The Pirates will play their first inter-league series of the year this week with a home and home with the Detroit Tigers, with two games in Detroit before the series shifts to Pittsburgh for the second two games. We preview the series below:
Tigers Record: 3-1
Last Series Result: Split two games against the Yankees with the series finale being rained out
The Detroit Tigers opened the season with an unusual two game series in Miami before returning to Detroit for their home opener against the Yankees. The Tigers beat the Marlins in both games, including an extra inning affair on Opening Day, then split two games with the Yankees before having their game yesterday postponed due to inclement weather. Early results have been favorable for the Tigers, though quick starts and mediocre to weak finishes have been the norm for Detroit the last couple seasons. Most recently, the Tigers sat at 23-14 on May 16th, but went 51-73 over the rest of the season and finished 74-87 in last place in the American League Central.
This season, there seems to be some optimism that the Tigers could return to the playoffs in the seemingly always up-for-grabs AL Central. Any team that has Miguel Cabrera manning First Base can’t be in too bad shape. The 33-year-old former Triple Crown winner is still mashing the ball, slashing .338/.440/.534 last season. In fact, the Tigers lineup as a whole mashes the ball, with the team slashing .300/.346/.467 with 6 Home Runs through the first four games. The weakest spot in the lineup would seem to come from Center Fielder Anthony Gose, who still slashed .254/.321/.367 in 2015.
The only difference to the Tigers everyday lineup this year compared to last season would be newcomer Justin Upton playing Left Field. Last year, the Tigers had Yoenis Cespedes manning that position for the first two-thirds of the season, then turned to Tyler Collins after Cespedes was traded to the New York Mets. The Tigers also have two intriguing young players in their lineup with Jose Iglesias at Shortstop and James McCann at Catcher. There’s more on McCann down below. As for Iglesias, after a breakout rookie season in 2013, missed the entire 2014 season due to stress fractures in his shins. He rebounded to make the All-star team last season, and at only 26 years old he likely has yet to hit his ceiling.
Game 1 (Detroit) – April 11, 1:10 P.M. ET
Jon Niese (L) vs. Justin Verlander (R)
Game 2 (Detroit) – April 12, 1:10 P.M. ET
Juan Nicasio (R) vs. Anibal Sanchez (R)
Game 3 (Pittsburgh) – April 13, 7:05 P.M. ET
Francisco Liriano (L) vs. Shane Greene (R)
Game 4 (Pittsburgh) – April 14, 12:35 P.M. ET
Gerrit Cole (R) vs. Jordan Zimmerman (R)
Jon Niese will make his second Pirates start in the series opener. Hopefully he can get some better defensive play to help him out this time and get him his first win. Juan Nicasio will continue his intriguing beginning to his Pirates career in the second game. Liriano will get the start when the series shifts back to Pittsburgh. He will look to improve on his last outing in Cincinnati, when it will hopefully be much warmer. Gerrit Cole will look to improve on his last outing in Cincinnati as well when he pitches in the series finale. Now that Cole is out of Cincinnati, his personal house of horrors, he can hopefully return to the ace form Pirates fans are used to.
The Tigers will bring out four Right-handed pitchers to face the Pirates in this series. The Pirates have yet to face a southpaw on the season and will not in this series. The most noteworthy thing about the pitchers the Tigers are sending out is that the Pirates were initially scheduled to miss Justin Verlander. The postponement against the Yankees though bumped his next scheduled start from last night to this afternoon though and the Pirates will face him after all. The former Cy Young winner, MVP, and 6-time All-star has seen a drop off in his performance since 2013. However, a good finish to last season, where he went 2-0 in his last 4 starts with a 9.43 K/9, 2.28 BB/9, and a 2.65 ERA, has some thinking that the 33-year-old pitcher may have something left in the tank after all. Two of the four starters on the team with over 100 innings last season, David Price and Alfredo Simon, are gone with Verlander and Anibal Sanchez being the other two. The Tigers were able to go out and get Jordan Zimmerman though to bolster the rotation. Shane Greene is the other pitcher that the Pirates will face, making his first start of the season in the third game of the series.
This is of course the first series of 2016 between the Pirates and the Tigers. In 2015 the Pirates and Reds played 6 games over two series with the Pirates going 4-2 in those games. The Pirates outscored the Tigers overall 27-18. The Tigers got the best of the Pirates in the first series of the season in Pittsburgh in April, taking 2 out of 3. The Pirates got revenge when they played again from June 30-July 2 in Detroit, sweeping the Tigers.
The Pirates won the first game of the latter series 5-4 in 14 innings. The Pirates took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the Eighth inning when J.D. Martinez hit a 2-run Home Run off of Tony Watson to tie it. The Pirates would win it though when Neil Walker doubled in Josh Harrison in the top of the 14th for the go-ahead run.
Tigers Player to Watch: James McCann
James McCann, no relation to Yankee’s Catcher Brian McCann, has been referred to as the Tigers Catcher of the Future. Last season was his first full season in the Major Leagues and he had a pretty good debut. He began the season as part of a platoon with Alex Avila, but when the latter went on the Disabled List in May, McCann became the team’s every day Catcher. McCann finished his rookie season with a .264/.297/.387 slash-line and had wRC+ of 85. Tigers fans took to calling him “McCannon” due to his proficiency in throwing out base runners, 41% last season compared to the 32% league average. He also provides reliable defense, setting a modern day record for Catching appearances without an error to begin a career last September.
McCann is still an unfinished product and has some glaring weaknesses in his game. The most glaring weakness, that you may have been able to infer from his above-listed OBP (.297), is that he does not walk. He currently has a 3.6% career walk rate. Unsurprisingly he is aggressive from the plate, swinging at 53.2% of the pitches he saw in 2015 and 40.5% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone. Additionally, while he hits left-handed pitchers very well (.303/.339/.514), he does significantly worse against right-handed pitching (.246/.275/.331). On top of all of this, he was rated either the worst or second-worst pitch framer in all of baseball, depending on the rater. His ability to address these weaknesses in his sophomore season could be the difference between becoming a perennial All-star, or a league average catcher.
Early returns on McCann in 2016 are somewhat promising for the Tigers. Though he is only 2 for 13 with 5 strikeouts, he has only swung at 25% of pitches outside the strike zone and 42.1% of pitches overall. With two left-handed pitchers in Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano to face, McCann could do very well in those games. It’s likely that the Pirates will not be facing McCann in at least one of the other two games, due to McCann’s weaker stats against right-handed pitching, and the offseason addition of veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia to back up McCann. Still he is a player to watch in this series and over the 2016 season as a whole.
Pirates Keys to Victory
Though the Pirates rotation may not be the best or most exciting in baseball, they always give you a chance to win. They’ll need that in this series as the Tigers present an offensively potent lineup. If the Pirates pitching can keep the Tigers batters in check for the most part, they should be in every game this series. If just one starter has a bad day though, the Tigers will make them pay and they could be looking at a short outing.
Getting hits at opportune times was not the Pirates forte during the Reds series, excluding the Marte Grand Slam. While I subscribe to the belief that clutch hitting is a myth, the Pirates will certainly help themselves out if they can get some “clutch hits”. The Pirates will continue to get runners on base, as they have so far in this young season, and the hits will come. Hopefully the hits will come in this series though, because with the Tigers lineup the Pirates may find it necessary to win some high-scoring games.
Just Keep it Close
The Tigers bullpen has always been a bit of a mess, giving Tigers fans fits. That isn’t really expected to change this year. Though they have gotten Francisco Rodriguez as their new closer, K-Rod may not exactly quell the concerns. Rodriguez, despite having 387 career saves, also has 66 career blown saves. This means he converts his save opportunities at only a little over 85% of the time. Not helping matters is that he already blew a save on Opening Day, though the Tigers would go on to win in extra innings. With the shaky bullpen and mercurial closer, if the Pirates can keep games close into the later innings, they always have a shot of pulling out a win against the Tigers.
I find it a near-pointless endeavor to attempt to predict the outcome of not just one baseball game, but a series of three as well. However, I will do so because it’s fun and I’ve always mentally tried to do it at the beginning of every series anyways. The Tigers should be a better team than last season due to better pitching and another year of seasoning from their young players. The Pirates and Tigers have always seemed to play tight games and could have formed a nice rivalry over the last few seasons due to this and proximity if not for them being in different leagues. I expect more of this closeness as the teams split the inter-city four game series at 2 games apiece.
Prediction: Tied Series 2-2