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Tigers vs. Yankees Preview: Jordan Zimmermann looks to repeat Opening Day gem

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Zimmermann impressed in his debut, but the competition gets tougher in the Bronx.

Detroit Tigers v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The lack of offense has been frustrating for Tigers fans, but the 2019 season has not been without some bright spots through the first week of the season. A series split in Toronto was a little fortunate, but Detroit has to take wins in any way that they come. Against a team like the Yankees, who many expect to make a deep postseason run, the Tigers again will need grind it out as best as they can.

If there was one overarching positive takeaway from week one it was quality pitching, especially from the starters. No one was more surprising than Jordan Zimmermann, who looked like a completely new pitcher during his seven scoreless innings against the Blue Jays. Everything was going right for the Tigers’ veteran, including a 12.9 percent swinging strike rate and just a 22.2 percent hard contact rate.

I mentioned previously that Zimmermann has made a significant switch in pitch mix over the past couple years. In Toronto this was even more accentuated, as he wound up throwing more sliders than fastballs, something that only happened in two starts last season. Given his success on Opening Day, it will be interesting to see if he can continue this momentum against a dangerous — if somewhat injury-thinned — offense in New York.

Detroit Tigers (2-3) at New York Yankees (2-2)

Time/Place: 6:35 p.m., Yankee Stadium
SB Nation site: Pinstripe Alley
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Masahiro Tanaka (1-0, 1.59 ERA)

Game 6 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Zimmermann 7.0 18.2 0.0 1.88 0.3
Tanaka 5.2 22.7 0.0 1.26 0.2

Masahiro Tanaka is entering his sixth season in New York and has been remarkably consistent over the previous five years. He is rarely the flashiest pitcher in the Yankees rotation, but he has pitched at least 150 innings in each of the past four seasons with just one season with an ERA over 3.75. His strikeout numbers are nothing too special, but against the 2019 Tigers he is sure to rack up some punchouts.

Due to the injury to Luis Severino, Tanaka took the mound on Opening Day and gave up just one earned run over 5 ⅔ innings against the Orioles. He struck out five without surrendering any walks and was able to turn the ball over to the dominant Yankees bullpen to earn the win.

The one area where the 30-year-old has struggled historically is with the long ball. Tanaka allowed a combined 1.62 home runs per nine innings in 2017 and 2018, and his 19.6 percent home run per fly ball rate is not encouraging. Surprisingly, this does not appear to be inflated by pitching in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium; his career rates are very similar both at home and on the road.

While this is a clear weakness, there is no guarantee the Tigers can take advantage. Detroit entered the season without many power threats and have hit just one bomb through the first five games of the year. If there ever was a time to change that trend it would be in this ballpark against a pitcher like Tanaka, so maybe the Tigers can get a hold of a pitch or two.

Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. the short porch

Just as home runs have been a problem for Tanaka, Zimmerman has not been great at keeping the ball inside the field of play since joining the Tigers. His 1.92 home runs per nine innings were a career high last season, and though he looked good in his first outing of 2019, he did post a fly ball rate over 50 percent. A number that high will not work well against the Yankees, even without Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup.

Prediction

Start number two is not as fortunate for Zimmermann, who gives up a couple of dingers in Yankee Stadium.