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Detroit vs. Cleveland Preview: Tigers look to clinch first series win to open season

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The Tigers got off to a strong start on Opening Day. Now they look to take another from their central division rivals.

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers got off to a great start to their 2021 season on Thursday when they snuck by the Cleveland Indians in a snowy Comerica Park, 3-2, on Major League Baseball’s opening day. Miguel Cabrera gave the fans a brief glimpse of what he is capable of with his two-run opposite shot to pace the offense while Matthew Boyd scored a win behind a 5 23 inning shutout effort. Now after a day off, the team turns its attention to Game 2.

The weather for Saturday’s affair is expected to be much warmer for the second of the three-game series in Detroit, which may or may not bode well for the home team given how well they performed in near white-out conditions. Still, less inclement weather will make for a much better experience for the spectators, at very least.

As mentioned in our Game 1 preview, the 2021 Tigers feature a lot of fresh faces, including Saturday’s starting pitcher, Julio Teheran. The veteran righty is looking to bounce back this season after a dreadful 2020 campaign with the Los Angeles Angels. Speaking of starting pitching, let us take a look at who will take the mound for each respective team.

Cleveland Indians (0-1) at Detroit Tigers (1-0)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Covering the Corner
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Julio Teheran (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs RHP Zach Plesac (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

Game 2 Pitching Matchup (2020 stats)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Teheran 31.1 13.4 10.7 8.62 -0.8
Plesac 55.1 27.7 2.9 3.39 1.5

Firstly, let us talk a bit about Teheran. Right up until 2018, the right-hander was a solid starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, putting together a string of positive fWAR seasons from 2013 to 2019. In those seasons, he went 76-72 with a 3.64 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 4.22 FIP and an ERA+ of 111, per Baseball-Reference, and managed to put up 13.7 fWAR in total. His best season was in 2014 when he put up a 2.89 ERA with a 3.49 FIP earning him 3.4 fWAR (and 4.3 bWAR), while also having a great year in 2016 with overall numbers just slightly below his 2014 production.

In his successful seasons, the 30-year-old veteran hurler struck out more than 20 percent of his batters faced except for in 2017, when he dipped to 18.6 percent. Therein lies one of the biggest reasons for his collapse last year with the Angels, in which he struck out only 13.4 percent of batters en route to an 0-4 record with a bloated 10.05 ERA, 1.76 WHIP and 8.62 FIP; he also saw his four-seam fastball velocity drop to an all-time low 89.2 mph. Reports from spring training have noted that his velocity is now back in the low-90s after rehabbing his shoulder over the offseason. That could bode well for his future with the Tigers.

On the opposite mound is Cleveland’s second-year starter Zack Plesac, who enjoyed a superb sophomore campaign in 2020 after impressing during his rookie season the year prior. The 26-year-old has a career record of 12-8 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 4.44 FIP over 171 innings pitched for a cumulative 2.5 fWAR with the Indians. He saw substantial improvement last season when he increased his strikeout rate from 18.5 to 27.7 percent despite losing a tick on his four-seam fastball (93.9 to 92.8 mph average) while also dropping his walk rate to a microscopic 2.9 percent — down from an already solid 8.4 percent in 2019. If Plesac can replicate his approach from last season, the Tigers' offense is sure to have fits.

Key matchup: Teheran vs. Cleveland’s offense

As noted above, Saturday’s starter struggled last season after a long string of relative success, so it will be important for Teheran to start strong against the Indians’ depleted offense that really only has the American League’s 2020 fWAR leader José Ramírez to lean on now that Francisco Lindor is a New York Met. It would be great to see Detroit’s veteran hurler sit in the low-90s with his fastball while utilizing his five-pitch arsenal to keep the opposing hitters off-balance. We saw that repeatedly throughout spring training. Sure, it is only his first game but a respectable outing could go a long way in restoring his confidence and allowing him to regain his form.