With two divisions well in hand and only three teams in striking distance of the Wild Card race, the American League is shaping up to be as top-heavy as everyone predicted heading into the 2019 season. The names involved are a bit of a surprise — many expected the Boston Red Sox to keep rolling after last year’s championship, for instance — but other than the fight for the AL Central and a two-team battle for the Wild Card, the AL playoff picture is already all but set.
This begs the question: is the race for the No. 1 overall pick one of the most exciting races in the American League this year? It’s certainly closer than most of them, at the very least. The Tigers hold a half-game “lead” over the Baltimore Orioles, who now lead the major leagues in losses. The Kansas City Royals are 5 1⁄2 games “behind,” which, if nothing else, is at least closer than many of the playoff races taking place elsewhere in the league.
For those hoping to see the Tigers end up with the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, Saturday’s game should be a welcome sight. Jordan Zimmermann will return off the injured list to start for Detroit, something that has all but guaranteed a Tigers loss in 2019. Zimmermann picked up a win in late July, snapping a potentially historic streak of starts without a ‘W,’ but the Tigers are still a paltry 4-11 in the 15 games Zimmermann has pitched in this year — a record somewhat skewed by Zimmermann’s first two starts of the season, both Tigers wins.
While Zimmermann’s underlying metrics are still much stronger than his ERA, I don’t know if much regression is in order. We’ve been riding that train for nearly four years now, and know how it ends.
So, if current trends hold, just expect him to do the opposite of whatever we predict here.
Detroit Tigers (37-82) at Tampa Bay Rays (71-52)
Time/Place: 6:10 p.m., Tropicana Field
SB Nation site: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN+, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-8, 7.13 ERA) vs. LHP Ryan Yarbrough (11-3, 3.56 ERA)
Game 121 Pitching Matchup
There has been a lot of talk of openers over the past year-plus, especially whenever the Rays are involved. They pioneered the strategy in early 2018, and lefthander Ryan Yarbrough was the test case. The then-26-year-old benefitted from Sergio Romo tossing a scoreless first inning against Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels, and took it from there, throwing 6 1⁄3 quality frames in relief. Yarbrough has accepted a similar role this year, while also starting a few more games along the way. Those starts include his last outing, a dominant 8 2⁄3 inning performance against the Seattle Mariners. Yarbrough held the M’s to just three hits while striking out eight, lowering his season-long ERA to 3.56.
Oddly enough, Yarbrough’s profile is reminiscent of Zimmermann’s, one of the more old school arms out there. The lefthander doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters, but maintains excellent peripherals thanks to a scant 3.4 percent walk rate. His 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio is reminiscent of Zimmermann’s best years, including an All-Star campaign in 2014. He relies a bit more heavily on his off-speed offerings, including a cutter that he has thrown more often than his fastball this year, and a changeup that also gets about 25 percent of the work.
Key matchup: The Tigers vs. Friday’s pitcher usage
Finally! While they likely weren’t inspired by the team playing across from them, the Tigers piggybacked Daniel Norris and Drew VerHagen in perfect Rays-like fashion on Friday, using the former for three innings before the latter threw five scoreless frames of his own. The result was one of the best games the Tigers have played all season, and one that again has us wondering what they could potentially get out of arms like Norris and VerHagen. By using them in non-traditional roles — read: limiting their exposure to opposing lineups a second or third time — the Tigers might be able to goose a few more quality innings out of a pair of arms many have already, or are close to giving up on (VerHagen, especially).
Zimmermann gets knocked around and the Rays even the series.