Well things went pretty well for the home team in Cincinnati. Despite striking out a ridiculous 46 times in three games, the Tigers managed to claim the final two of the series with some late innings heroics, and are giving off their patented, weird early season run, vibes. We’ll take it.
One of the key predictions for your 2020 Detroit Tigers, was that a fast start could completely change the complexion of the season. Despite being consistently picked and projected to finish the year as a lowly bottom feeder once again, a compressed schedule and a host of factors from COVID-19 cases, players being a little rushed to prepare, and an expanded playoff format of 16 teams, all say that anything could happen if the Tigers start strong and decide to go all-in by using their top prospect talent in Toledo to boost the roster as the season progresses.
That fast start needs to continue as they welcome the Kansas City Royals into Comerica Park for a four-game set.
The first game of the series is especially notable, as it will feature the return of Michael Fulmer. The big right-hander, now four years removed from his 2016 AL Rookie of the Year campaign, has looked pretty good in camp, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him as he begins his march on the comeback trail.
We didn’t get any velocity readings on Fulmer in camp, but presumably he’s not pumping 95-98 mph again just yet. However, he located his fastball well in several outings and the early returns on his adjusted mechanics were positive. His slider also looked very good, while the deadly 2016 changeup we all remember has not yet been in serious evidence.
Fulmer last took the mound in regular season action way back on September 15, 2018. He then underwent a procedure to clean up some meniscus damage in his right knee in the offseason, and showed up in spring training 2019 wearing a knee brace and working to improve some of the mechanical issues wearing on the joint. Speculation on his health and prospects was quickly made moot by the UCL tear that ended his 2019 season and sent him into the 15-month odyssey of surgery and rehabilitation.
As he returns to action, it’s worth being patient and keeping our expectations in check. He’ll be under a pretty strict pitch count and needs time to back to full power. If the Tigers can get a few solid innings from him we’d be very pleased with that.
Detroit Tigers (2-1) vs Kansas City Royals (1-2)
Game 4 Pitching Matchup (2019 numbers)
31-year-old lefty Mike Montgomery was originally drafted by the Royals back in 2008, but he ultimately broke into the league with the Seattle Mariners in 2015. His career hit an early peak when he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs the next season and employed largely as their primary lefty out of the pen during their World Series title run.
Montgomery’s numbers were solid over the next few seasons working a mix of starts and long relief outings, but a rough beginning to the 2019 season saw the Cubs deal him to the Royals, who converted him back into a starter on a full-time basis. He didn’t do much to change opinions of him as a starting pitcher, but so far, the Royals are giving him the reins again to see if he can settle into a backend starting role.
The flaw in Montgomery’s game is the lack of a quality out pitch. He keeps the ball on the ground very well, holding a 53.5 percent career groundball rate, and until 2019, was excellent in terms of home run prevention. That skill faded under the assault of home run hitters around the league last season despite still putting up a 49 percent groundball rate.
In most respects, Montgomery is your classic lefty swingman. He doesn’t have power stuff nor a great breaking ball, but he mixes three fastball types with a decent changeup and curve, and presents some deception and angle from a high three-quarters slot to deal with. His poor career strikeout rates mean the Tigers should make a lot more contact than they did against the Big Red Three they dealt with in Cincinnati. The trick is to force Montgomery to get the ball up or he’ll nibble you to death at the bottom of the zone, inducing plenty of weak groundballs.
Patience will be a virtue, as Montgomery is the type of pitcher who has trouble putting hitters away even when ahead in the count. Only Jordy Mercer has more than six plate appearances against him, so there will likely be a bit of a feeling out period from Tigers hitters the first time through the order.
Key Matchup: Tigers pen vs. Royals bats
Lefty Tyler Alexander seems the likely candidate to take over for Fulmer after a few innings. If the Tigers can put together an early lead, it’ll presumably be on Alexander to take it to the late innings. At that point, with Joe Jimenez having thrown back-to-back days and flame-throwing lefty Gregory Soto presumably unavailable, it’ll be on Gardenhire to piece something together through the late innings to hand a lead to an alternate closer like Buck Farmer or Bryan Garcia.
The Tigers are going to need a lot of innings from the bullpen and that’s too big an ask after fairly heavy usage of their best arms in Cincinnati. A back and forth contest resulting in a Tigers loss seems the likely outcome.