This matchup has not gone well for the Detroit Tigers in the past. Hisashi Iwakuma’s career numbers against Detroit are comparable to his overall production. The .773 OPS he has allowed to Tigers hitters is actually 22 percent worse than his career average. The current roster has fared even better, with a .938 OPS in 132 plate appearances.
However, facing Justin Verlander has brought out the best of Iwakuma in the past. It started in 2013, when Iwakuma held the Tigers to just three hits in six shutout innings. Later that year, Iwakuma bested Verlander again, tossing eight scoreless frames at Comerica Park. The Tigers finally got to him in 2014 — we actually wrote something celebrating the event — and won a 6-3 game at Safeco Field with Verlander on the hill.
Sure, it’s not a large sample, and 2013 was the peak of Iwakuma’s MLB career. He has still given the Tigers fits at times since then, though, including another scoreless outing to beat Michael Fulmer last August.
Things have not gone well for Iwakuma since then. He posted a 4.97 ERA in the 10 starts following that win over Detroit last season, and has opened 2017 in even worse fashion. Can the Tigers capitalize and win another home series?
Seattle Mariners (9-13) at Detroit Tigers (11-9)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (0-2, 5.31 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (1-2, 6.04 ERA)
Game 21 Pitching Matchup
The reason for Iwakuma’s decline seems subtle. Now 36, he seems to have lost the impeccable command that made him so effective a few years ago. He threw first-pitch strikes 64.2 percent of the time last season, a fairly sharp decline from the 68.2 percent clip he managed in 2015. His walk rate climbed from 4.1 percent two years ago to 5.5 percent in 2016. This, coupled with a sharp drop in strikeout rate, meant that more balls were being put in play with more runners on base, a recipe for disaster for nearly any pitcher.
Fortunately, the results last season weren’t that bad. Iwakuma finished the year with a 4.12 ERA in 199 innings, his highest workload since that 2013 season. However, things have nosedived in 2017. His walk rate has exploded to 12.1 percent in four starts, while his strikeout rate has plummeted to 10.8 percent.
Worst of all, opponents are seeing first-pitch strikes just 57.8 percent of the time. Iwakuma has forever relied upon a nondescript 90 mile-per-hour fastball to get ahead in the count. Once the hitter is in a hole, Iwakuma gets evil, throwing an array of off-speed pitches that induce weak contact. His splitter is the true weapon, and he has used it as such, including over 40 percent of the time in two-strike counts.
Now that Iwakuma is falling behind, he has been forced to use other pitches. His fastball usage has remained relatively steady throughout his career, but his 15.6 percent splitter usage is by far the lowest of his career. He has thrown his slider more often this season to keep opponents off the fastball, but glancing at his ERA shows that it hasn’t worked.
Key matchup: Justin Verlander vs. whatever that was last week
It’s not often you witness any pitcher walk six batters in a game, let alone Justin Verlander. The Tigers’ ace matched his career-worst walk total in his start against the Minnesota Twins on Friday, resulting in one of the more bizarre lines you will ever see. On the positive side, Verlander only allowed three hits and did not give up a home run. The pessimistic view sees this as Verlander’s second consecutive rough start, and yet another outing in which he completely ditched his changeup.
Luckily, things are working in Detroit’s favor today. Verlander was on another level at Comerica Park last season, holding opponents to a .195 batting average and 0.93 WHIP in 19 home starts. He managed a 5.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those outings, which included a 4-2 win over Seattle in June.
Verlander has done some impressive work against the Mariners in his career. While a fair amount of this has occurred against some pretty bad Seattle lineups, he has mostly held the veterans on their current roster in check. Nelson Cruz, destroyer of all things Tigers, only has a .793 OPS in 41 plate appearances. Robinson Cano has legitimately struggled, at .241/.281/.389 in 54 at-bats. Only Kyle Seager has managed any sustained success — he has a 1.571 OPS in 16 plate appearances — but he has missed the first two games of the series with a sore hip. So long as Verlander keeps the ball in the park, he and the Tigers should be just fine.
Verlander steadies himself and the Tigers win the series.