As the calendar turns to May, the Cleveland Indians find themselves leading the American League Central by a mere 0.5 games over the Chicago White Sox. A division lead on the first day of May is inconsequential in the world of baseball, but it’s still fun to have, especially given the state of the division when the Indians last played the Detroit Tigers.
After that last series against the Tigers in the long, long ago known as April 17, 2017, the Indians were bottom feeders in a division they once ruled. The mighty had fallen, the season was over; surely the front office was prepared to sell and apologize for the bloated contract of Edwin Encarnacion and their failure to pursue Mike Napoli’s veteran leadership more in the offseason.
Oh, wait, it’s two weeks later and the Indians look like one of the best teams in the league. They are coming off of two straight series wins against the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners, and the offense is still basking in the glow of a 12-run win on Sunday. And as they enter this four-game set against the Tigers, their three best pitchers and Trevor Bauer will be taking the hill to defend the current division lead.
Detroit will enter this series not quite as hot, having won only two of their last six games, though they did tag the Seattle Mariners for 19 runs last Tuesday. That probably seems like eternity ago to Tigers fan, though, who endured four-straight losses afterwards with a combined score of 23-8.
There is a light threat of rain pretty much the whole week in Detroit, but nothing that looks like it’ll delay a game right now. That could change, because mother nature probably hates Detroit.
Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Daniel Norris (LHP) vs. Trevor Bauer (RHP)
Daniel Norris was masterful in his April 14 start against the Indians if you look at earned runs and nothing else. He held the Indians scoreless off two hits, but he also walked four batters and struck out a season-high five. That was the only start of the season so far that Norris has not allowed a run (or three) to cross the plate.
All told, Norris has given up 11 earned runs off 26 hits, leading to a 4.71 ERA and 3.76 FIP. One thing to keep an eye on early is that Norris, historically a Josh Tomlin-ish pitcher who gives up a lot of fly balls and home runs, is not giving up many fly balls or home runs this season. His groundball rate is at 41.7 percent right now, nearly three percent higher than his career average. He has also only given up one home run this season, or 0.43 home runs per nine innings. He normally gives up 1.20 per nine.
Part of that appears to be because Norris is painting the corner of the zone more effectively this season, especially against left-handed batters. It’s certainly not because of an easy slate to start the season — he’s faced the Indians, Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, and Boston Red Sox in his four starts.
Trevor Bauer still doesn’t know what to do the third time through the order. Water is wet, sky is blue, Francisco Lindor is great.
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Justin Verlander (RHP) vs. Corey Kluber (RHP)
What have we done as a species to deserve such a great matchup as Kluber v. Verlander twice in the span of a month? I don’t know, but someone sacrificed something along the line, I guarantee it. Count your goats, folks.
When these two faced off on April 15, it looked like a classic on paper. It turned into a shootout, with the Indians shootouting harder to the tune of 13 runs, nine off Verlander. Verlander, being Verlander, also went on to complain that the Indians were stealing signs again, telling reporters after the game, "I guess when you go to multiple signs with nobody on, you're just saying, 'Hey, it's a little fishy,'“
The Indians have historically had the ace’s number. In 357 career starts, Verlander has given up six or more runs a mere 33 times. That’s pretty impressive, but 10 of those times were against one team: the Indians. And he’s only faced the Tribe 49 times in his career, so a vintage, sign-stealing meltdown occurs roughly one in every five starts against the Indians. And it’s beautiful every time.
Verlander has recovered nicely, but nine earned runs in four innings is a tough blemish to remove in a handful of starts — he has an ERA of 4.60 and 3.61 in the early goings. His last outing was a seven-inning gem against the Mariners in which he struck out eight and walked two in a shutout performance.
Corey Kluber’s half of the Pitcher’s Duel That Never Was wasn’t quite as bad, but it still wasn’t pretty. He allowed six runs in 6.1 innings, but has been phenomenal since. Following a complete game shutout of the Chicago White Sox on April 21, he held the dangerous Houston Astros to three runs over seven innings while striking out a season-high 10 batters.
Kluber is currently tied for fifth in the American League with 37 strikeouts.
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Matthew Boyd (LHP) vs. Carlos Carrasco (RHP)
Matt Boyd and Carlos Carrasco were the real pitcher’s duel of the last series, with the former coming out as the victor.
After a rough start to the season in which he gave up five earned runs to the White Sox in 2.1 innings, Boyd has been great in the Tigers rotation. His last out was against that same White Sox squad, but he allowed just three runs in seven innings along with five strikeouts.
One big adjustment for Boyd in April has been his changeup, which — according to Brook’s Baseball — he has thrown more with more effectiveness. The change has been deployed 26 percent of the time this season (116 pitches), and half the time opponents make contact it’s going into the ground.
While we all patiently waited for Kluber to work out his annual April issues, Carlos Carrasco plugged away as the team’s ace. He sports a 2.04 ERA and 3.59 early in the season, with the increased FIP mostly coming from a higher-than-normal home run rate. But he’s also struck out 34 batters so far, while walking just seven.
Thursday, 1:10 p.m. ET: Michael Fulmer (RHP) vs. Danny Salazar (RHP)
Last year’s AL Rookie of the Year is still a pretty good pitcher in 2017. I think, anyway. Michael Fulmer has been toeing the line of quality starts all season long, but he has consistently pitched well enough for the Tigers to win or whatever other cliche you need to help understand how just-good-enough he’s been in his first few starts.
All of Danny Salazar’s starts look fine and dandy — all at least five innings, none with more than four earned runs, at least six strikeouts in each, ho-hum — but it gets a lot weirder when you break it down by inning.
Salazar has made five starts this season, and in the first innings of those starts (30 total batters faced), combined, Salazar has walked three batters, given up three home runs (!!!), and eight earned runs (!!!!!!!!111!!) off 12 hits. Opponents have a wOBA of .561 against him in the first frame.
In the second inning on, combined, Salazar has given up zero home runs, six earned runs and walked 11 against 96 total batters. They have a combined wOBA of .236 against him. If you are pregnant or think you may become pregnant, it is advised that you tune into this game, and any other game started by one Mr. Daniel Salazar, after the first inning is over.
This series against the Tigers is the start of a lengthy road trip that will not conclude until May 12 when they return home to face the Minnesota Twins.
Frankie MVP when?
It didn’t take Mike Trout and Bryce Harper long to wake up and pass Lindor’s overall Wins Above Replacement during his recent slump, but the Tribe’s young superstar is still playing like an MVP candidate. He’s amassed 1.5 WAR, he’s making great contact, and he might just be the best defensive player at any position in the league. And he’s still smiling, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Will Verlander still whine if he gets blasted on his home turf?
I left something out of my blurb above about Verlander’s struggles against Cleveland; you fell for my clickbait scheme meant to increase viewer retention and thus fill my pockets with an endless cashflow. You fools.
Ok, no, but really, I did kind of leave something out. Most of Verlander’s struggles have come at Progressive Field, which is why he gets extra whiny in Cleveland. Only three of his ten “meltdown” games against the Tribe have come in Detroit, so we’ll see if it happens again. And if it does, does he start trying to find a mole at Comerica?
Pay close attention to Miguel Cabrera’s groin
Miguel Cabrera, noted Indians killer, has been out since April 21 with a strained groin, but recent reports say he could be ready by Tuesday. I’m not one for rooting for players to be injuries, but could he maybe suffer a small setback? Nothing big, just something to sideline him until Friday. Pretty please?
Detroit Tigers roster
How many games will the Indians win against the Tigers?
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