The Texas Rangers have been one of the hottest teams in baseball recently. While we poked a few holes in their win streak earlier today, the fact remains that they have won nine consecutive games against major league competition. They are the reigning AL West champions, and are a similar roster to one that went to back-to-back World Series earlier this decade.
And they can’t hit lefties.
Often, when the above type of claim is made, fans are referencing a certain player. Tigers catcher Alex Avila struggles against left-handed pitching, for instance. James McCann has the same issue against righties. But the Rangers? It would be tough to match this ineptitude. Texas hitters are batting just .203/.283/.314 against southpaws this season. They only have eight home runs in 332 plate appearances, and have the second-worst wRC+ in baseball against left-handed pitching. Only the Kansas City Royals have failed more often against lefties than the Rangers this year.
This bodes well for Tigers starter Daniel Norris. The 24-year-old lefthander has struggled at times this season, walking 19 batters in 37 1⁄3 innings. He has a 4.34 ERA to his name, and has given up crooked numbers to subpar offenses. His last start was an improvement, though, and he has not faced the Rangers since a start in September 2015. Norris has also done well to limit home runs, something the Rangers have relied heavily upon to score runs this year.
Can Norris and the Tigers start their series off with a win?
Texas Rangers (22-20) at Detroit Tigers (20-19)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: Lone Star Ball
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Nick Martinez (0-2, 5.04 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.34 ERA)
Game 40 Pitching Matchup
Facing Norris will be Nick Martinez, a 26-year-old righthander who was originally selected by the Rangers in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft. He posted excellent ERA figures throughout his ascent up the minor league ladder, but ran into some resistance in his first stop at the major league level. Martinez allowed a 4.55 ERA and 4.94 FIP in 140 1⁄3 innings as a rookie in 2014, but managed a paltry 3.6 K-BB%. He was better in his sophomore season in 2015, holding opponents to a 3.96 ERA. However, his peripherals were still quite pedestrian; he had a 4.98 FIP and a 13.8 percent strikeout rate in 125 innings.
Martinez was able to lower his walk rate during an extended stay at Triple-A Round Rock in 2016, and pitched his way to a respectable 3.91 ERA in 99 innings. However, his brief stint in the majors didn’t go so well; he allowed a 5.59 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 12 appearances,including five starts. Worse yet, Martinez walked more batters (19) than he struck out (16) in 38 2⁄3 innings.
This year, Martinez is filling a similar sixth starter role for the Rangers. Injuries to Andrew Cashner, A.J. Griffin, and Cole Hamels have forced him into more action than anticipated at the major league level, though. Through five starts, he has given up 18 runs (17 earned) in 30 1⁄3 innings.
Key matchup: Tigers hitters vs. Nick Martinez’s new cutter
As one might expect with the numbers outlined above, Martinez’s pitching repertoire is relatively vanilla. He sports a 92-93 mile per hour fastball, as well as a curveball and changeup. He has used a mid-80s slider in the past as well, but opponents battered it to the tune of a .308 batting average and .477 slugging average in 2016.
This year, Martinez has turned that slider into a cutter. While it hasn’t done much to improve his overall numbers yet, the pitch itself is generating plenty of ground balls, something Martinez could stand to do given his lack of strikeouts. Opponents are hitting just .216 against the cutter this year, making it his best pitch by a fair margin. Given that the Tigers aren’t the fleetest of foot, they will need to try to elevate — or just lay off — of Martinez’s newest weapon.
While the Tigers can be somewhat susceptible to a good cutter at times — remember Zack Godley, anyone? — Martinez’s results speak for themselves. He has struggled to find his footing as a starter in the major leagues, and he doesn’t have the type of swing-and-miss stuff or gaudy peripherals that we identified prior to Godley’s god-like domination over this Tigers lineup. Meanwhile, the Rangers have struggled something awful against left-handed pitching this year, and Daniel Norris can be very tough to deal with when he’s on. His command could still be somewhat of an adventure, but as long as he continues to limit home runs, the Tigers should be in good shape.
Norris and the Tigers take game one comfortably.