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Series preview: Cleveland vs. Tigers

Spencer Turnbull will look to throw back-to-back no-hitters after blanking the Mariners last week

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Cleveland’s second-biggest slugger is out for more than a month, their seemingly impenetrable rotation is in shambles, and their pets' heads are following off. But at least they finally have Owen Miller.

After dropping two of three to the Twins, who are now tied with the Orioles for the worst record in baseball, Cleveland will look to a rebound with a four-game series against another team down in the dumps. The difference being the Twins have been in the dumps for a couple of months, the Tigers have lived there for years.

Detroit's prolonged rebuild started in earnest in 2017 when the last remnants of their AL-pennant winning core were traded away. They sent Justin Verlander to the Astros at the last minute of the trade deadline in a deal that propelled the Astros to their first World Series title. In return, the Tigers got three highly touted prospects who have contributed a total of -0.8 fWAR in the four years since the trade. Two of the three infielders they acquired for a half-season of J.D. Martinez are not even in the organization anymore, though middle infielder Jose King is finally starting to swing the bat well as a 22-year-old in High-A.

There are some signs of life for the Tigers in the form of young pitching and some surprises on offense (including old friend Eric Haase). Akil Baddoo has cooled off considerably since being the biggest story of baseball’s first week, but the former Rule 5 draft pick has six hits in his last 13 plate appearances. At the same time, though, they’re left playing Willi Castro — who has not been able to replicate the high-BABIP magic of a year ago — and the rapidly deteriorating Miguel Cabrera every day. They have some giant holes in their lineup that would make Cleveland blush — and they don’t even have a José Ramírez to bail them out once every nine at-bats.

It’s a little late for the Tigers to make a surprising surge and enjoy a few days in the first place like the Royals (who have since come crashing back down to earth), but they’re slowly starting to turn upward in 2021. They’ll enter this series having won six of their last 10, and despite having the second-worst run differential, they aren’t the worst team in the league — or even their division thanks to the Twins.

Team at a glance

  • Record: 18-28
  • Runs Scored: 168
  • Run Differential: -58
  • Last 10: 6-4
  • Slash: .229/.296/.361
  • wOBA: .291
  • wRC+: 84
  • ERA: 4.71
  • SIERA: 4.43
  • K-BB%: 11.3%

Projected starters

Monday, May 24, 7:10 p.m. ET: RHP Spencer Turnbull vs. Sam Hentges
If the Tigers hope to compete in the next few years, they’ll need Spencer Turnbull to continue the trend he’s been on lately. The 28-year-old is coming off a no-hitter against the Mariners, where he struck out nine and walked two on his way to history. Even before that, though, he was off to a great start.

Of Turnbull’s five starts prior to the no-hitter, only one included more than three earned runs, and only 3.4% of his fly balls were going for home runs. A sinker-baller by way of a 94.8 mph fastball with big horizontal movement, Turnbull has gotten the ball on the ground 52.4% of the time this season. That’s up from 46% in his rookie season, 48.3% in 2019, and 50% of the time last year.

Turnbull has a curious pitch mix, looking something more like Shane Bieber’s selection (based purely on movement profiles) than a pure sinker thrower. He relies primarily on his 93.7 mph fastball, which he’s thrown 39.7% of the time this season. After that is his slider (25.2%), and finally the sinker (19.8%). Where most pitchers who throw a lot of sinkers try to match the horizontal break with the slider for maximum deception, Turnbull plays his sinker mostly off his four-seamer, which has a very similar vertical break and almost no side-to-side movement.

Tuesday, May 25, 7:10 p.m. ET: LHP Tarik Skubal vs. Aaron Civale
Listed as the Tigers’ No. 3 prospect heading into the season by FanGraphs, Tarik Skubal still can’t seem to find his groove. After carrying a 5.63 ERA in his 32 innings last year, he’s at 38 this season and still has a 5.45 ERA. Is it bad luck? His 5.54 xFIP, inability to get batters to chase anything, and hard contact he’s given up would suggest no.

Skubal hasn’t pitched more than six innings in any start this season, but his most recent may have been his best. Granted, it was against the same team that Spencer Turnbull no-hit, but Skubal did hold Seattle to two earned runs over five innings with a season-high nine strikeouts.

Skubal’s primary pitch — by a wide margin, I might add — is his 94.1 mph four-seamer, which has some arm-side run to it. He’s also one of the many pitchers this season who has added a splitter to his repertoire, though with mixed results.

Wednesday, May 26, 7:10 p.m. ET: RHP José Ureña vs. TBD (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
If there was any hope of José Ureña returning to his 2017 form, where he had a 3.82 ERA over 169.2 innings, it sure hasn’t happened yet. The long-time Marlins pitcher has allowed 25 earned runs in his first 48.2 innings as a member of the Tigers and has a hard-hit rate against among the worst in baseball. He’s actually kept home runs down pretty well (0.55 per nine), and coupled with a career-high 55.9% ground ball rate, he’s been able to keep an ERA under 5.00 while giving up a lot of hard hits. Most are just blistered into the ground.

Ureña primarily throws a sinker but also has a four-seamer and changeup that look almost identical in their movement profiles. Even his slider, which he throws a little over a quarter of the time, doesn’t have much horizontal break to it. What it lacks in pure movement, it makes up for in spinning at a bunch of whacky angles, though. And, in theory, that should fool batters even without a lot of break. Opponents have whiffed on the slider 31.8% of the time, the highest of any of Ureña’s pitches, and it’s used for strike three 23.9% of the time.

Thursday, May 27, 1:10 p.m. ET: LHP Matthew Boyd vs. Shane Bieber
Matthew Boyd has seen it all. The 30-year-old lefty has been with Detroit through the entirety of their rough and lengthy rebuild, having come over in the summer of 2015 as part of the trade that sent David Price to Toronto. Boyd, who will be entering his final year of arbitration eligibility next season, is a prime trade candidate for the Tigers. He’s off to his best start ever, with a 3.08 ERA and 6.0% walk rate. His strikeout rate, which is never very high to begin with, is one of the lowest of his career at 19.4%.

Boyd is a rinse and repeat soft-tossing lefty, with a four-seamer in the low-90s, a changeup, a slider, and the occasional curveball. You can bet the 11 mph difference between his fastball and changeup will confound Cleveland batters, and we’ll probably watch a lot of lazy fly balls land right in gloves.

Lineup highlights

DH, Miguel Cabrera and SS, Willi Castro - Remember how I mentioned Willi Castro and Miguel Cabrera? Well, you’ve been bamboozled, because they’re both crushing the ball — at least over the last seven games. Combined they have gone 18-for-43 in the last week with four home runs and seven strikeouts. The only walk between the two has been Willi Castro, whose BABIP is also at .500 in that span. None of this is sustainable, but it sure is a thing.

UTIL, Harold Castro - Harold Castro was very similar to the Tigers’ other Castro in that he finished 2020 with an extraordinarily high BABIP (.447), and a pretty great offensive season overall (.347/.407/.429, 134 wRC+). The question this year was could he possibly repeat that? To this point, sort of! Castro is slashing .351/.392/.365 to start the season, good for a 117 wRC+. His BABIP is still in the stratosphere, though, at .441. But at this point, he has 513 plate appearances under his belt and a career BABIP of .387. He’s just one of those guys that puts the ball where the defenders aren’t with a bunch of solid contact and it just kind of works. In a era of hulking sluggers and line drives over outfield walls, he’s a fun (and so far very effective) oddity.


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