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Tigers vs. Athletics Series Preview: Oh hey look, a normal baseball team

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After three days of punishment against the Astros, the Tigers will welcome an opponent that has, you know, flaws.

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Cleveland Indians v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Was anyone else exhausted just watching the Tigers’ most recent series? The Houston Astros are good — probably the best team in baseball, as we noted prior to this week’s three-game set — but man, that was tough to watch. Houston thoroughly dominated the Tigers, outscoring them 24-6, as they pushed their record to an incredible 29-15 following an eight-game win streak.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are sliding down the standings. They have fallen 8 12 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central, and are now a game behind the Chicago White Sox. Their run differential is down to -67, quickly approaching Baltimore’s -79 mark. Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win standings now have them at a .359 win percentage, third-lowest in baseball.

Thankfully, it gets easier from here. The Oakland Athletics won 97 games last year and have a talented lineup, but are not the Astros. They have things called “flaws,” such as a below-average offense or a starting rotation with an ERA higher than Detroit’s. They are better than their 19-25 record suggests — third-order win percentage has them just a hair under .500 — but should make for a much more entertaining series for us Tigers fans.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Athletics

Overview Tigers Athletics Advantage
Overview Tigers Athletics Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 78 (13th) 94 (11th) Athletics
Fielding (DRS) -18 (11th) 7 (7th) Athletics
Rotation (ERA-) 102 (7th) 106 (10th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 122 (13th) 94 (9th) Athletics
Total fWAR 3.3 (14th) 9.1 (6th) Athletics

Here’s another hint the A’s are better than what we have seen so far; despite sitting in last place with the fourth-worst win percentage in the American League, the A’s are sixth in fWAR. They have played 44 games, and are slightly ahead of some teams on that front (the Tigers have played 41, for instance), but Oakland has put together a relatively balanced roster that sits around league average in most categories.

The exception is their offense, which has struggled so far. This is partially due to injury — first baseman Matt Olson has only played in 10 games this season — with some regression from the likes of Khris Davis and Stephen Piscotty. They sit just eighth in the American League in home runs, a category they finished second in last year. Their walk rate and on-base percentage isn’t as high as normal either, leading to less traffic on the bases (and fewer multi-run homers).

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Thursday, May 16, 1:10 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, May 17, 7:10 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, May 18, 4:10 p.m.
Game 4: Sunday, May 19, 1:10 p.m.
Venue: Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.
SB Nation site: Athletics Nation
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network (Thurs. only), fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Athletics lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Marcus Semien SS 198 4 18 113
Jurickson Profar 2B 158 4 19 48
Matt Chapman 3B 184 10 24 139
Khris Davis DH 160 12 28 115
Matt Olson 1B 41 2 2 87
Stephen Piscotty RF 191 5 19 97
Ramon Laureano CF 167 5 15 72
Robbie Grossman LF 126 3 10 92
Josh Phegley C 104 4 22 103

Oakland’s lineup will look a bit different than this for most of the series considering the Tigers have left-handed pitchers starting in three of the four games. Chad Pinder and Mark Canha will likely fill in for Profar and Grossman, respectively, and roughly in the same spots in the lineup. Pinder has been the better of the two, with an .832 OPS against left-handed pitching this year. First baseman Matt Olson, the only regular lefty in the lineup, will slide down a few spots in the order as well.

Most of the others will stay put, though. Shortstop Marcus Semien moved into the leadoff spot at the end of April, and has been there for the past 15 games thanks to a career-best 13.1 percent walk rate and .369 on-base percentage. He leads the teams in runs scored, naturally, while Khris Davis and Matt Chapman are on the top of the RBI heap. Chapman has taken a step forward early on this year, cutting his strikeout rate dramatically while pushing his walk rate north of 10 percent. Davis, on the other hand, will need to pick up the pace if he is going to finish the year with another .247 batting average. Olson has been limited to just 10 games this year after undergoing surgery on his hand following the team’s season-opening series in Japan.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: RHP Chris Bassitt (1-1, 2.55 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-2, 2.42 ERA)

Like Matt Olson, Chris Bassitt was also placed on the injured list after being struck by a baseball during Oakland’s series in Japan. Bassitt has been the club’s best starter since returning, with a 2.55 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 24 23 innings across four starts. He has managed at least six strikeouts in every start so far, and has gone seven innings in two of them. There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason for the huge jump in strikeout rate — he has nearly doubled that rate over the past two seasons — but opponents are whiffing on his offerings more often than ever.

Game 2: RHP Frankie Montas (4-2, 2.78 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-1, 3.63 ERA)

Sometimes it just takes a while before a talented starting pitcher puts it all together. We saw things click with Max Scherzer in May 2012 — I still remember that 15-strikeout performance against the Pirates to this day — and the same might be happening with Frankie Montas in 2019.

Okay, maybe not quite the same, but you get the idea. Montas has looked the part of a solid No. 3 starter so far in 2019, with a 2.78 ERA through 45 13 innings. His strikeout rate has returned to a respectable 22.0 percent, and he has cut his walk rate significantly over the past two years. Opponents are batting just .258 against him, and beating the ball into the ground over 50 percent of the time. His heavy sinker has always led to a low home run rate, but everything else seems to be coming together at the right time. He has yet to allow more than three earned runs in a start this season (but did give up six unearned runs in one outing against the Red Sox).

Game 3: RHP Daniel Mengden (0-1, 6.75 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (4-3, 3.15 ERA)

Daniel Mengden was a key part of Oakland’s pitching staff last year, producing a 4.05 ERA in 115 23 innings. Though he spent a few weeks on the injured list with a foot injury — and was optioned in there at some point — he still finished the year with the second-most innings pitched of any A’s starter. Mengden has only made one start in the majors so far this season, and it was a stinker. He walked four batters and gave up four earned runs in 5 13 innings against the Cleveland Indians five days ago, something he only did six times in all of 2018. He didn’t give up a homer, though, which is a positive sign after coughing up 1.40 per nine innings last year.

Game 4: RHP Mike Fiers (3-3, 5.12 ERA) vs. LHP Gregory Soto (0-2, 13.50 ERA)

Mike Fiers’ no-hitter naturally drew a lot of attention, but the one-time Tigers ace has otherwise been very bad for the A’s so far in 2019. His strikeout and walk rates have both taken a turn for the worse, and his swinging strike rate has dropped to a career-worst 7.4 percent. There are some positive signs in Fiers’ batted ball data, however. Opponents are actually making worse contact against him than they did a year ago, with a lower exit velocity and lower barrel rate. Many of his Statcast expected stats, like batting average, slugging, and wOBA, are lower than in 2018. He has already started to improve, with a 2.08 ERA and .486 OPS allowed in his last four starts.

What we’re rooting for: an exciting call-up or two

With all due respect to Dawel Lugo, who has been having a fine season in Triple-A, I think a lot of Tigers fans are hoping to see shortstop Willi Castro get called up on Thursday to replace Jeimer Candelario on the 25-man roster. Castro, 22, has yet to appear in the majors, but is already on Detroit’s 40-man roster. He too has enjoyed a hot start to the year, hitting .319/.407/.437 in 142 plate appearances for the Mud Hens. He was the surprising return for outfielder Leonys Martin, who was traded to the Cleveland Indians last July

Castro’s immediate longevity at the major league level could be in question. Jordy Mercer will be eligible to return from the 10-day injured list by the end of the weekend, and the Tigers will want Castro to get as much regular playing time as possible. However, they could easily give him a few games as the team’s starting shortstop — Ronny Rodriguez would likely slide over to third base — then send him back down when Mercer returns. Castro’s minor league option for 2019 has already been burned, so they can shuttle him freely between Detroit and Toledo throughout the year.

Just... don’t pick Pete Kozma, please.