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Detroit vs. Cleveland Preview: Tarik Skubal looks to get the Tigers back on track

After two tough losses, the Tigers need to get back on track tonight.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

So, better to lose competitively than to get run over and stomped every series, right? The Tigers have endured a pair of tough losses back to back, but they’re certainly playing a much better brand of baseball in May. Michael Fulmer blew his first save on Sunday afternoon, while Eric Haase came within inches of a potential walk-off single on Monday night. They should have another winnable game against another solid but unspectacular starting pitcher tonight.

We talk a lot about Cleveland’s pitching factory, but perhaps less so about how much of their success comes down to game planning and execution of same. Certainly guys like Shane Bieber and Zack Plesac are tough starting pitchers to face, and the integrated acquisition and development of pitchers throughout the organization regularly finds and polishes unexpected gems. However, it’s the effort their whole organization puts into studying matchups in excruciating detail that puts the whole package over the top and keeps a truly mediocre roster beyond the top five guys lurking for a wild card spot year in and year out.

The Tigers have the potential to run them down in this regard. Overhauling a development system that spent the first four years of Al Avila’s tenure as GM doing little but wasting our time may pay further dividends, assuming they finally have better personnel in place now. That’s yet to be proven and will take time even if it does come to pass, but at the major league level, the leadership and game planning of new pitching coach Chris Fetter has already helped the pitching staff find much more consistent success as the early part of the season has developed.

Of course game plans have to be flexible. First pitches are all game planning combined with feel for command of various pitches in the moment. Beyond that, everything is reactions to reactions, moves and countermoves depending on the count and situation. The easiest place to observe whether a pitcher is executing the plan, and whether said plan is working, is on the first pitch. The hitter has the least idea of what might be coming, and if his command is on, a pitcher can mix in his full repertoire to get ahead before turning to their bread and butter. So it’s always an interesting exercise to watch a starter with this in mind.

This has been the big problem for Tarik Skubal this year. Even when he has the right pitch, he hasn’t consistently executed in terms of location. That’s less of a problem if you’re at least getting ahead to begin with, but Skubal has also found himself ambushed early when he doesn’t spot the fastball and slider where his catchers call for it. So he’s got to be aggressive and throw those quality strikes first pitch. It’ll also be interesting to see how often catcher Jake Rogers calls for the changeup against right-handers as this start develops.

The big lefty’s stuff has been as erratic as his command at times, but there’s still plenty of filth available if he can consistently put Cleveland’s lineup, particularly the right-handers, on the defensive early in counts.

Detroit Tigers (18-29) vs. Cleveland Indians (25-20)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Covering the Corner
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Tarik Skubal (1-6, 5.45 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Civale (6-1, 3.30 ERA)

Game 48 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Skubal 38.0 6.81 23.1 11.0 2.84 -0.5
Civale 60.0 4.21 20.1 6.8 1.20 0.6

The 25-year-old Civale won’t be a stranger to most of the Tigers hitters. Unfortunately, their memories aren’t of the positive variety. Civale handled them with little trouble in two starts in early April, going seven or more innings both times. He doesn’t really have a single outstanding pitch, but he’ll mix all four offerings in with good command and just doesn’t make many mistakes over the middle. For a Tigers lineup that has put up far better plate appearances over the last month, he’ll be a good test as he can get even good hitters fishing around the edges and struggling to recognize pitches if he’s getting ahead consistently.

Civale throws a pretty high ratio of first pitch strikes (65 percent). The fact that he uses all his pitches and can spot them around the edges makes him hard to ambush, but if Civale is on, guessing right and swinging first pitch may be necessary to avoid getting carved up. He doesn’t get so many whiffs (9.4 percent SwStr), but a high ratio of called strikes (15.4 percent) says he’s adept at working the ball back into the edges of the strikezone rather than getting guys swinging by moving the ball off the plate.

The other key with Civale is hitting the soft stuff. He only throws 37 percent fastballs, and his average velocity is just 91.6 mph this year. Most of the fastballs are fourseamers, but he will mix a sinker in here and there. An 87.8 mph cutter is his second most used pitch, but he’ll also throw a splitter, slider, and curveball. As a result, it’s tricky to sit on anything, and Civale tends to be pesky this way, constantly changing speeds and movement to avoid hard contact, despite allowing plenty of balls in play.

Key Matchup: Tigers defense vs. baseball

Tarik Skubal’s nine strikeout performance last time out was one of his best. Despite the usual command issues, he made more big pitches when needed. We’ll look for more today against a lineup that isn’t very intimidating. However, Skubal still has that tendency to struggle with runners on base, and so the Tigers’ defense would be advised to back their guy and stop botching makeable plays. If they’re giving away extra baserunners? This may be another long night. But if they can clean it up, Skubal’s ability to rack up strikeouts and collect lazy fly ball outs, particularly in Comerica, should help him to limit traffic. If he can, it should be a strong outing even if Cleveland is able to barrel a few fastballs or sliders along the way.

The Tigers will still face Shane Bieber on Thursday, so if they’re going to split this four-game set, they really need a win tonight.