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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Daniel Norris needs to get back on track

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Norris’ best start of 2017 came against Cleveland on April 14. The Tigers are hoping he can repeat it on Monday.

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Last September, Daniel Norris was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He pitched 29 23 innings, allowed a 2.73 ERA, and was a couple home runs allowed from being on this shiny leaderboard. His 24.6 K-BB% was sixth among qualified starters, ahead of guys like Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber. Norris would have been many teams’ best starter over the final month of the year; the only reason we can’t say that for him is because Justin Verlander exists.

In short, it was the breakout performance Tigers fans were hoping for from the young lefthander. His late-season mechanical adjustments led many to hope that Norris could carry this robust stat line into 2017, when the Tigers would need another solid performer to make up for regression from Michael Fulmer and the uncertainty surrounding Jordan Zimmermann.

Unfortunately, that has not happened. Norris has looked shaky at best in each of his four starts, including a scoreless performance against the Cleveland Indians on April 14. While he held the Tribe to just two hits, he walked four in his six innings of work. He has allowed nine runs (eight earned) in his last two starts. While his defense has not helped, he has allowed 17 hits in just 8 23 innings during that span.

With the Tigers entering their biggest series of 2017 (so far), they could use a throwback performance from Norris. Can they open the four-game set with a win?

Cleveland Indians (14-10) at Detroit Tigers (12-12)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Trevor Bauer (2-2, 6.26 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (1-2, 4.71 ERA)

Game 25 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Bauer 23.0 28.6 7.1 4.33 0.2
Norris 21.0 15.0 11.0 3.78 0.3

Two weeks ago, I wondered aloud if Trevor Bauer’s command had improved. He was coming off a start against the Arizona Diamondbacks where he struck out seven without walking a batter. It was his first start without a walk in nearly a year and a half, which probably tells you where I’m going with this.

Three starts later, we don’t know that much more. Bauer walked a pair of Tigers in his loss against Detroit on April 14, and continued to walk batters in his next two outings. He has seven walks in his last three starts, a relatively standard number for the 26-year-old righthander. His current 7.1 percent walk rate would be a career-best, but is partially buoyed by the aforementioned start in Arizona.

However, Bauer’s strikeout touch has seemingly improved. He has fanned at least six batters in each of his four starts, and is currently rocking a 28.6 percent strikeout rate. His 21.4 percent K-BB% is nearly double his career norms.

Whether this is an eye-opening improvement or due to regress remains to be seen. Bauer has drawn ire from fans and front offices alike for his independent nature and incessant tinkering, but he is still a relatively young pitcher with a million dollar arm. Even an incremental improvement makes him into a solid mid-rotation starter, which is huge for a team that already has three ace-like beings ahead of him.

Key matchup: Trevor Bauer vs. the inner half of the plate

While Miguel Cabrera isn’t around to ridicule Bauer (and Terry Francona, by extension) for crowding him inside, one imagines it will still be a big part of the Indians’ game plan in this series. Bauer struggled against the Tigers when he all but abandoned the inner half of the plate following Cabrera’s tirade, allowing six runs on eight hits. Even without Cabrera in the lineup, Bauer will need to establish the inner half against the Tigers. They are still using the opposite field more than any other offense in baseball, and doing so with authority. If Bauer doesn’t keep them honest, they will make him pay.

Outlook

If there’s a potential advantage to be found in this matchup, it’s Daniel Norris’ left arm. Specifically, Norris appears to have an advantage against an Indians lineup that has managed a meager 85 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season. However, this may be due to regress. The Tribe have the third-best hard contact rate against lefthanders this season, and their strikeout and walk rates are still strong as a team. They have not fared well against Norris, though; the Tigers’ lefthander has limited Cleveland’s active roster to a .596 OPS. It’s in a very small sample of 59 plate appearances, sure, but it’s a nice trend for the young lefty.

Prediction

Norris bounces back and the Tigers take the first game of the series.