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Game 71 Preview: Seattle Mariners at Detroit Tigers

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Justin Verlander will face off against lefty James Paxton, who has been dominant in four starts this season.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We have continuously marveled at Justin Verlander's evolution as a pitcher throughout his career, but his recent adjustments are worth revisiting. Through his first six starts, he had a 6.49 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 13 walks in 34 2/3 innings. Since then, Verlander is 5-2 with a 2.31 ERA and 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 1/3 innings. He has worked seven innings in all but one of those outings (and he finished just one out shy in that start).

While it may not be the reason Verlander has improved so drastically, he started throwing the cutter much more often after his May 3 start in Cleveland. Using the same divide mentioned above, Verlander threw just 10 cutters in his first six starts. In his last eight outings, he has thrown the cutter 155 times, a 17.6 percent rate. It has been a lethal pitch for him, inducing whiffs at a 19.4 percent clip while also resulting in a 55 percent ground ball rate. Opponents are hitting .133 off the cutter this season.

The cutter seems to have helped improve his other pitches as well. Now that opponents aren't able to sit on the fastball, they are hitting just .255 against his heater, though he is still prone to giving up a home run from time to time. His curveball has looked sharper of late as well, resulting in a .111 batting average against.

The Mariners showed off their power last night, belting a pair of home runs off starter Mike Pelfrey while racking up 19 hits in all. Can Verlander slow down their attack on Tuesday?

Seattle Mariners (36-34) at Detroit Tigers (35-35)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TVTigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP James Paxton (1-2, 2.86 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (7-5, 3.87 ERA)

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Paxton 22.0 29.0 6.0 3.07 0.5
Verlander 93.0 26.0 6.7 3.51 2.0

When I learned that the Tigers would not have to face Felix Hernandez or Taijuan Walker in their four-game series with the Mariners, I was excited. While it is fun to watch great pitchers like them, winning is also fun. So, without Walker or King Felix in the way, the Tigers should have an easy path to victory, right?

James Paxton

Oh poop.

Before we get too far, it's important to note that Paxton has only made four major league starts this season. He has been dominant in those starts, striking out 29 of the 100 batters he has faced while throwing one of the hardest fastballs in Major League Baseball. But it's still only four starts. Lookout Landing's Nathan Bishop warned of this in the aforementioned article (highlighted by an excellent Twitter picture I'm going to make you click the link to see).

It feels incredibly, terrifyingly fragile. Beyond even the obvious small sample size concerns, Paxton has never, never shown velocity like this, including his time this year in Tacoma. He has never shown the ability to throw strikes like this. Add on that, through injury and inconsistency it has taken from his major league debut, way back on September 7th, 2013, until now for Paxton to assemble a career sample size approaching a full season in the big leagues and I think we're just waiting for it to go wrong.

The jump in fastball velocity is substantial. After sitting in the 94-95 mile per hour range from 2013 to 2015, Paxton has hit 97 mph on the radar gun with regularity this year, and even touched 100 miles per hour at one point. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris identified that a change in Paxton's release point led to the bump in velocity.

The coach had Paxton pick up the ball and throw to first base to illustrate his natural arm slot. Pitchers can often get so wrapped up in their own mechanics as a pitcher that they forget how they would naturally just, you know, throw the ball. A simple throw to first unlocked his most comfortable mechanics.

The lower arm slot has unlocked more velocity on all of Paxton's pitches, and more movement on his secondary offerings. His slider has been particularly nasty this season, resulting in a 21.2 percent whiff rate. He is using it far more often this year, throwing it over 23 percent of the time (compared to four percent usage last season).

Hitter to fear: Kyle Seager (.556/.600/1.222 in 10 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Robinson Cano (.184/.216/.265 in 51 plate appearances)

Verlander has had plenty of success against the Mariners in his career, with a 10-8 record and 3.39 ERA in 18 meetings. That doesn't tell the whole story, though. Verlander is limiting the M's to a .288 on-base percentage and .627 OPS, numbers that go up by a fair margin when you add in newcomers like Nori Aoki and Adam Lind. Aoki has been especially pesky, reaching base at a .476 clip in 21 plate appearances. Lind, Franklin Gutierrez, and Nelson Cruz have all homered multiple times off Verlander.

Outlook

While Paxton has put up great numbers since his change in mechanics, he isn't invincible. He has allowed 28 hits in 22 innings this year, and righties are hitting .300 with three home runs in 75 plate appearances. The swings and misses are a huge part of Paxton 2.0's game, but he is allowing hard contact at a 32.3 percent clip thanks to a 26.6 percent line drive rate. He should rack up plenty of strikeouts against a Tigers lineup prone to swinging and missing at times, but this is a tough team to beat at home, especially with Justin Verlander on the mound.

Prediction

Verlander picks up win number eight after another solid outing.

★★★

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