Seven weeks into the 2013 season, there can only be so many important “showdown” or “statement” series for a Major League Baseball team.
Yet the Detroit Tigers seem to have found themselves in several series thus far that could be viewed as playoff or World Series previews.
Having interleague play earlier in the schedule due to realignment has something to do with that. The Tigers have already faced the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, both of whom could be potential World Series opponents.
Approximately three weeks ago, I suggested that the first meeting of the season between the Tigers and Kansas City Royals was a “showdown,” arguing that Detroit needed to step on the upstart Royals and assert themselves in the AL Central.
Last weekend, the Tigers faced the Cleveland Indians for a three-game set at Comerica Park, with the Tribe just two games out of first place. The Indians came into the series having won 10 of their last 11 games and looked ready to make a run at Detroit for the division lead. Cleveland ended up winning two of three to reach a first-place tie with Detroit.
(Some writers out there think the Tribe will hang with the Tigers far longer into the season than they have during the past two seasons. Indians fans actually seem to be skeptical of that, given those collapses in 2011 and 2012.)
But the Tigers will play the Indians and Royals plenty more times through the rest of the season since they’re divisional opponents. Detroit has 17 more games with Kansas City and 16 more versus Cleveland on the schedule. That’s probably why it’s not worth getting too excited about early-season match-ups.
However, MLB teams face inter-divisional opponents six or seven times this season. The Tigers begin a four-game series with the Texas Rangers Thursday night in Arlington. Detroit and Texas only have seven games against each other. They’ll play a three-game set at Comerica Park in mid-July.
Even though it’s May 16 as I write this, with 126 games remaining on the Tigers’ schedule, this series seems like kind of a big deal.
At 24-14, the Rangers are tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League. (The Yankees’ success thus far warrants a whole other blog post.) Only the St. Louis Cardinals have a better record in MLB.
Texas has allowed 135 runs, the fewest in the league. Pretty impressive for a team that wasn’t able to sign Zack Greinke during the offseason or get an ace-level starter like Greinke or Cole Hamels at last year’s trade deadline.
A big reason for that pitching success has been Yu Darvish, who appears to be worth every bit of the $112 million ($60 million contract plus $51.7 million posting bid to his Japanese team) that the Rangers invested in him.
In his first eight starts, Darvish compiled a 6-1 record and 2.73 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 52.2 innings. That strikeout total leads the majors, as does his rate of 13.7 Ks per nine innings.
Sure enough, that’s who the Tigers are facing in Thursday night’s series opener.
Of course, Detroit has their No. 1 guy opposing Darvish. Justin Verlander starts for the Tigers, creating the best pitching match-up of the early season. (Normally, I’d say “probably” or “arguably” in a sentence like that, but I think we can be definitive here. Has there been a better match-up yet this year?)
Verlander’s 4-3 record doesn’t look terribly impressive at the moment, though we know better than to judge pitchers by their win-loss record these days. His 1.93 ERA, ranked fourth in the AL, is far more indicative of his performance.
With 57 strikeouts in 51.1 innings, however, there have been concerns over Verlander showing diminished velocity and movement on his pitches this season. His strikeout rate of 10 per nine innings is the eighth-best in MLB, but as Rob Rogacki pointed out at Bless You Boys, Verlander’s fastball and curveball aren’t as effective as they have been in recent years.
(I’m writing this very late in the day, so it’s likely you’ll either read this during or after Thursday’s game. Let me know how it turns out.)
Based on numbers, the Tigers appear to have the starting pitching advantage in this series. (Though Rick Porcello and his 6.68 ERA start on Friday.) Sunday’s match-up between Doug Fister and Derek Holland looks to be another good match-up.
Detroit’s 206 runs are the most in baseball, so something will obviously yield between the Tigers’ offense and the Rangers’ pitching.
Of course, these two teams could split the four-game series, which probably wouldn’t tell us too much. But winning three of four or finishing off a sweep could make a definitive statement as to who is the best team in the AL right now.