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Tigers vs. Royals Series Preview: Let’s keep this going, huh?

The Tigers are 4-3, but perhaps a bit fortunate to be in that position. Can they continue their winning ways?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Heading into the season, I think a lot of Detroit Tigers fans would have been happy with grabbing a pair of wins in the team’s opening week. Playing on the road is never easy, and their opponents — the Yankees, in particular — were heading into the season with high expectations.

Given those modest demands, 4-3 feels pretty good right now. The Tigers stole a pair of games in New York despite only scoring six runs in the series, and have generally looked good in the process.

Well, on one side of the ball. Detroit’s pitching staff has been excellent to open the year, and currently leads the American League with 1.6 fWAR. Starters Matthew Boyd and Jordan Zimmermann currently rank second and third, respectively, among all MLB pitchers in fWAR after a pair of dominant outings apiece. The rest of the rotation has been solid as well, particularly Saturday starter Matt Moore.

The Tigers will certainly need to score more runs if they are to continue their winning ways. The offense will heat up at some point, but to do so, they will have to go through a Royals pitching staff that gave them fits in 2018. Detroit will also need to control Kansas City’s running game, which hasn’t quite hit high gear yet. If they can do these things and continue to hold opposing lineups in check? We might be talking about another series win here early next week.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Royals

Overview Tigers Royals Advantage
Overview Tigers Royals Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 48 (13th) 104 (8th) Royals
Fielding (DRS) 3 (5th) -2 (10th) Tigers
Rotation (ERA-) 62 (3rd) 117 (12th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 62 (3rd) 208 (14th) Tigers
Total fWAR 0.9 (10th) 0.6 (11th) Tigers

The Royals have only played five games so far, and they have largely gone as expected. The took a pair of games against the White Sox in the opening weekend of the season, but lost two straight to the Minnesota Twins, a playoff hopeful in 2019. The Royals enter this series at 2-3 and on three consecutive losses after those two wins at home against Chicago.

The way they have gone about it is strange, though. The Royals offense is clicking so far, and has averaged over five runs per game through the season’s first week. They aren’t hitting for power yet — standard operating procedure for them lately — but haven’t quite lit the world on fire with their incredible speed yet either.

Meanwhile, their pitching has been... substandard. The rotation has been passable, with a 4.08 ERA and 3.31 FIP the first time through. Brad Keller has looked excellent in two starts, while the other starters are still working out the kinks. The bullpen, on the other hand, has been awful. The Royals’ bullpen currently owns the second-highest ERA in baseball, at 7.27, and has already blown a pair of save opportunities. The new additions — Jake Diekman, Wily Peralta, and Brad Boxberger — all have ERAs of 8.10 or higher, and they have as many walks as strikeouts.

All of this will start to even out eventually, of course. But as we mentioned prior to Detroit’s last series, taking advantage of other teams (or parts of teams, in this case) when they are down will help the Tigers continue this nice run they are on.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Thursday, Apr. 4, 1:10 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, Apr. 6, 1:10 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, Apr. 7, 1:10 p.m.
Venue: Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Royals lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Whit Merrifield RF 23 0 3 77
Adalberto Mondesi SS 23 1 5 296
Alex Gordon LF 23 1 5 165
Jorge Soler DH 21 0 5 125
Ryan O'Hearn 1B 15 1 4 179
Chris Owings 2B 20 0 1 18
Hunter Dozier 3B 16 0 1 -22
Martin Maldonado C 19 0 0 101
Billy Hamilton CF 19 0 0 5

The Royals have not flashed much power yet this year — they have just one more home run than the Tigers on the season — but they have found a way to score 26 runs across their first five games, tied for fifth in the American League. They have scored at least three runs in every game, and have topped the five-run mark three times already (something the Tigers still have yet to do).

But if you were to ask me how they are doing it? I have no idea. Kansas City sits in the middle of the pack among AL teams in most offensive categories right now, including on-base percentage (.299), slugging average (.385), and wRC+ (104). They aren’t running into any crazy BABIP luck, but have put more balls in play than most teams, with a strikeout rate of just 17 percent. Even their crazy speed hasn’t been a factor yet — they have just five steals (fourth in the league) and are only slightly above-average in baserunning runs (BsR).

The key for the Tigers in this series will be slowing down the top of their lineup. Shortstop Adalberto Mondesi has been on fire to start the year, with a .409 batting average through the team’s first five games. He has yet to take a walk, but is slugging .909 thanks to six extra-base hits. Whit Merrifield has yet to get going, but he put up an .849 OPS in 83 plate appearances against the Tigers last season. Alex Gordon and Jorge Soler have looked good so far this year as well, and could prove capable of driving in runs if Mondesi, Merrifield, and No. 9 hitter Billy Hamilton start to run wild on the basepaths.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: RHP Jakob Junis (1-0, 4.76 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-1, 5.40 ERA)

Junis absolutely throttled the Tigers last season, holding them to just nine runs (eight earned) in 37 innings pitched. He averaged over seven innings per start in five outings and limited Tigers hitters to a .234 on-base percentage. Somehow, the Tigers managed to steal a game in there — something they have been adept at already in 2019.

Outside of those five starts, however, Junis was relatively mediocre. He allowed a 4.94 ERA in 25 starts against non-Tigers teams, and gave up a healthy dose of home runs throughout the year. His underlying numbers were solid — a 3.81 strikeout-to-walk ratio translated to a 4.13 xFIP in 177 innings — but he doesn’t project to add anything more to his game, save for a total revamp a la early season Matthew Boyd. Still, there’s value in a mid-rotation starter like this, and Junis was one Jose Abreu swing away from an excellent first start this year (again with the homers, though).

Game 2: RHP Jorge Lopez (0-1, 7.20 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Moore (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

Lopez is another young-ish starter the Royals are hoping can become part of their future plans in the rotation. The 26-year-old Puerto Rican split time between Kansas City and Milwaukee last year, with significant splits between his two roles. He put up a 2.75 ERA in 10 relief appearances with the Brewers, but gave up a 6.35 ERA in seven starts with Kansas City. His strikeout and walk numbers were awful in both roles, however, so he has some work to do. He only walked one batter against the White Sox five days ago, but coughed up four runs (including a pair of homers) in his first start this year.

Game 3: RHP Brad Keller (1-0, 2.08 ERA) vs. RHP Tyson Ross (0-1, 3.60 ERA)

Brad Keller may sound like a 31-year-old journeyman who had a stellar start on Opening Day, but the truth is he’s only 23 years old — and yes, the stellar Opening Day start thing is true. He was the Royals’ Rule 5 draft pick in 2017, and posted excellent numbers (3.08 ERA, 3.55 FIP) in 140 13 innings with Kansas City last season. He isn’t much of a strikeout artist, but made his bread last year by inducing a lot of weak grounders and limiting home runs. More advanced metrics don’t like him very much — he had a 4.26 xFIP, 4.51 SIERA, and a 4.87 Deserved Run Average (DRA) last year — but he has continued to miss barrels through his first two starts of 2019.

What we’re rooting for: a bit more offense, please

As we have mentioned elsewhere on the site over the past 24 hours, the Tigers are averaging just 1.7 runs per game so far this year. There is nothing to be truly worried about here — a lot of teams struggle to get their bats going early on in the season — but the Tigers can’t hope to keep winning games if they don’t get their bats going. That they are 4-3 so far is testament to utter dominance from the pitching staff so far (they lead the AL in fWAR), but that can only continue for so long.

If they are to finally get going, they will have to do so against a pair of pitchers that dominated this same offense last season. Junis’ numbers against the Tigers are almost engrained in our heads at this point, and Keller also managed a 1.80 ERA against Detroit in a handful of innings. These starters don’t have the same high-octane stuff the Tigers have faced over the past week, though, and the club always seems to hit better at Comerica Park. If they can start to put runs on the board, we might see this hot start continue for a few more days.