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Tigers vs. Angels Preview: Ryan Carpenter slides into Detroit’s rotation

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Carpenter will presumably serve as the team’s fifth starter until Jordan Zimmermann returns from injury.

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MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers placed Jordan Zimmermann on the 10-day injured list back on April 26, nearly two weeks ago to the day. But thanks to rainouts and scheduled off days, this is the first the Tigers have needed a fifth starter since Zimmermann landed on the shelf. As they had planned previously, the Tigers recalled lefthander Ryan Carpenter from Triple-A Toledo to start in Zimmermann’s place for the time being.

Most fans were underwhelmed by this news, in large part because Carpenter underwhelmed with the Tigers last season. The 28-year-old lefthander bounced between Detroit, Toledo, and the injured list, and posted a 7.25 ERA in 22 13 innings with the Tigers. He managed a decent 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in limited MLB action, but showed little of the strikeout prowess that earned him a major league contract from the Tigers that previous offseason; even in the minors, Carpenter’s strikeout rate regressed from 24.4 percent with Colorado’s Triple-A affiliate in 2017 to just 21.3 percent with Toledo last season. It has fallen even further this year, down to just 19.7 percent through six starts.

Luckily, Carpenter is facing a lineup that has struggled to hit left-handed pitching all year. The Angels have a paltry 75 wRC+ against lefties in 2019, an inexplicable figure considering they have Mike Trout on their team. Even he hasn’t been much help, with a 139 wRC+ (yeah, that’s bad for him) in 46 plate appearances against lefties. Assuming they don’t figure things out immediately, this could be a relatively soft landing for Carpenter.

It will also be interesting to see what Detroit does with Carpenter after Thursday’s game. Barring any more postponements, they will need a fifth starter twice more before their next off day on May 22, then once more after that before the end of May. The Tigers could send Carpenter down and find another starter for their next turn through the rotation, or leave him on the roster until Zimmermann returns.

Here’s hoping he earns a spot with a strong outing on Thursday.

Los Angeles Angels (16-20) vs. Detroit Tigers (16-17)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Halos Heaven
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Felix Pena (1-1, 4.05 ERA) vs. LHP Ryan Carpenter (1-4, 4.09 ERA in Triple-A)

Game 34 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pena 26.2 24.6 6.4 5.17 0.0
Carpenter (AAA) 33.0 19.7 8.0 4.79 -

Felix Pena won’t serve as the Angels’ starter in this game, but the 29-year-old righthander is expected to get the bulk of the work after an opener handles the first inning or two. He has made four starts already this year, but fared better in an April 24 outing against the New York Yankees when he came into the game after Cam Bedrosian set down the side in the first inning. Pena worked five innings and struck out eight, and would have come away with the win had the rest of the Angels bullpen not blown a 5-2 lead. He wasn’t quite as effective in his last outing, but ended up with the win because it’s a dumb stat that cost Justin Verlander a Cy Young Award.

While the early returns suggest Pena has been better with an opener in front of him, I’m not entirely sold that this whole song and dance is necessary. He has eight strikeouts to zero walks as a reliever this year, but of the seven walks he allowed in four starts, only one came in the first inning. He has yet to allow a first inning run, in fact, though we are dealing with a very small sample size here. Pena does have fairly significant platoon splits, but will almost surely face right-handed hitters Nicholas Castellanos and Miguel Cabrera before seeing a second lefty.

Strategy aside, Pena utilizes a fairly simple arsenal. He mixes in two different fastballs, including a two-seamer he picked up during the 2018 season, and a slider he throws over 40 percent of the time. The slider is his out pitch, coming in a whopping 59 percent of the time with two strikes. It is nasty, too; of the 27 strikeouts he has logged this year, 22 have come via the slider. He has induced a whiff rate north of 30 percent with the slider on the season, a big part of why opponents are making contact on just over 40 percent of the pitches he throws outside the strike zone — his 42.3 O-contact percentage is the third lowest in baseball (min. 20 innings). He also throws a changeup occasionally, but...

Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. Pena’s slider

This pitch sounds like it will be a big problem for the Tigers. Detroit still boasts the highest strikeout rate and highest swinging strike rate of any MLB team this year, and also swings at more pitches outside the strike zone than any other club. They have also been one of the worst teams in baseball at hitting right-handed pitching, with an 80 wRC+ through 33 games. Meanwhile, Pena has dominated right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .585 OPS in 2019.

Prediction

Pena racks up a bunch of strikeouts and the Angels take the series.