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Tigers vs. Indians series preview: The battle for AL Central supremacy begins

The top two teams in the division square off this week in what should definitely be a season-long battle between two great teams, right?

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Back in 2015, the Tigers and Kansas City Royals kicked off the month of May with a four-game series at Kauffman Stadium. You may not remember this, but the Tigers were actually pretty good at the time — they were 15-7 at the start of the series, tops in the AL Central. With both teams coming off playoff appearances in 2014 and the Royals fresh off their World Series loss to the San Francisco Giants (grumble), this series felt like the first of several showdowns that would decide the division that year.

And it was... for a while. The teams split that series, a couple of heavyweights going blow-for-blow in the first round of a long title fight. We know what happened to the Tigers after that, though; they went 11-15 over the rest of the month, 11-13 in June, and never really got going after that. Meanwhile, the Royals went on to World Series glory.

For some reason, Detroit’s upcoming series against the Cleveland Indians reminds me of that one. The stakes seem a little more obvious this time around — the Tigers are the plucky upstarts, while Cleveland is the title contender, injuries or not — but regardless, we enter the week with those two teams perched atop the AL Central. The Tigers may not end the week there, but it feels pretty good right now.

And if the Tigers want to be the ones to go onto World Series glory while the reigning division champs further echo that 2015 series and sputter to a last place finish? I’d be fine with that.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Indians

Overview Tigers Indians Advantage
Overview Tigers Indians Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 64 (13th) 46 (15th) Tigers
Fielding (DRS) 9 (2nd) 5 (5th) Tigers
Rotation (ERA-) 51 (2nd) 73 (4th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 71 (7th) 64 (3rd) Indians
Total fWAR 2.0 (7th) 1.2 (10th) Tigers
American League ranks in parentheses

The Indians got off to a sluggish start this year, losing two of three in Minnesota to open the season before splitting a two-game set against Chicago. They found their footing over the weekend, though, sweeping a four-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Their offense has been the league’s worst so far — more on that in a bit — but the pitching has been dominant, as expected. Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer both have ERAs under 1.00 (with Clevinger yet to allow a run), and Shane Bieber has also been solid through two starts. Veterans Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have been hit around a bit, but will get going eventually.

The real key to Cleveland’s best start under Terry Francona has probably been the bullpen. Closer Brad Hand has four saves and just one earned run through 5 13 innings, and three others (Adam Cimber, Dan Otero, and Tyler Olson) have yet to allow a run. That unit has the sixth-best ERA in baseball right now, and is fifth in strikeout rate on the young season. There’s still a long way to go, of course — no team managed a 70 ERA- last season, signaling that both the Indians and Tigers will regress by a fair margin at some point this year — but the back end of Cleveland’s bullpen appears capable of taking over for the departed Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Tuesday, Apr. 9, 1:10 p.m.
Game 2: Wednesday, Apr. 10, 1:10 p.m.
Game 3: Thursday, Apr. 11, 1:10 p.m.
Venue: Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Indians lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Leonys Martin CF 31 0 0 36
Jose Ramirez 3B 34 0 2 30
Jake Bauers LF 29 0 2 52
Carlos Santana 1B 35 1 8 198
Hanley Ramirez DH 26 2 4 157
Tyler Naquin RF 23 0 1 90
Roberto Perez C 21 0 3 -27
Brad Miller 2B 21 0 1 4
Eric Stamets SS 26 0 0 -54

The Indians offense has yet to get going in 2019. They currently rank last in the American League as a team with a 46 wRC+, and have scored just 3.33 runs per game through the season’s first week. They have baseball’s highest strikeout rate (31.3 percent), its lowest ISO (.091), and the third-lowest on-base percentage (.262).

There’s little secret as to why this is happening. Francisco Lindor has yet to play in a game this year after suffering a calf injury during spring training, but should be back soon. Jason Kipnis is also out right now, but could be activated in time for this series. Jose Ramirez was dinged up towards the end of spring training as well, and has yet to get going offensively. Leadoff hitter Leonys Martin and the rotating crew in the No. 3 spot have also struggled, leaving precious few RBI opportunities for the two hot hitters in the lineup: Carlos Santana and Hanley Ramirez.

The Indians offense will eventually click. Lindor will return and be the Francisco Lindor that has tormented the Tigers (and the rest of the American League) since his arrival in the major leagues. Jose Ramirez will also find his footing, perhaps against a Tigers club he has also dominated over the past few years. Others will get rolling too.

But as we discussed prior to the series against the Yankees, the Tigers need to take advantage of struggling clubs whenever possible if they hope to stay near the top of the division. Preseason projections be damned, the Tigers are in first place right now, and could stay there this week if they keep the Indians offense in check.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: RHP Corey Kluber (0-2, 5.23 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 0.66 ERA)

Many will be surprised by Kluber’s high ERA to open the season — Fox Sports Detroit’s announcers sure were when they brought it up on Sunday — but those paying attention won’t be surprised at all. Kluber has generally struggled early on, though you wouldn’t know it by his career 3.70 ERA and .663 OPS allowed in the month of April. He was nails out of the gate last season, but the four years before that?

2017: 4.19 ERA
2016: 4.24 ERA
2015: 4.24 ERA
2014: 4.14 ERA

We all know Kluber will eventually be fine (though we’re not looking forward to it). Here’s hoping he continues to struggle when he toes the mound on Tuesday.

Game 2: RHP Trevor Bauer (1-0, 0.64 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 3.18 ERA)

If we are going to point out the Indians’ ace at this point, it might actually be Trevor Bauer. He outperformed Kluber in 2018 (5.8 fWAR to 5.5) despite throwing 40 fewer innings, and has an ERA hovering around 2.00 since the start of the 2018 season. His command has been a little iffy early on this year, with seven walks through his first 14 innings, but he also has 17 strikeouts to just one hit allowed. He worked seven hitless innings in his last outing, but was pulled after throwing 117 pitches. His fastball velocity has returned after a slight downturn last August (related to a leg injury), and he is currently building on last season’s career-best 13.3 percent swinging strike rate. If he sorts out his command, this could be a long afternoon for the Tigers offense.

Game 3: RHP Shane Bieber (0-0, 3.38 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-1, 4.09 ERA)

Bieber is the Tribe’s nominal fifth starter, but one with a much higher ceiling. The 23-year-old righthander struck out a batter per inning in his rookie year last season, and finished the year with a 3.23 FIP in 114 23 innings. He displayed the usual inconsistencies you would expect from a young starter, but also had his fair share of dominant outings — including a nine-strikeout performance against the Tigers on June 22. He displayed excellent control, walking just 4.7 percent of hitters, but might be better served nibbling on the corners a bit more in 2019; opponents made contact on just 57.2 percent of pitches outside the zone against Bieber, nearly identical to what a couple guys named Verlander (57.5 percent) and deGrom (57.8 percent) produced.

What we’re rooting for: more time in first place

This may be the series where all the fun ends. The Indians are sending three excellent starting pitchers to the mound at Comerica Park this week, and the Tigers offense has struggled against far inferior pitching through the team’s first 10 games. But they too have pitched incredibly well, and the Indians are still without their best player in Francisco Lindor. The Tigers still have a puncher’s chance if their rotation remains strong, but will need to continue producing timely hits if they want to stay atop the division standings for another week.