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Tigers vs. Mariners Series Preview: Detroit, Seattle have both struggled to prevent runs in 2017

Two of the AL’s worst pitching staffs will square off this week in Detroit.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

If you could poll the collective fanbases of the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners, I imagine they would have liked to trade places at various times over the past several months. Tigers fans would have loved to be in Seattle’s shoes this offseason, when general manager Jerry Dipoto made trade after trade in hopes of retooling his team’s roster for the upcoming series. They weren’t even looking for a center fielder, but went out and got a couple for fun, then flipped one (Mallex Smith) to the Tampa Bay Rays hours later for an upgrade in their starting rotation (Drew Smyly). In all, Dipoto had made 37 trades since becoming the Mariners’ GM, and that was only the count as of February 8.

On the other hand, Tigers general manager Al Avila made two major trades this offseason: one to get rid of Cameron Maybin, and one to acquire Mikie Mahtook.

The jealousy goes both ways, though. Mariners fans would love to be in the Tigers’ position right now. After a 1-6 start, the M’s have improved to just 8-12. They are 3 12 games behind the Houston Astros in the AL West, and have a pitiful 6-11 record against divisional foes.

As expected, their numbers don’t look great. They have a 99 wRC+ as a team, good enough for eighth in the American League. They are slightly above average in runs per game, though, and seem to have unearthed a couple of hidden gems in Mitch Haniger and Taylor Motter. The former is hitting .321/.430/.590 and is fourth among all players with 1.1 fWAR on the season. Motter has filled in admirably for an injured Jean Segura. He hit a grand slam in Seattle’s big win on Sunday, and has a 181 wRC+ on the year.

The Mariners need better from their top guys, though, especially on the pitching staff. Their 4.46 ERA trails only one team — you get one guess — and they have allowed 26 home runs in 20 games. Their starting rotation has largely been carried by James Paxton, while the bullpen has been the AL’s worst outside of Detroit.

We could see some fireworks this week.

Pitching Matchups

Game 1: RHP Felix Hernandez (2-1, 3.65 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 5.94 ERA)

For years, Felix Hernandez’s career has mirrored that of Justin Verlander’s. The two have been among baseball’s best pitchers since arriving in the majors in 2005. Each has a Cy Young Award on his mantle, and each probably deserves one or two more.

Hernandez has even started to mirror Verlander’s recent history. A steady velocity decline combined with a career-worst walk rate resulted in Hernandez’s highest ERA in a decade last year, and worse yet, another season without a postseason berth. Hernandez’s declining performance is a concern for the M’s, who still owe him nearly $54 million after this season. However, a calf injury that landed him on the disabled list last year may be partially to blame. He had a 4.48 ERA and 1.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 90 13 innings after returning in July.

Game 2: LHP James Paxton (2-0, 1.78 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (1-1, 3.71 ERA)

With King Felix no longer pitching very King-like, lefthander James Paxton has quietly ascended to the Mariners’ Ace throne. He only made 20 starts last season, but looked otherworldly at times, with nine starts of seven strikeouts or more. He improved his strikeout rate from 18.9 percent in 2015 to 22.9 percent last year while cutting his walk rate in half.

Even more indicative of Paxton’s progression was a massive improvement in his swinging strike rate. After inducing whiffs on just 7.2 percent of pitches in 2015, Paxton generated swings and misses at an 11.7 percent clip last year. That rate has taken a similar jump this year, as opponents are whiffing on 14.4 percent of pitches so far. He has a massive 30.6 percent strikeout rate, and is inducing more pop-ups to boot.

Game 3: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (0-2, 5.31 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-2, 6.04 ERA)

The Mariners caught a break when Hisashi Iwakuma’s potential contract was voided by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the winter prior to the 2016 season. The M’s re-signed the veteran righthander, and he enjoyed another productive year in the middle of their rotation.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t red flags, though. Iwakuma’s velocity and strikeout rate dipped while his walk rate increased, and he gave up 28 home runs in 199 innings. This season has been more of the same so far; Iwakuma has given up 12 runs — including six homers — already in 20 13 innings, with more walks (10) than strikeouts (9). He was always at his best when he could get ahead and beat you with that wicked splitter, but is getting strike one at a career-worst 57.8 percent so far in 2017.

Just keep doing that thing you’re doing

With just three weeks of baseball under our belt, it’s difficult to trust any statistics as predictors for future performance. We don’t know if the Mariners will continue to be a last place baseball team for the entire year, but we can say one thing for certain: they have been awful on the road so far this season. It started in Houston, where they scored eight runs in four games. Their 1-3 start then got worse in Los Angeles, especially when they blew a seven-run inning in the ninth inning against the Angels on April 9.

The M’s looked to have righted the ship over the past couple weeks, winning six of nine games at home. However, their road woes continued last weekend when they dropped the first three games of their series with the Oakland Athletics. They avoided a sweep on Sunday with an 11-1 victory that was just their second ‘W’ away from Safeco Field this year. With six more road games on deck before returning home again, the Tigers are hoping the Mariners continue to struggle finding their way in away games.

Well, maybe for three more days. The M’s are welcome to figure things out when they visit Cleveland next weekend.

How the Tigers win the series

For all of the blame that the Tigers’ defense and bullpen took (and deserved) last week, their starting pitching was equally subpar. Justin Verlander walked six (!) in his last start, while Daniel Norris and Jordan Zimmermann also had rough patches during their outings. With each pitcher facing a tough matchup in this series, the Tigers could use a better performance than what each delivered his last time out. Verlander, in particular, needs to find a rhythm; the Tigers are relying on him to be their ace, and he has been anything but so far this year.

Starters are not normally very efficient in the early season, but the Tigers need their rotation to be the strength it was projected to be during spring training. Michael Fulmer’s seven-inning effort on Sunday was the team’s longest since Verlander went seven strong on April 10. They have just four starts longer than six innings on the year, and are 11th in the American League in innings pitched per start. This has resulted in three weeks of over-reliance on an already shaky bullpen, and a recipe for disaster if it continues. If the Tigers starters can start winning their individual matchups on a regular basis — it would be nice if they start this week — the team should be just fine.