Seattle Mariners (36-33) at Detroit Tigers (34-35)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Nate Karns (5-2, 4.06 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Pelfrey (1-7, 4.79 ERA)
Righthander Nate Karns won a battle over hard-throwing lefthander James Paxton in spring training -- one that our friends at Lookout Landing wanted Karns to win -- to become the Mariners' fifth starter. For three games, this looked like the wrong decision; Karns allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 17 hits in 15 1/3 innings. While he had a healthy strikeout rate during that stretch, he was walking too many batters. Small sample caveats applied, but Karns didn't look long for the rotation with so many other capable arms in the organization.
Luckily, the Mariners didn't overreact. Karns has been as advertised over his last 10 starts, holding opponents to a 3.72 ERA while striking out over a batter per inning. The walks are still a problem, with a season-long walk rate of 10.8 percent, but he is limiting home runs as well as anyone in baseball. After allowing five home runs in his first five starts of the year, Karns has yielded just one dinger in his last eight outings.
While these numbers are similar to what he posted in 147 innings with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015, Mariners fans are seeing a different pitcher this year. Karns has relied on his seconary pitches more often, throwing both his curveball and changeup at the highest rates of his career. The changeup, in particular, has been a weapon, inducing whiffs 18.6 percent of the time he throws it.
Karns talked about the importance of his changeup during spring training with FanGraphs' David Laurilla.
"It’s a two-seam, kind of an offset two-seam. I put it deep. I like to push it a little more toward the pinky. I kind of push it in a way that I feel tension in the pinky. It plays off my two-seam. Same grip, same action, so for lefties I have two-seam movement away. It’s the same spin as my two-seam, so hopefully they read two-seam and not changeup."
Oddly, Karns has thrown the two-seamer just 12.8 percent of the time this year, down from over 16 percent of the time throughout his career. He relies heavily on the curveball (36.7 percent) against righties.
Hitter to fear: Chris Iannetta (.467/.619/.867 in 21 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Robinson Cano (.176/.222/.235 in 18 plate appearances)
The current Mariners roster has excellent numbers against Pelfrey, but those are largely buoyed by heroic efforts from two players: catcher Chris Iannetta and outfielder Seth Smith. Iannetta and Smith have combined for 14 of the 25 hits Mariners batters have off Pelfrey, and are responsible for six of the eight extra base hits Pelfrey has allowed. In a general sense, Pelfrey has pitched well against the M's, limiting them to a 2.03 ERA in two previous meetings.
We have seen many a pitcher inexplicably shut this Tigers lineup down over the course of the season, and Karns appears ripe to do so on Monday. For one, the Tigers have not hit well against pitchers with good curveballs. According to FanGraphs' pitch values, the Tigers rank 18th among MLB teams against curveballs, and are 26th against changeups. They are also coming off of a 10-game road trip and have had just one off day so far in June.
There are some reasons to believe, though. Karns has struggled against right-handed hitters throughout his career, and righty opponents are batting .295/.359/.450 against him this season. The Tigers have been a tough out at home lately as well, winning 12 of their last 16 games at Comerica Park.
The bats bounce back and Pelfrey gets his second win of the season.
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