By: Josh Taylor, KDKA-TV Sports
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — An in-depth preview of Pirates season-opening series against the Tigers.
Pittsburgh Pirates at Detroit Tigers, Comerica Park
Dates, Times and Probable Pitchers: Thursday, 1:10 p.m., RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann; Friday, 1:10 p.m., RHP Trevor Williams vs. RHP Michael Fulmer; Saturday, 1:10 p.m., RHP Chad Kuhl vs. LHP Francisco Liriano
Game Pirates Should Win: Thursday, for some reasons more obvious than others. Zimmermann, who allowed a .321 batting average, .363 on-base percentage and .539 slugging percentage last season against left-handed hitters, will face five batters from that side of the plate on Opening Day. Considering right-handers have hit over .300 against him each of the last two seasons and Pirates’ centerfielder Starling Marte hits uncommonly better against right-handed pitchers than lefties, expect a bad matchup that could get weird quickly.
Game Pirates Should Lose: Saturday, if for no other reason than Fulmer starting on the mound. An All-Star last season and the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year, Fulmer has made quite an impact in his first two years in the majors. He even finished tenth in the Cy Young Award voting in his rookie season. He’s one of the best young pitchers in the AL, he’s good at home and even better in day games. More on him below.
Game That Could Go Either Way: Sunday, and this one will probably be the longest just because of the pitching matchup. Liriano is giving it another go as a starter with his fourth team in as many seasons (he’s been traded at the deadline in each of the past two). At 34 years old it’s probably not a stretch to think this could be his last chance as a starter, especially since it’s been to his detriment the past couple tries. In his past 47 starts dating back to 2016, Liriano has struck out 239 batters in 243.2 innings. That’s not so bad, but a 5.06 ERA, walking more than half as many batters as he’s struck out (4.73 walks per nine innings) and pitching six innings or more in only five of his last 18 starts isn’t so good either. Kuhl was as equally as unreliable last season if not more, going six innings or more only six times in 31 starts and walking 4.1 batters per nine innings while striking out 8.12. Both guys are just as likely to mow down their opponents as they are to get a final pat on the butt from the manager before the fifth inning. You just never know with either one of these two.
Guy Pirates Should Worry About: Miguel Cabrera, a four-time batting champion, two-time MVP and the American League triple crown winner in 2013. (He also led the league in on-base percentage and slugging that year, so doesn’t that technically make him a double triple crown winner? Never mind.) Although his career slash numbers against the Pirates are more pedestrian (.257 batting average/.322 on-base percentage/.401 slugging percentage), he is also 5-for-18 against Nova with a double, a home run and three walks. His bat is a good enough foil by itself to steal the game on Opening Day.
Guy Tigers Should Worry About: Adam Frazier, who will lead off Opening Day as the Pirates’ designated hitter. Expect him to start in at least two of the games in this set, whether as the extra hitter or a fielder because the matchup numbers favor it. In two games last season at Comerica, Frazier was 3-for-9 with a double and a triple, and his .354/.399/.539 slash numbers in day games are a good reason to give him as many plate appearances at the top of the lineup as you can in this series.
Key Matchup: Corey Dickerson, the latest Pirate to arrive via trade, is the only hitter in the starting lineup who has faced the Tigers’ three starting pitchers with at least 10 times in his career, having played the last two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. He is 6-for-10 lifetime with two doubles and a homer against Zimmerman, 4-for-12 with a triple and a walk against Liriano and 1-for-11 with a walk and two strikeouts against Fulmer. If the Pirates take two out of three games in this series, Dickerson could be one of the main reasons why.
Random Stat That Probably Doesn’t Matter: The Pirates are 13-9 against the Tigers in the last five seasons and 6-5 at Comerica Park. In three of those five seasons, they split a two-game series in Detroit.
Prediction: The Pirates win two out of three games. The Tigers’ lineup lacks the power potential it had a year ago before Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez were all traded, and they have been replaced with younger, more unproven talent. There aren’t many series this season where the Pirates’ roster will stack up better on paper, but this is one of them, and the matchups favor them as well.