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Tigers vs. Royals Series Preview: Detroit aims to stay relevant in AL Central race

The Tigers are quickly falling behind in the division standings, but not because of the team that you think.

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals - Game Two Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Heading into the 2019 season, if you had told Detroit Tigers fans that their favorite club would only be a couple of games behind the Cleveland Indians in early May, I think a lot of people would have been quite pleased. Cleveland was the odds-on favorite to win the division again, with some preseason projections listing them as a World Series favorite — because of their near-certain odds of making the playoffs.

Well, here we are. It is May 3 and the Tigers are just 2 12 games behind the Tribe in the AL Central. The Chicago White Sox are a half-game closer, giving this division the makings of a tight race all season long.

Were it not for the Minnesota Twins, that is. The Twins enter Friday with the best record in baseball, at 19-10. They are three games up on the Tribe, and have opened up a 5 12 game lead on the Tigers in the AL Central just over a month into the season. Minnesota looks the part too, ranking third in the American League in fWAR. They have won 10 of their last 13 games after a sluggish 9-7 start, including four of seven against the Houston Astros. Their 115 wRC+ trails only two teams, and nearly everyone in their lineup is producing. So far, they look like the real deal.

Anyway, the Tigers are playing the Royals this weekend. Here’s hoping they keep winning to stick with the Twins and Indians at the top of the division.

Statistical comparison: Tigers vs. Royals

Overview Tigers Royals Advantage
Overview Tigers Royals Advantage
Batting (wRC+) 83 (13th) 94 (10th) Royals
Fielding (DRS) -14 (12th) 12 (5th) Royals
Rotation (ERA-) 79 (3rd) 111 (9th) Tigers
Bullpen (ERA-) 114 (12th) 116 (13th) Tigers
Total fWAR 5.7 (8th) 4.8 (11th) Tigers

When the Tigers last faced the Royals, the 2015 World Series champs were entrenched in the middle of a 10-game losing streak. They started 2-0, and quickly found themselves at the bottom of the baseball ocean at 2-10. Since then, things have been rather up and down. Kansas City took three in a row from the Cleveland Indians to snap the 10-game losing streak, only to fall into another five-game skid less than a week later. They have essentially alternated wins and losses lately, with a 4-4 record in their last eight games.

Still, a near-.500 record over the past two weeks is a big improvement for Kansas City. Much of that can be attributed to the bullpen, which has gotten significantly better since their awful start to the year. Over the past two weeks, the Royals’ ‘pen has a 92 ERA-, the sixth-best figure in the American League. They only have one save during this stretch — from Ian Kennedy, oddly enough — but several different pitchers have posted solid numbers over the past 14 days.

Game times, TV listings, streaming info, etc.

Game 1: Friday, May 3, 7:10 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, May 4, 4:10 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, May 5, 1:10 p.m.
Venue: Comerica Park, Detroit, Mich.
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media (all games): Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN+ (Saturday only) MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Royals lineup

Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Player Pos. PA HR RBI wRC+
Whit Merrifield 2B 143 4 13 126
Adalberto Mondesi SS 138 4 27 113
Alex Gordon LF 132 5 22 139
Hunter Dozier DH 115 7 17 193
Ryan O'Hearn 1B 103 3 8 62
Jorge Soler RF 131 7 19 92
Kelvin Gutierrerz 3B 23 1 7 90
Martin Maldonado C 89 1 2 51
Billy Hamilton CF 94 0 4 58

The Royals offense has fallen off a bit after opening the season with a bang. They own a paltry 89 wRC+ as a team over the past two weeks, which ranks 12th in the American League. This has brought them down below league average — they have a 94 wRC+ as a team for the entire season — and into the bottom half of the American League.

That hasn’t necessarily stopped them from scoring runs, though. The Royals have plated at least six runs on four separate occasions over the past two weeks, including a trio of Maleks (eight runs or more, for those that haven’t been around here very long) in their past seven games. Many of the Royals’ everyday hitters have been fine during this stretch as well; Hunter Dozier leads the way with a gaudy 276 wRC+ in the past 14 days, while Whit Merrifield (141 wRC+) and Adalberto Mondesi (120 wRC+) have been the lethal one-two punch at the top of the order Kansas City was hoping for.

As for the lineup itself, we may see Royals skipper Ned Yost get a little more creative than usual against lefthander Matthew Boyd — and any other lefty starters that may appear throughout the weekend. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler moved up in the lineup in Kansas City’s last game against a left-handed starter, with speedster Terrance Gore taking over for Alex Gordon in left. This could have just been a rest day for the bazillion-time Gold Glover, who has a .921 OPS in a handful of plate appearances against southpaws this year. Gore has BABIP’d his way to success in 21 plate appearances of his own this year, and may fare better against Boyd’s lethal platoon splits.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: RHP Jorge Lopez (0-2, 5.08 ERA) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (2-2, 3.13 ERA)

As Kyle mentioned in Friday’s game preview, Jorge Lopez’s early 2019 season has looked very similar to what he produced in 2018, aside from an elevated strikeout rate. Unfortunately, even that is fool’s gold. Lopez has fanned 31 batters in 33 23 innings this season, a decent 21.1 percent strikeout rate. However, nearly one-third of those punchouts have come in just one outing — a 10-strikeout performance against the White Sox on April 16. In his other five starts, Lopez has just 21 strikeouts in 27 23 innings, a rate of just 6.83 per nine innings. His strikeout rate drops to just 17.5 percent, much closer to the 16.2 percent rate he produced last year.

That might not matter against the Tigers, though. They now have the highest strikeout rate in baseball, at 27.1 percent, and have struggled to make contact against pitchers of all shapes and sizes in 2019.

Game 2: RHP Homer Bailey (2-3, 5.70 ERA) vs. TBD

The Homer Bailey Comeback Tour was in full swing a couple of weeks ago after the beleaguered veteran held the Cleveland Indians to just two hits across seven innings on April 13. He followed that up with a quality start at Yankee Stadium five days later. Though he had given up seven runs in the start immediately preceding these two outings, his 29.3 percent strikeout rate was drawing some attention. The shine has worn off a bit since then, however. Bailey walked four batters and gave up four runs in a short outing against the Rays on April 23, and coughed up four runs in six innings against the Los Angeles Angels after that. And after striking out just three of the past 32 batters he has faced, Bailey’s strikeout rate is now down to 24 percent. He is throwing his splitter more often, which could be the reason for the whiffs, but we’ll have to explore this more on Saturday to see how real that stretch was.

Game 3: RHP Brad Keller (2-3, 4.07 ERA) vs. TBD

When the Tigers were first lined up to face Brad Keller earlier this season, we praised him as a young starter who didn’t have flashy strikeout numbers, but was good at missing barrels. He had posted a 2.08 ERA in his first couple outings, and managed a quality start against the Tigers back on April 7. He then struck out 10 Indians hitters in his next start, and also pitched his team to a win over the White Sox. But he has given up five runs in both of his past two starts, and has walked at least three batters in six of his seven appearances this season — not to mention four hit batters on the year. Though he generates a high ground ball rate and thus a lot of double plays, all of that traffic on the bases could come back to bite him in the end.

On the Tigers’ side, they could go with righthander Spencer Turnbull if Tyson Ross is not yet ready to return. Turnbull earned his second consecutive win with a great outing against the Phillies on Tuesday, and will be on full rest for Sunday’s game.

What we’re rooting for: a better bullpen performance

I last penned one of these previews a week ago, just prior to the Tigers’ weekend series against the Chicago White Sox. The Tigers have played just four games since then, but their bullpen’s numbers have completely tanked, to put it lightly. Last week, the Tigers ‘pen was sporting an ERA- of 89, which ranked fifth in the American League. ERA-, FanGraphs’ easily-sorted answer to ERA+, adjusts for a number of different factors, including ballpark, and grades performance relative to league average. Long story short, the Tigers were 11 percent better than average.

Just four games later, the Tigers have fallen to 14 percent below league average. They now rank 12th in the AL, just ahead of the Royals, Mariners, and Orioles — two last place teams and a third in free fall after a hot start.

Strangely, this drop-off comes in spite of Joe Jimenez finding his footing in Philadelphia earlier this week. And Shane Greene has continued to dominate, even winning the AL relief pitcher of the month award for his April efforts. But middle relievers like Buck Farmer, Victor Alcantara, Reed Garrett, and Zac Reininger need to be better if the Tigers are going to hold leads — like the slim one they had in Wednesday’s eventual 7-3 loss — and close them out for wins.