If the Detroit Tigers’ current slide continues and they ultimately miss out on a playoff spot in 2016, there will be positives from this season that fans can look back on as reasons to be upbeat about 2017. Justin Verlander returned to form — Saturday’s outing was as big a statement as any he has made this year despite the result — and Nick Castellanos had his most productive season to date. Bruce Rondon’s emergence out of the bullpen is also a plus.
But the biggest takeaway from 2016? Dave Dombrowski committed highway robbery at the 2015 trade deadline. Not only is Michael Fulmer the rightful AL Rookie of the Year, but Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd have emerged as solid rotation pieces with upside for more. Norris flashed that upside in his last start, a dominant 11-strikeout performance against the lowly Minnesota Twins.
In fact, Norris might be one of the biggest reasons the Tigers are still in this Wild Card race. Detroit has won each of Norris’ last four starts, a stretch in which the young lefthander has notched 27 strikeouts in 23 2⁄3 innings. We will need to do a little more digging after Sunday, but it seems that Norris’ changeup has taken a step forward. Between that pitch, a nasty-if-inconsistent slider, and his firm fastball, he has the arsenal to be an above average starter.
The Tigers need more on Sunday, though. Can Norris be their stopper against the Indians?
Detroit Tigers (78-70) at Cleveland Indians (86-62)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 3.81 ERA) vs. RHP Trevor Bauer (11-7, 4.06 ERA)
I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that Indians fans collectively hold an opinion of young starter Trevor Bauer similar to the one Tigers fans had of Rick Porcello during his formative years in Detroit: some fans absolutely love him, while others might be all too eager to send him elsewhere. Bauer has all-world potential, but has never been able to harness his command and put together a consistent full season. This year has been his closest effort to date, but he is still sporting a 4.06 ERA inflated by a 5.17 ERA since the All-Star break. This includes 14 earned runs in three September starts (and the Indians still won two of them).
As one might expect, Bauer’s decline in ERA coincides with a higher walk rate. He has issued free passes to 9.5 percent of hitters in the first half while his strikeout rate has dipped from 21.8 percent to just 18.6 percent. While those walks have largely been contained to a few outings, he is still giving up more walks in most starts than he was in the first half (he has just two outings with one walk or fewer in the second half, something he accomplished three times in June alone).
It’s tough to say what exactly changed, though. Bauer is one of the more cerebral and unpredictable pitchers in the game, so trends like an uptick in four-seam fastball usage compared to the two-seamer could just be him tinkering with his always-evolving arsenal. Bauer’s cutter, changeup, and curveball usage have also fluctuated throughout the year.
Tigers hitter to fear: J.D. Martinez (.368/.429/.526 in 21 plate appearances)
Tigers hitter to fail: Andrew Romine (.143/.333/.286 in 9 plate appearances)
While the Tigers couldn’t hit a lick against the Indians bullpen on Saturday, getting back to that pen as soon as possible on Sunday is probably their best chance of avoiding the sweep. The Indians used nine pitchers to complete the 10-inning shutout, and Andrew Miller also threw an inning on Friday. If they can drive up Bauer’s pitch count early — he helps by throwing 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, above the league average — then they may be able to take advantage of a tired middle relief corps in this game.
Norris pitches well but the offense’s disappearing act continues.
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