Were it not for Chris Sale destroying everything in his path, Seattle Mariners lefthander James Paxton would be the best pitcher the Detroit Tigers have faced this season. This may come as a surprise, as the Tigers have already faced the likes of Jose Quintana, Rick Porcello, Chris Archer, and Corey Kluber this year. However, Paxton has built on a quietly dominant 2016 season to throttle his first four opponents of 2017. Through 25 1⁄3 innings, Paxton has 30 strikeouts to just five walks. He didn’t allow a run in his first three outings, and a five-spot in his fourth start still couldn’t move his ERA above 2.00.
Most of this improvement came on the back of a sudden jump in fastball velocity last season. Paxton lowered his arm slot and discovered another couple of miles per hour. His velocity jumped from 95.1 mph in 2015 to 97.4 mph last season. He has held steady in this regard so far, averaging 96.6 mph through this April. Opponents are swinging and missing on that pitch a whopping 15.4 percent of the time, leading to an impressive 30.6 percent strikeout rate through four games.
He will have his hands full tonight, though. The Tigers have been on fire over the past few games despite missing some of their biggest bats.
The Tigers have scored 28 runs in 22 innings since placing Miguel Cabrera on the disabled list— Bless You Boys (@blessyouboys) April 26, 2017
(That number is now 37 runs in 26 innings, if you’re keeping track.)
Can the Tigers keep things rolling on Wednesday against Paxton?
Seattle Mariners (8-13) at Detroit Tigers (11-8)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP James Paxton (2-0, 1.78 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (1-1, 3.71 ERA)
Game 20 Pitching Matchup
Coming off a pair of solid starts against excellent competition, the Tigers were hoping for another quality outing from Daniel Norris six days ago. They were reeling at the time, having lost a pair of ugly games against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Unfortunately, the ugliness continued. Norris struggled with his command as the Tigers defense struggled with... well, defense. The Tigers lost 8-1, and Norris didn’t make it out of the fifth inning.
Starts like this will happen, especially with a talented young pitcher who just turned 24 years old. What is a bit concerning, however, is Norris’ lackluster strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has just 11 punchouts to nine walks on the season, and has not featured the same life on his fastball as he did down the stretch in 2016. His fastball velocity is still high -- it’s actually a touch higher than it was when he was called up last May — but opponents aren’t swinging and missing at his fastball and slider nearly as often as they were last year.
The improved whiff rates on Norris’ curveball and changeup are a bit misleading; he has thrown his fastball or slider roughly 80 percent of the time this season, and has only thrown 61 curves and changeups (combined) in three starts.
Fortunately, the foundation for success is still there. Norris has thrown first-pitch strikes 66.2 percent of the time, a slightly higher rate than what he managed in 2016. Opponents are swinging at just 23.8 percent of pitches outside the zone (down from 28.3 percent last year), but are making contact on a much lower percentage of such pitches. Overall contact rates have stayed consistent as well.
While this might not mean much against a Mariners offense that ranked in the lower-third of MLB in terms of swinging strike rate — they have the fourth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball — it’s a sign that Norris may progress towards the mean soon.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. a big, angry fastball
During his pseudo-breakout in 2016, Paxton limited right-handed hitters to a .305 on-base percentage and .303 weighted on-base average (wOBA). Those numbers aren’t holy-hot-damn impressive, but he struck out 106 righties to just 17 walks in 429 plate appearances. With a gaudy strikeout-to-walk ratio like that, it comes as no surprise that Paxton has held righties to a .494 OPS in their first 82 plate appearances of 2017.
He hasn’t faced a lineup like this yet, though. The Tigers have shrugged off their recent injuries to score 32 runs in their past two games. They now lead the American League with 5.42 runs scored per game, and have a 113 wRC+ as a team against left-handed pitching. They will send nine right-handed hitters to the plate against Paxton, including proven lefty mashers like James McCann, Justin Upton, and Nick Castellanos.
While Paxton has upped his curveball usage so far this season, his strength is still that high-90s fastball from the left side. He can continue to bomb away with curves against a righty-heavy lineup sitting on the heater, but he still needs to establish the heater to be effective against a Tigers offense running on all cylinders right now.
Both teams combined to give up roughly a zillion hits on Tuesday, but the lopsided scoreline (mostly) helped keep the Tigers’ and Mariners’ best arms on ice. Justin Wilson got a much needed day off, and Seattle’s Edwin Diaz was also inactive. If anything, the Tigers are at a bit of a disadvantage after Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, and Joe Jimenez pitched in the 10-run blowout. Couple that usage with Daniel Norris’ continued troubles getting deep into games, and the Tigers may find themselves relying on a lesser reliever like Anibal Sanchez in an early high-leverage spot. This would be a great time for Norris to have his best start of the year. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely against a very potent Mariners offense.
The Tigers offense comes back to earth and Seattle evens the series.