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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: The race for Spencer Torkelson begins

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The Tigers and Royals are competing for little more than fourth place at this point.

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Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB draft is 11 12 months away, but the events that take place this week could have a big impact on how next June shapes up. The Tigers and Royals, two bad teams that will kick off the College World Series festivities in Omaha, Neb. on Thursday — presumably to get the fans excited for better baseball to come over the weekend — still have 13 games left to play against one another in 2019. The two teams are already in position for top-five picks again in 2020, and one could take a stranglehold on such a spot were they to perform even worse against the other in those remaining matchups.

Fun stuff, huh?

Before we head to Omaha, however, let’s focus on the first two games of the series, set at Kauffman Stadium (why they aren’t playing all three games in Omaha, I have no idea). Spencer Turnbull will start for the Tigers on Tuesday against Jake Junis, a 26-year-old who dominated the Tigers in 2018, but has had a rough go of things this season. He has given up four earned runs or more in over half of his starts, and has just four quality starts to his name. And while this isn’t necessarily a measure of success, he has yet to log a scoreless outing in 2019.

For all of his issues, however, Junis has been nearly the exact same pitcher in both seasons. He has roughly the same strikeout rate, and his home run rate has actually dropped despite an ERA over a full run higher than what he produced in 2018. His 4.77 FIP is nearly identical to last season (4.64), and his swinging strike rate has actually gone up a touch.

So what gives? Junis is walking more batters than before and stranding fewer, resulting in more runs crossing the plate. Opponents have produced an .811 OPS against him with runners in scoring position, and .855 with men on base, up from .780 and .752, respectively, in 2018. Can the Tigers continue this run against Junis on Tuesday?

And debate if you must about which prospect should actually be listed in the headline — here’s an early 2020 mock draft for you to peruse — but Torkelson’s name is the most fun.

Detroit Tigers (24-38) at Kansas City Royals (20-45)

Time/Place: 8:15 p.m., Kaufmann Stadium
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Spencer Turnbull (3-5, 3.01 ERA) vs. RHP Jakob Junis (4-6, 5.63 ERA)

Game 64 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Turnbull 71.2 21.9 8.7 3.80 1.5
Junis 72.0 20.6 8.7 4.77 0.5

Turnbull was a bit wild in his last start, with three walks in just five innings against a potent Tampa Bay Rays offense. Turnbull has had outings like this previously — it’s the third time he has walked at least three in a start since late April — but has still been able to keep runs off the board. Since May 1, Turnbull’s ERA is still a respectable 3.40, with a 3.87 FIP buoyed by a low home run rate (0.81 homers per nine innings). He has been better about keeping the ball out of the air lately, with a ground ball rate north of 50 percent during this seven start stretch. He may not win the Rookie of the Year, but Turnbull has turned into a solid mid-rotation starter the Tigers should be able to rely on going forward.

This is especially the case against the Royals, who have punched out 17 times in 13 innings against Turnbull in 2019.

Key matchup: Junis’ lack of command vs. Tigers’ lack of plate discipline

Junis carved up the Tigers offense like a U.S. soccer team facing Thailand (too soon?) in 2018, but ran into a bit more resistance in their first meeting this season. The Tigers put up three runs on him in six innings — one of his four quality starts on the year — and eventually beat Kansas City 5-4. As mentioned above, Junis has struggled to keep runners off the bases, and struggled to get hitters out once they get there. Meanwhile, the Tigers have .one of the lowest walk rates in baseball, at just 7.4 percent. They are down below six percent in the month of June, resulting in the second-lowest on-base percentage in the American League this year. One of these things will have to give on Tuesday.

Prediction

Turnbull has another strong start but the bullpen falls apart in another loss.