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Series Preview: Rays return home to host hot-hitting Tigers

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The Tigers are currently 8-4 and on top of the AL Central.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians
Miguel Cabrera is heating up, but aggravated a lower back injury on Sunday.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays did not fare well in their first excursion outside Tropicana Field in 2017. After getting swept by the New York Yankees early last week, the Boston Red Sox took three of four at Fenway Park including a heartbreaking loss on Monday afternoon. In one week, the Rays went from tied atop the AL East to sitting in fourth place, already 3 12 games behind the division leaders.

Such is life in April.

Things don’t get much easier for the Rays this week, as they get ready to face the Detroit Tigers. While not quite as fearsome as their star-laden counterparts of three or four years ago, the 2017 Tigers have gotten off to a hot start. Following a road series win against the Cleveland Indians, the Tigers are 8-4 and in first place in the AL Central. They are no strangers to quick starts, either; under manager Brad Ausmus, the Tigers are 50-31 in the month of April.

They have been relatively mediocre otherwise, though. In the other five months of the year, Ausmus’ Tigers teams are just 208-207. They finished with a run differential of +29 in 2016, resulting in a pythagorean expected record of just 83-79. The 2017 team has been even worse in this regard, with a run differential of -9. According to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage, the Tigers should be a last place team.

Again, it’s April. There’s a lot of baseball left.

Matchups

The Rays are fortunate to miss Justin Verlander, who turned in a Cy Young caliber performance in 2016. He gave up a career-high nine earned runs against the Indians in his last start, but looked like vintage Verlander in his first two starts of the year.

Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.: Michael Fulmer vs. Matt Andriese
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Chris Archer
Thursday, 1:10 p.m.: Daniel Norris vs. Erasmo Ramirez

Tigers Starters vs. RHB Last 3+ years

Name K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Name K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Michael Fulmer 23.1 5.3 .238 .286 .405 .298
Jordan Zimmermann 20.6 4.1 .251 .291 .381 .294
Daniel Norris 20.0 8.3 .250 .311 .415 .313

Michael Fulmer was everything Tigers fans hoped for and more in 2016, holding opponents to a 3.06 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 159 innings. He largely outperformed his peripherals, with a 3.76 FIP and 3.53 Deserved Run Average (DRA). He has increased his strikeout rate through his first couple starts of 2017, but opponents are whiffing on just 7.8 percent of pitches so far.

Jordan Zimmermann’s career numbers are impressive, but he was a shell of himself in 2016. Zimmermann missed most of the second half with a neck injury that he continued to have treated throughout the offseason. While the velocity he lost in 2016 seems to have returned, he compiled some poor numbers during spring training. He was also knocked out of his last start early by the Minnesota Twins, who tagged him for five runs in 4 23 innings. Normally not one to issue many free passes, Zimmermann walked five hitters in that game.

Daniel Norris was the Tigers’ best starter (non-Verlander edition) in August and September last year. He compiled a 3.04 ERA with 55 strikeouts in 56 13 innings across 10 starts during that stretch, and the Tigers won six of his last seven outings. Norris was particularly dominant in September, with 38 strikeouts in just 29 23 innings. Some will point at a mechanical change Norris made last summer as the main reason why he improved; others will simply acknowledge that this two-months stretch was Norris’ longest without an injury since arriving in Detroit in 2015.

Tigers Starters vs. LHB Last 3+ Years

Name K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Name K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Michael Fulmer 18.5 7.5 .214 .293 .312 .270
Jordan Zimmermann 18.7 5.3 .261 .308 .410 .311
Daniel Norris 25.4 10.3 .230 .309 .442 .325

Both Norris and Fulmer have not compiled enough innings against righties or lefties for their platoon splits to be fully trusted. There is reason to somewhat believe in Fulmer’s, however. Rays fans may remember his first home start as a Tiger last May; he started throwing a new changeup with abandon that day, and struck out 11 Rays hitters en route to a 5-4 Tigers victory. He eventually threw that pitch over 20 percent of the time against left-handed hitters last season, and they hit just .186 with a .220 slugging percentage against it. Those same left-handed hitters only managed a .256 BABIP against him, though, so some regression is in store.

Meanwhile, Norris’ high walk rate against left-handed batters probably isn’t worth reading into. He has only faced 165 lefties since arriving in the major leagues, making his walk rate against them rather susceptible to fluctuations. That said, he still walked over 10 percent of lefties in 2016 action, and his command has been spotty at times this year.

Bullpen

One could probably copy and paste the same narrative about the Tigers’ bullpen every year, so long as they tweak the names every once in a while. This year’s struggling closer is Francisco Rodriguez, who has endured another drop in his fastball velocity. He has given up a pair of home runs already this season — including a grand slam in a converted save opportunity, which you don’t see everyday — but has six strikeouts to zero walks. Justin and Alex Wilson have been solid setup men, but only after high-octane arm Bruce Rondon was demoted to Triple-A after just one week of action. Former starter Anibal Sanchez has been little more than a human white flag thus far; he has allowed 15 runs (11 earned) in nine innings of work.

Offense

The Tigers have been one of the better offenses in the American League thus far, with a 114 wRC+ as a team. They have hit 17 home runs, with at least one in each of their 12 games. However, a lot of that production has come from expected places. Backup catcher Alex Avila has a 491 wRC+ (!) in 14 plate appearances, while utility infielder Andrew Romine is slugging .500. Light-hitting shortstop Jose Iglesias is tied for the team lead with six extra base hits.

Meanwhile, the big bats are starting to wake up. Miguel Cabrera was hitting .133/.278/.233 through the team’s first nine games, but had five hits (including a home run) in the weekend series against the Indians. Luckily for the Rays, Cabrera tweaked his lower back late in the Sunday finale and will likely sit out at least one game in this series. Designated hitter Victor Martinez may also get a day off, but with a 37 wRC+ so far, that might be a blessing for the Tigers. Justin Upton has also found his swing recently; he has four extra base hits in his last five games. Outfielder J.D. Martinez will not play against the Rays, as he has been on the disabled list since the start of the season with a foot injury.

Tigers Batters vs. RHP Last 3+ Years

Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Ian Kinsler 1613 5.8 13.9 .281 .330 .432 109
Nick Castellanos 1252 5.8 24.8 .264 .308 .428 100
Miguel Cabrera 1457 10.5 16.5 .323 .395 .541 154
Victor Martinez 1351 8.8 10.8 .277 .345 .447 113
Justin Upton 1478 9.4 26.0 .261 .334 .479 122
James McCann 587 4.1 23.9 .225 .262 .306 52
Alex Avila 720 17.4 32.5 .218 .354 .379 109
Tyler Collins 364 6.9 23.1 .275 .328 .436 108
Andrew Romine 553 6.5 21.9 .222 .282 .293 59
Jose Iglesias 738 4.3 10.2 .269 .311 .329 74

Though their everyday lineup is predominantly right-handed, the Tigers have not had much trouble against right-handed pitching in recent years. They finished the 2016 season with a 105 wRC+ against righties, the fourth-best figure in baseball. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton were slightly more effective against righties than lefties last season, while Victor Martinez’s 120 wRC+ was a huge turnaround from a 2015 season hampered by injuries.

While the Rays will not have to deal with J.D. Martinez, Tyler Collins has shown flashes of being a potent platoon bat. He is hitting .275/.328/.436 against right-handed pitching in his career, and is currently batting .355/.375/.452 with a home run in 32 plate appearances. Alex Avila has also been productive in limited playing time; he homered in both of his starts against the Indians over the weekend. Utility-infielder-turned-center-fielder Andrew Romine will get a start or two in the outfield, but the switch-hitter has historically been better from the right side. Young center fielder JaCoby Jones is not featured in the tables due to extremely small sample sizes — he has just 58 career plate appearances under his belt — but has worked counts, if nothing else. He has seen 4.2 pitches per plate appearance so far this season, a rate that would have ranked eighth among qualified AL hitters last year.

Tigers Batters vs. LHP Last 3+ Years

Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Ian Kinsler 514 6.6 11.5 .297 .345 .476 125
Nick Castellanos 422 7.8 24.9 .259 .315 .445 105
Miguel Cabrera 467 14.3 18.2 .301 .403 .523 151
Victor Martinez 432 8.3 11.1 .333 .391 .539 156
Justin Upton 449 10.0 30.5 .238 .320 .444 110
James McCann 255 7.5 25.9 .279 .332 .541 134
Alex Avila 179 10.1 35.8 .212 .305 .288 71
Tyler Collins 51 5.9 21.6 .167 .216 .188 8
Andrew Romine 141 4.3 20.6 .299 .333 .366 95
Jose Iglesias 270 8.1 8.5 .295 .356 .436 115

Cedeno beware. The Tigers have a number of hitters that have absolutely punished left-handed pitching in previous years. The usual suspects like Cabrera and Martinez have great numbers, of course, but role players like James McCann and Jose Iglesias have also feasted on left-handed pitching.

Despite all this firepower, however, the Tigers finished with a 102 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers last year. Iglesias, Justin Upton, and Nick Castellanos were all below average against southpaws, with Victor Martinez slipping off his torrid pace from previous years.