A trio of division games takes center stage on FOX Saturday Baseball as the national games feature a couple of long-standing rivalries and a rather one-sided battle for National League East supremacy. The 7:15 p.m. ET first pitches for this week’s FOX Saturday Baseball slate will be in Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington D.C. as the Indians host the Tigers, the Cubs host the Pirates, and the Nationals host the Braves.
Detroit at Cleveland
The Indians and Tigers have been division rivals since 1969 when the division format was first installed. Back then, it was in the American League East and their rivalry deepened in the five-team American League Central when the Tigers joined in 1998. The Indians were an inaugural member in 1994. These two teams joined the American League together in 1901, when the Indians were the Cleveland Blues. The Tigers beat the Indians 6-3 in their first-ever meeting on May 3, 1901.
In a major turnaround from last season, when the Indians were 4-15 against the eventual Central Division Champions, the Tribe has won four of the first six meetings with the Motor City Kitties thus far in 2014. A late 10-game run by the Indians and a Tigers team on cruise control closed the standings gap to just one game between the two teams to end last season. This season, the Indians were 10.5 games back of the Tigers on May 18 and are now chasing the division-leading Kansas City Royals.
The Tigers are just 10-20 over their last 30 games and that prolonged stretch of futility has given them a negative run differential. It was an Indians sweep that set the Tigers bad stretch in motion after they reached a high point of 27-12 on May 18. Since that three-game sweep, the Tigers are 10-20.
Justin Verlander will try to get it figured out on Saturday for the Tigers. The Indians will counter with Trevor Bauer. Verlander has allowed 47 runs, 43 earned, in 57.2 innings since the beginning of May. The Tigers are 3-6 in his nine starts in that span and 0-3 so far in June, where Verlander has posted a 9.16 ERA with a 12/10 K/BB ratio. From the stretch, Verlander has been simply awful with a .301/.373/.444 slash line against with men on base. That’s a major departure from the .245/.318/.379 for his career and a big reason why the Tigers are 2.94 units in his 15 starts, despite an 8-7 record in those games.
Trevor Bauer retooled his mechanics in the offseason and added velocity along with control and the results have been promising. Bauer gave the Indians a tremendous effort in his last start, throwing a season-high 119 pitches to push through 6.2 innings to help a tired Tribe bullpen. He allowed 12 baserunners and gave up three runs, but two of those runs scored in the first inning. On the season, Bauer is 2-3 with a 4.20 ERA in seven starts. He has struck out 42 in 40.2 innings. In those seven starts, the Indians are 3-4 and down nearly one unit.
The Indians enter Friday’s series opener with a 23-12 record at home, the best mark in baseball. The Tigers are 18-13 away from Comerica Park this season, the third-best road record. It’s interesting to note that the Indians were 30-8 against the White Sox and Twins last season and 4-15 against the Tigers. This season, the Indians are 7-10 against the White Sox and Twins and 4-2 against Detroit.
Pick: Cleveland Indians
It’s hard to back Verlander right now given his command issues. He has struck out fewer batters and walked more batters this season than at any other point in his career. That coincides with a loss of velocity. The Indians have seen Verlander a lot in his career and have had success against him, as he’s 9-11 with a 5.36 ERA. That was against the old Verlander. He’s not that same guy right now, so the Indians may take full advantage.
Pittsburgh at Chicago Cubs
This rivalry dates back to 1887 when the Cubs played as the White Stockings. Opening Day 1887 was a matchup between these two teams. The Pittsburgh Alleghenys won their first game as a member of Major League Baseball by a 6-2 score on April 30, 1887 over the White Stockings. The Alleghenys became the Pirates in 1891 and the White Stockings were the Colts and Orphans until 1903 before becoming the Cubs.
Vance Worley will make his second start as a member of the Pirates after throwing seven shutout innings with a no-decision on June 15 against the Marlins. The Cubs will counter with lefty Travis Wood. Worley found himself out of a job last season after starting the year with a 7.21 ERA for the Twins over 10 starts. He allowed 82 hits in 48.2 innings. The Pirates, who designated Wandy Rodriguez for assignment earlier this season and are without Gerrit Cole, took a shot on the 26-year-old after he posted a 4.30 ERA in seven starts for Triple-A Indianapolis. Worley did have a 43/4 K/BB ratio in Triple-A prior to his call-up.
After allowing BABIPs in the .240s in his first two seasons as a Cub, Travis Wood’s BABIP against falls into the usual range for pitchers at .296. The result has been an increase in his ERA from 3.11 to 4.48. His advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP are similar to last season’s performance, so Wood isn’t pitching worse, necessarily, he’s just having worse batted ball luck. Wood’s getting fewer swings outside of the strike zone this season and that lack of control has allowed hitters to be more patient. The cutter, which was Wood’s most effective pitch last season, has been the worst pitch for him this season. The Cubs are 8-6 in Wood’s 14 starts for a profit of 3.34 units.
After disastrous Aprils, both the Pirates and Cubs have played better of late. Both teams are 10-7 in June, but the Pirates are +16 in run differential while the Cubs are at zero. The Pirates have been one of the league’s top teams in offensive runs above average in both May and June, so it has been the pitching that has failed them. The Cubs have rectified early season bullpen troubles and are finishing more games with leads.
Pick: Chicago Cubs
Over the last three years, covering seven starts, against the Pirates, Wood has allowed 12 runs in 47.1 innings of work for a 2.28 ERA. Worley fell out of the Majors completely and lacks the necessary breaking stuff to be an effective Major Leaguer. The Cubs have put their bullpen woes of the past behind them and have been a much better team since.
Atlanta at Washington
In the less-storied history of the Braves and Nationals rivalry, which began in 1969 when the Montreal Expos were an expansion franchise that lost 110 games, another chapter will be written this season as the two teams vie for the NL East Division crown. The Expos beat the Braves 4-3 on May 6, 1969. The two became division rivals in 1994 when the Braves were moved into the NL East, where both teams currently reside.
Saturday’s matchup could be the best pitcher’s duel on the board as Julio Teheran squares off against Doug Fister. Teheran has been the anchor of the Braves staff, a group that lost Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to Tommy John surgery prior to the season and now lost Gavin Floyd to a fracture in his pitching elbow. Teheran has held opposing batters to a .201 batting average against and has a K/BB ratio of 4/1.
It’s not all good news for Teheran, however, as his advanced metrics do suggest some regression. He has a 2.31 ERA, due in large part to the Braves great defense and some batted ball luck, but his FIP is 3.53, his xFIP is 3.76, and his SIERA is 3.64. Whether or not that regression hits gradually, all at once, or not at all remains to be seen, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Teheran has been one of the better bets in baseball as the Braves are 10-5 in his 15 starts for a profit of 4.15 units.
Doug Fister has made eight starts since returning from a lat strain and his control has been impeccable. In those 49.2 innings, Fister has walked just five of the 203 batters he has faced. Unfortunately, when Fister has missed, he has missed badly with eight home runs allowed. The key for him is clear. Keep the ball down. In his eight starts, the Nationals are 6-2 for a profit of 4.37 units.
Entering Friday’s action, the Nationals have dropped seven of eight to the Braves this season. The Nationals lost 13 of 19 in 2013. Since starting the season 17-7, the Braves are just 21-28, while the Nationals are 12-8 in their last 20.
Pick: Atlanta Braves
The Braves offense runs into trouble when they strike out a lot and Fister is not a strikeout pitcher. In seven starts over the last two seasons, Teheran has posted a 2.93 ERA against the Nationals. Recent history shows that the Nationals have a hard time beating the Braves for whatever reason and the Braves will have their ace on the mound for this one.