It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that this is the biggest test of Ryan Carpenter’s career. For one, there isn’t much much competition — this will be Carpenter’s seventh career start, and eighth appearance at the major league level. But when looking at the opponents Carpenter faced in both 2018 and this season, the 2019 Houston Astros are by far the most talented lineup he has come across.
Let’s go down the list. Of the five teams Carpenter started against in 2018, only the Cleveland Indians produced an above-average offense (104 wRC+) for the season — the Los Angeles Angels were right at league average, with a 100 wRC+. Carpenter faced those same Angels again five days ago, and they are now up to a 104 wRC+ on the young 2019 season. The Astros, meanwhile, have produced a gaudy 133 wRC+ as a team. This is better than any Tigers hitter not named Ronny Rodriguez (minimum 50 plate appearances), and would obliterate the already impressive 122 wRC+ they put up in 2017, when they won the World Series.
Worse yet, the Astros are even better against left-handed pitching. They have produced a 140 wRC+ as a club against southpaws in 2019, something only 33 players were able to accomplish in full-season duty last year.
This makes for some tough sledding for Carpenter, who allowed a .918 OPS against right-handed hitters last year. Can he beat the odds and hold the Astros in check on Tuesday?
Houston Astros (27-15) at Detroit Tigers (18-21)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: The Crawfish Boxes
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Wade Miley (3-2, 3.18 ERA) vs. LHP Ryan Carpenter (0-1, 10.80 ERA)
Game 40 Pitching Matchup
As I mentioned in Monday’s series preview, there is little to pick out in Wade Miley’s numbers that illustrates how he was able to cut his ERA in half from 2017 to 2018. He started throwing a cutter far more often, but that alone did not explain where the huge improvement came from. Miley’s ground ball rate went up slightly, but that was about it.
A deeper dive into Statcast numbers reveals a bit more. Miley was one of the best pitchers in baseball at avoiding barrels last year. His 3.5 percent barrel rate was one of the lowest in the game, which resulted in lower-than-expected hard hit rates, exit velocities, and expected wOBAs against. He also managed one of the lower average launch angles against, which helped limit home runs against.
By most accounts, Miley has taken a step back in 2019. Opponents have produced an average exit velocity of 89.1 miles per hour against him this year, way up from 85 mph last season. His expected wOBA against has gone down, but his hard hit rate is up to 35.8 percent. Opponents have figured out how to lift the ball a bit more, resulting in a regression of his HR/FB percentage to career norms. This hasn’t changed his approach, though; he is still throwing plenty of cutters — more than ever, in fact — but this has not yet led to the payoff the Astros were hoping for when they signed him last winter.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. left-handed pitching
For all the talk above of how good the Astros are at hitting left-handed pitching this year, we should give the Tigers some credit. They are nowhere near Houston’s level, of course, but have crept up to a 102 wRC+ in 2019 against left-handed pitching. This is fairly impressive for the Tigers, considering their overall wRC+ of 81 is the sixth-lowest in baseball. Detroit’s lineup isn’t as right-handed heavy as in recent years, especially now that Christin Stewart is healthy, but lefty mashers like Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos have had their way with southpaws, as expected. Brandon Dixon has chipped in with a 190 wRC+ against lefties (in 10 plate appearances), so expect him back in the lineup on Tuesday.
Carpenter holds his own for a while, but Houston takes game two.