by Matt Korte

Opponent Preview: Detroit Tigers – Pitching Staff

With the Reds set to face the Detroit Tigers in 6 of their 10 first games in 2020, it’s time for Reds fans to meet the Tigers pitchers. For a brief history linking the Reds and Tigers together, as well as a breakdown of Detroit’s position players, take a look at my Tigers position player preview.

2019 Recap

The Tigers posted a league bottom 47-114 record, just short of the franchise worst 43 wins in 2003 and the MLB record of 40 set by the 1962 expansion New York Mets. The Tigers were known for their stellar pitching staffs in the early 2010’s with big names toeing the rubber for Detroit, but the rebuild took its toll on the pitchers too. The 2019 staff had an xwOBA of .335, the fourth worst in the majors, and a 4.75 xFIP, which was 10th worst in the MLB. Matthew Boyd and Joe Jimenez were the lone standouts among the group, but even for those two it was a slight step back from the year prior and a far cry from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

The Offseason

The biggest change in the Detroit rotation was the addition of Ivan Nova in January. He figures to be the number two starter for the Tigers after a year with the White Sox. The Tigers let Tyson Ross walk in free agency after starting seven games for Detroit. Perhaps the biggest development of the offseason was the forearm injury sustained by veteran Jordan Zimmerman. With the Tigers putting him on the 45-day IL, and Zimmerman in a contract year, it looks like he has no future in Detroit.

Stories to Watch

Now that Zimmerman is bowing out, it will open up spots for the pitchers of the future to see some major league innings for the Tigers. Not only will Zimmerman be absent, but it is likely Daniel Norris will miss at least the first turn through the rotation as he contracted COVID-19 in July. This will provide a great opportunity for young arms to get a chance in the shortened season. Perhaps the biggest story of the 2020 season won’t be Matthew Boyd or Joe Jimenez, but Casey Mize, the highly anticipated Tigers prospect. Ranked as the 7th best prospect in the MLB, the Tigers are expected to call up Mize during the second time through the rotation in order to manipulate service time.

Projected Starting Rotation

These players should be the starters for Detroit when they open the season against the Reds on Friday.

Matthew Boyd The past two years have solidified the left-handed Matthew Boyd’s role as the ace of Detroit’s pitching staff and their 2020 Opening Day starter. In 2019 he ranked highly with a .293 xwOBA (72nd percentile) and 3.77 xERA (76th percentile). Boyd’s pitch mix is dominated by two pitches which he uses 86 % of the time in his four seam fastball and slider. While being a two-pitch pitcher can be limiting, the 12 mph difference between the two pitches makes batters swing and miss Boyd’s breaking ball 43.6 % of the time. If Boyd could find a third pitch in his changeup or curveball, it would not be surprising to see Boyd thrive in the shortened season.

Ivan Nova Nova is fresh off of a career (worst) year with the White Sox in 2019. His xwOBA and xERA were both around the 15th percentile of the league at .346 and 5.44 respectively. One of the few things Nova did better than the league average was not walking batters. His walk rate was higher than normal for him at 5.8, but still well below the league average of 8.3. The most damning statistic from 2019 was his 14.1 strikeout rate, putting him in the third percentile of the majors. Unfortunately for Detroit, Nova serves as a downgrade if he pitches as poorly as he did last season.

Spencer Turnbull Breaking onto the scene for his first full season in the big leagues, Spencer Turnbull turned many heads at the start with a consistent xwOBA under .350. The story of Turnbull’s rookie season changed by midsummer as he went through a pair of trips to the 10-day IL and missed most of July. Once he returned, Turnbull was able to work his way back into form by September with a nearly league average .317 xwOBA in the final month of play. Turnbull remains an optimistic question mark for the Tigers in 2020 with the potential to become a bona fide number two in the rotation.

Tyler Alexander With Daniel Norris recovering from COVID-19, this allows 26-year-old Tyler Alexander another chance to make the rotation. There has been speculation that Alexander and Michael Fulmer could work together in an opener situation once Norris returns to full health. The southpaw appeared in 13 games last season, starting 8 of them. In his 53.2 innings of work, Alexander posted a 31st percentile .328 xwOBA. The rookie was hit hard allowing an exit velocity of 90.4 mph (8th percentile) and failed to make batters swing and miss with an 18.3 Whiff % (4th percentile). One thing he excelled at was not walking opponents with an elite 3.0 walk rate (1st percentile) in his small sample size. Alexander might be best suited as a rotation piece versus in the bullpen with 4.38 and 4.86 xFIPs respectively. 2020 is Alexander’s chance to secure a spot before the highly touted prospects make their way to the top.

Michael Fulmer Fulmer is one of the more interesting cases in Detroit’s rotation. The hard throwing right hander had above average seasons at the beginning of his career with a 4.02 and 4.12 xERA in 2016 and 2017, but had a drop off in 2018 (4.63 xERA). It’s possible his 2018 struggles could be accredited to injuries, which ultimately led him to missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. It will be interesting to see if Fulmer can still hurl his 88th percentile 96 mph fastball post-Tommy John. If Fulmer is able to recover and get back into his form which earned the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year, Detroit would be elated.

Daniel Norris After testing positive for COVID-19, Daniel Norris isn’t likely to start the season in the Detroit rotation, but will certainly make his way back in post-recovery. Another lefty in the mix for the Tigers, Norris will be entering his fifth full year with the club. The last three years have been particularly uninspiring with an average xERA of 5.45. In 2019 Norris was rocked by opposing batters as they made hard contact 43.1 % of the time (2nd percentile) and had an average 90.9 mph exit velocity (4th percentile). This could be due to his slow 91 mph fastball (19th percentile) which leads to a low 20.5 strikeout rate (30th percentile). Norris’ place in the rotation may be short lived in 2020 if the soft throwing 27-year-old continues to yield unfavorable results.

Projected Bullpen

Ever since the departure of Shane Greene at last year’s trade deadline, Joe Jimenez has been the closer for the Detroit Tigers. Jimenez now has two solid seasons under his belt, including a 2019 where he had a 85th percentile 31.6 Whiff %. The closer puts an elite amount of spin on his fastball to make bats miss and his 31.9 strike out rate supports that.

The problem for Detroit is that outside of Jimenez, there is a lack of proven arms throughout the rest of the bullpen. Buck Farmer is debatably the next best in the bullpen due to his high 29.8 Whiff %, but his tendency to allow hard contact (38.9 Hard Hit %) tempers that. Jose Cisnero is projected to be the other setup man alongside Farmer thanks to his 96 mph fastball.

The backend of the Detroit bullpen does not do much to excite with Bryan Garcia, Gregory Soto, David McKay, Nick Ramirez, John Schreiber, Beau Burrows, and Rony Garcia projected by FanGraphs to round out the staff.

Prospects

Opposed to the bullpen, the Tigers have several high end prospects waiting in the wings that are sure to make an impact in due time. Most notable is the aforementioned Casey Mize, who was the Tigers #1 pick and first overall in the 2018 draft, out of Auburn University, and ranked 7th among the MLB prospects. Mize is said to be major league ready, and will most likely take over a spot in the rotation after service time manipulation similar to Nick Senzel last season. This means the Reds might even see Mize in their second three game series with the Tigers.

Matt Manning, a 22-year-old who was the Tigers first round pick in 2016, will be the next big name prospect for the Tigers after Mize, but has less of a chance of making the big league squad in 2020. Prospects Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo both might have had a chance to crack the expanded roster, but suffered injuries and are currently on the 10-day IL.

Conclusion

Once known for starting rotations stacked with elite pitchers, the Tigers are now on the other side of a brutal rebuild that has gutted their pitching staff. The high level potential is there in Boyd, Turnbull, Fulmer, Jimenez, and Mize, but only 2020 will show if they are able to tap into that. Even if the rotation is rock solid, there is little faith in the bullpen to hold on to a lead. It’s possible that this staff returns to its formidable ways in the near future, but it’s hard to see that happening this season.

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/tigers/status/751845681787088896/photo/1]

Matt Korte is a lifelong Reds fan despite living most of his life in Michigan. The first five years of his life were spent in Cincinnati, but Matt became a lifetime fan when revisiting Cincinnati and watching Brandon Phillips hit a grand slam to defeat a Barry Bonds led Giants team in 2007 with his father. He hopes to one day see a Cincinnati sports team advance in the playoffs for the first time in his lifespan. A recent BS and MBA graduate, Matt currently works at Concordia University Ann Arbor as the Assistant Sports Information Director. When not working, you can find him consuming as much Reds, Bengals, fantasy sports, Star Wars, and Survivor content as possible. You can catch Matt on Twitter at @MKorte7815 where he can be found discussing all of the above.