What happens when the team with the highest strikeout in the American League takes on the starting pitcher with the league’s best strikeout rate? I can’t imagine it will be pretty, but we will see how things unfold on Saturday, as Shane Bieber and his gaudy numbers toe the rubber at Comerica Park.
Bieber, who established himself as one of baseball’s top young arms last season, has taken his game to another level in 2020. The 25-year-old righthander burst out of the gate with 14 strikeouts on Opening Day, then followed it up with 13 more punchouts in his second start. Although he has “only” fanned eight hitters in both of his last two starts, he is an early favorite for the AL Cy Young Award (unless you ask the dolts at ESPN).
This seems like a poor match for the Tigers, who have struck out in 27.6 percent of their plate appearances this year, the highest rate in the American League. They have baseball’s worst swinging strike rate (14.1 percent), and MLB’s fifth-lowest walk rate. Looking deeper, their numbers are even worse against right-handed pitching. The Tigers’ collective strikeout rate against righties this season is a hair above 30 percent, and they have managed a paltry 83 wRC+, third-worst in the American League.
But if you look closely at that list, you will see the Indians even further down the ranks, with a 70 wRC+ as a club against right-handed pitching this season. Righthander Spencer Turnbull has been Detroit’s only reliable starter this year, with a 2.00 ERA and a strikeout per inning through three starts.
If the numbers hold true, Turnbull will have to be at his best to keep pace with Bieber on Saturday evening. Can he deliver and break the Tigers out of their losing streak?
Cleveland Indians (11-9) at Detroit Tigers (9-8)
Time/Place: 6:10 pm, Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Probables: RHP Shane Bieber (3-0, 1.63 ERA) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-0, 2.00 ERA)
Game 18 Pitching Matchup
It’s tough to say what exactly has gotten into Bieber this year that has made him even more dominant than last season. I imagine part of this is just sample size; Bieber’s 2.55 FIP is probably more indicative of his true performance than his 1.63 ERA at this point, and his numbers will start to normalize when teams make a little more contact (as they have done in his past two starts).
To his credit, Bieber has mixed his pitches much more than he did over the past two years. He has started throwing a cutter this year, a pitch that sits in the high 80s and generates the same whiff rate as his wicked slider (so far). He is also throwing his curveball more often, especially against left-handed hitters, who have managed a pitiful .370 OPS against him in 50 plate appearances.
On the other side, Spencer Turnbull may be due for a bit of regression. He has yet to give up a home run this year, which has helped keep his ERA and FIP suppressed. xFIP is not the best measure for a pitcher like Turnbull, who has historically suppressed home runs with his heavy sinker, but a .244 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 79.0 percent strand rate both suggest that his early success is somewhat of a mirage.
Rather than home runs, I will be watching to see how Turnbull fares against left-handed hitters. He struggled against them last year, allowing an .813 OPS in 341 plate appearances, but has flipped the script through his first three starts of 2020, holding them to a BABIP-aided .377 OPS. While this will eventually level out, Turnbull has been throwing his changeup more often this season, especially against lefties. They saw the cambio just five percent of the time last year, and in just one percent of two-strike counts. This year, that figure is up to 13 percent, both overall and in two-strike counts. If Turnbull can do what Jeremy Bonderman never could and figure out his changeup, it could make for a big step forward both in 2020 and beyond.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. making contact
The numbers listed above speak for themselves. Bieber has generated the highest swinging strike rate of any qualified starter so far in 2020, while the Tigers are a free-swinging bunch who have struggled to make contact, especially against right-handed pitching. With eight double-digit strikeout performances already on their ledger this year — five against right-handed starters — the smart money is on Bieber and Co. adding another notch to the Tigers’ belt.
That said, those strikeouts have not held the Tigers back... so far. In those aforementioned eight games, the Tigers have gone 7-1 despite striking out a combined 108 times. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this will not continue; it’s hard to win when you don’t put the ball in play. But with how weird baseball — and life in general, really — has been in 2020, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the whiff-happy Tigers keep rolling.
Bieber records double digit strikeouts but the Tigers win because baseball.