If you thought that the Cleveland Indians being 11 games over .500 without Michael Brantley sounded impossible before the season, completely dominating the Detroit Tigers (who added Justin Upton) probably sounded even more bizarre. But, to this point, both those statements remain true and they will remain true if the Indians can keep playing the way they have been.
The Tribe comes into this series riding a six-game winning streak, with the only caveat being that those six games came at home, while this series will take place at Comerica Park. So far this season, the Indians have a 23-12 record at home, compared to an even 18-18 mark away from Progressive Field.
The Tigers and Indians have met twice so far this season, with both series going the way of a Tribe sweep. Let's make it a third.
Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Danny Salazar (RHP) vs. Jordan Zimmerman (RHP)
Jordan Zimmerman's strikeout rate has taken a huge hit in his first season away from the nation's capital, but even while only whiffing 15.5 percent of the batters he faces, he is still finding success. Primarily he has done that by not allowing many runners on base -- he currently carries a 1.15 WHIP while walking just 4.6 percent of his opponents.
Zimmerman was absolutely dominant to start the season, pitching three-straight shutouts over 19.1 innings. He has had a bit of a rough patch lately, but his last outing -- an eight-inning win over the Kansas City Royals -- was one of his best since that blazing start to the season.
Danny Salazar, on the other hand, is the midst of a renaissance. The once inconsistent pitcher has found his groove with strikeouts this season and is allowing a career-low 0.67 home runs per nine innings. His ground ball rate (48.7%) is also the highest of his career. If there is one weakness in Salazar's game right now, it's walks. He has issued 4.24 free bases per nine innings this season.
Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET: Carlos Carrasco (RHP) vs. Anibal Sanchez (RHP)
For Anibal Sanchez and the Tigers, 2013 might as well be a decade ago. The veteran pitcher was worth 6.0 fWAR that season, with a 2.57 ERA and a 2.39 ERA. After a solid follow-up campaign in 2014, he has mostly fallen off the rails as he ages into his thirties. This season he has a 5.97 ERA with a 5.73 FIP.
Sanchez has spent most of the season coming out of the Tigers bullpen; his last start was a six-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on May 25. This starting spot would normally go to Michael Fulmer, but the Tigers are skipping his start to give their standout rookie pitcher some well-deserved rest.
The key to defeating Sanchez is usually pretty simple: Don't strike out. He gives up a lot of home runs, including four multi-home run games this season, and he has walked 10.5 percent of the batters he has faced this season.
Carlos Carrasco will be making his fifth start since returning from a hamstring strain and he has looked better with nearly every outing. Over his last two starts he combined to throw 13.1 innings with 14 strikeouts, five walks, and four earned runs. Carrasco's home run rate this season looks high, but if you discredit the three he gave up in his debut, it does not seem nearly as bad.
Sunday, 1:10 p.m. ET: Josh Tomlin (RHP) vs. Justin Verlander (RHP)
Justin Verlander had a rocky start to his 2016 campaign, but dating back to the second half of last season he is getting closer and closer to vintage Justin Verlander. Maybe not quite 2011 Verlander, but he already has three double-digit strikeout games this season and he is walking fewer batters than he has in recent seasons.
I spoke with Bless You Boys writer Brandon Day about Justin Verlander on this week's Let's Talk Tribe episode. Here's what he had to say:
He's got his fastball, especially the last few outings he's averaging about 94 mph again, he can still touch 97 when he wants. The big thing earlier this year, he had a pretty bad April and you start hearing the doom and gloom with a couple bad outings, especially with that contract. He's turned it around; it looks like he has dropped his arm slot and getting a little more tail on his fastball. The big thing is he is throwing what he calls a slider but it is basically a cutter. He's throwing this thing 89-90 with horizontal break on it. It's a really nasty pitch, especially against righties.
Day also noted that Verlander has issues with home runs, which could make this matchup against Josh Tomlin particularly exciting (or depressing, depending on which team has fewer home runs). Even while allowing 1.66 home runs per nine innings, Tomlin remains one of the better pitchers in the American League by ERA (3.32), although his FIP trails far behind at 4.55. Unfortunately, the Tigers lineup looks like one built specifically to brutalize pitchers like Tomlin, so we might see his first disaster start of 2016.
The Indians road trip continues on from Detroit as they have to travel down to Atlanta to face the Atlanta Braves then all the way back up to Canada to take on the Toronto Blue Jays. The next time the Indians will be at home will be on July 4 when they take on the Tigers again.
Team in a box
The Tigers may be a full four games behind the Indians, but that is far too close for comfort. Especially with the Detroit offense starting to click the way it has and Justin Verlander turning a corner back into stardom. The obvious issue with the Tigers has been their starting staff, which relies mostly on young arms with mixed results. Luckily, the Indians will dodge Michael Fulmer and instead get the worst of the Tigers rotation in Anibal Sanchez.
Detroit Tigers roster
It has been a long road to relevance for Nick Castellanos, but two seasons after a call-up in 2014 that may have been a bit premature, he is finally turning into a legitimate lineup threat for the Tigers. Castellanos is third on the Tigers in fWAR and is slashing .300/.334/.519 with 13 home runs. He would be the best hitter on a lot of teams, but this is the Tigers. Instead, he is lucky to be the fourth best.
The best is, obviously, Miguel Cabrera. The known Indian-killer and perennial MVP candidate is slashing .321/.379/.538 with a team-high 16 home runs. He has also walked in 11 percent of his at-bats, second on the team behind only backup catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's 14.9 percent walk rate.
Justin Upton, whom the Tigers signed to six-year, $132 million deal prior to the season, had a brutal start to his Tigers career. Between April and May, he was slashing .217/.264/.326 while striking out in 36.5 percent of his at-bats. Since the start of June, however, he has a .277/.362/.530 slash with five home runs and only a 22.3 percent strikeout rate. Upton is known to be a streaky hitter, so the Indians just have to hope his latest hot streak ended on June 23.
The top three pitchers of the Tigers rotation -- Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmerman, and Michael Fullmer -- have all been very effective for Detroit this season. The same cannot be said for the bullpen or the rest of the rotation. Mike Pelfrey has started 14 games for the Tigers this season; he carries a 5.19 ERA and a 5.51 FIP.
Detroit's best reliever, Justin Wilson, has an impressive 1.67 FIP (thanks to his 11.44 K/9), but a 3.49 ERA.
- OF: JD Martinez, 15-day DL (Broken right elbow)
- RHP: Warwick Saupold, 15-day DL (Right groin strain)