, they are still a relatively right-handed heavy unit. Their top three hitters all bat right-handed, and many of the players lower down in the lineup also swing from the right side. Nicholas Castellanos and switch hitter Jeimer Candelario both put up significantly better numbers against lefties last year, and Niko Goodrum was slightly better against lefties than righties.

Long story short: the Tigers could be something of a lefty-mashing club, but haven’t been tested yet.

They certainly will be on Friday, though. Rodon has largely regained his form after suffering through some shoulder issues that sidelined him for large swathes of the past two seasons. He combined to throw 190 MLB innings in 2017 and 2018, with largely forgettable numbers (4.17 ERA, 4.85 FIP) during those years. This season, Rodon has rediscovered the strikeout touch that made him a top draft pick back in 2014. He has 29 punchouts in 22 innings, including a pair of nine-strikeout performances already to his name. This doesn’t bode well for the Tigers’ whiff-happy ways — they had baseball’s third-highest strikeout rate entering play on Thursday — even if they do prove to be a formidable opponents against left-handed pitching.

Chicago White Sox (7-11) at Detroit Tigers (9-9)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Carlos Rodon (2-2, 3.27 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-2, 4.29 ERA)

Game 19 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Rodon 22.0 30.2 9.4 1.83 1.0
Zimmermann 21.0 17.9 4.8 4.72 0.2

It looks like the Jordan Zimmermann hype train was a little premature. After a pair of stellar outings to open the season, Zimmermann has regressed to his 2018 form over his past two starts. He has given up 10 runs on 12 hits in just 7 13 innings, raising his ERA from 0.66 to 4.19. The two opponents he faced combined for four home runs, something Zimmermann has had trouble with throughout his entire stay with the Tigers.

The weird part is that even though he is (and has been) bleeding runs, Zimmermann’s strikeout-to-walk numbers are still solid. His current 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio is down from last year thanks to a dip in an already mediocre strikeout rate, but is still miles better than what he produced in 2016 and 2017. His declining velocity could be one explanation, but it has been gradual enough to not expect any big year-to-year changes in his results. His low swinging strike rate is also a culprit, as more players have to put the ball into play against him — and we saw how that could go wrong on Thursday.

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. Rodon’s slider

If anyone is still worried about Carlos Rodon’s health heading into this season, his pitch mix should tell you plenty. The 26-year-old lefty is throwing his lethal slider 41 percent of the time in 2019, by far the highest usage rate of his career. Though the connection between sliders and arm trouble is dubious, many organizations still follow this philosophy, so it’s a bit surprising to see him so slider-heavy this early into 2019 — yes, even if he did pitch the final four months of 2018 without a hitch.

Meanwhile, the Tigers offense has been bad. They rank at or near the bottom of the barrel in most statistical categories, including important ones like home runs and on-base percentage. Another thing they are bad at? Hitting sliders. The Tigers rank as MLB’s fifth-worst team against the slider in 2019, according to FanGraphs’ pitch values. Given how often Rodon throws that pitch — and his four-seam fastball, which the Tigers rank dead last against — this looks like a bad matchup for the home team.

Prediction

Rodon and Zimmermann start out hot but all hell breaks loose again because it’s the Tigers and White Sox.