“Hello, is this thing on?”
“I just have one thing I’d like to say... BASEBALL IS BACK!”
That’s right, it’s Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers. Old man winter has retreated back into his bungalow (well, mostly) and the baseball gods have officially entered the chat. Spring training was fun for awhile, but the bright lights are on now. It’s go time, and the Tigers kick off the regular season at Comerica Park against an American League Central rival in the Cleveland Indians on Thursday.
As most of you know, the Tigers will have a new captain at the helm in former Toledo Mud Hen — and World Series champion — A.J. Hinch. Hinch has a controversial past due to the sign-stealing scandal in Houston, but his ability to blend an understanding of analytics, modern player development methods, and communicate well, both with players and the media, are undeniable. While Ron Gardenhire proved to be a fine manager to keep spirits up during an era of non-competition, Hinch and his coaching staff will be expected to usher in a new era of winning baseball in Detroit, albeit not right away.
The Tigers also have some fresh faces in their lineup. Penciled into left field everyday will be Robbie Grossman, who will provide some pop and a steady on-base percentage. Wilson Ramos is likely to get the bulk of the reps behind the plate, and will provide power that the Tigers have not had at the position since Alex Avila’s early days. And who could forget their Rule 5 selection, spring training sensation Akil Baddoo? Still, there is plenty of familiarity too. Miguel Cabrera is back for his 14th season wearing the Old English D. Both Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro will look to build on a stellar 2020 seasons. JaCoby Jones is healthy again and hoping to keep it that way. And Matthew Boyd is your Opening Day starter.
The biggest move the Indians made in the offseason was trading its homegrown superstar shortstop in Francisco Lindor to the Mets. An already limited lineup will be even more so with the subtraction of Lindor, but the Indians do still feature perennial MVP candidate Jose Ramirez and “guy who can hit the ball 500 feet” Franmil Reyes. If the Indians are to compete in 2021, it’s going to be due to their strong pitching staff.
Detroit Tigers (0-0) vs. Cleveland Indians (0-0)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m. EDT, Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Covering the Corner
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matthew Boyd (3-7, 6.71 ERA) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (8-1, 1.63 ERA)
Game 1 Pitching Matchup (2020 stats)
So, here’s the thing about Shane Bieber: he’s as dominant as any starting pitcher in baseball right now. To say the Tigers have a challenging day ahead of them really undersells just how nasty Bieber is. I’m not saying he can’t be beaten — just look at his only playoff appearance last year against the Yankees — but the lineup of the Tigers against Bieber is arguably the most lopsided Opening Day matchup in the league.
The numbers speak for themselves. Bieber generates a ton of swings-and-misses. He doesn’t allow a whole lot of free passes. Most importantly, he simply doesn’t give up any runs. That’s a rudimentary way of looking at Bieber, especially given that his dominance last year stems from some changes in pitches and pitch selection. Despite averaging the hardest velocity of his short career, he threw fewer fastballs in 2020 than he had in his previous two seasons while raising his curveball usage. Why did he do that, you ask? Well, it could possibly be due to the fact that his curveball gained an extra five inches of vertical movement between 2019 and 2020, which resulted in a wOBA of .135 from hitters. Translation? His curveball is now pure filth and no one can hit it.
On the other side of the diamond we have Matthew Boyd, who is in need of a bounce back season in the worst way. He had a decent 2019 overall despite ending it on a sour note, but sadly he carried the second half woes into 2020. Boyd’s struggles stemmed from allowing too many home runs while seeing his strike out numbers dip. At the age of 30 and two years away from free agency, this is dangerously close to a make-or-break season for Boyd. Another campaign similar to 2020 could make him a non-tender candidate.
Key matchup: Matthew Boyd vs. hitters with a launch angle between 20 and 30 degrees
Matthew Boyd is no stranger to giving up the long ball. In a shortened 2020 season, he had a home run to fly ball ratio of 19.7 percent after a 18.2 percent rate over 32 starts in 2019. If he wants to get back to being even a league average pitcher this season, he will have to limit his home runs allowed. Thankfully, the lineup that the Indians will feature is not stocked with power hitters. Ramirez and Reyes both have the ability to hit the ball a mile, but the lack of power around them should allow Boyd to pitch a little more carefully to the big boppers if need be.