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Tigers vs. Athletics Preview: Will the real Sonny Gray please stand up?

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Once a budding ace, Gray has battled injuries and ineffectiveness over the past year.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Oakland Athletics John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, this matchup would have been terrifying. Fresh off a spectacular age-24 season in 2014, A’s righthander Sonny Gray was a budding star. He continued that dominance in 2015, holding opponents to a 2.73 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 208 innings. He made his first All-Star team, finished third in the Cy Young voting, and tied for the league lead with a pair of shutouts. To those who had watched him ascend through the minors — or saw him go toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in the 2013 postseason — this wasn’t a surprise.

What was surprising was Gray’s sharp decline in 2016. He battled arm issues throughout the year, but was abysmal when healthy. Gray allowed a 5.69 ERA in 22 starts. While his 4.67 FIP was a full run lower, we saw declines in nearly all of his peripheral numbers. Home runs, in particular, were an issue for him; after holding opponents to 0.74 homers per nine innings in 2015, they exploded for 1.38 per nine in 2016. He allowed more hard contact than ever as well, and the A’s porous defense did him no favors either.

We have seen more of the same so far this year. Gray missed the first month of the season with a lat injury, and allowed three home runs in his first start of the year against the Minnesota Twins five days ago. However, he was still able to make it through six innings and his velocity was slightly higher than at this point last year.

At just 27 years old, Gray still has plenty of time to show that 2016 was just a fluke. Will he start to turn things around on Sunday against the Tigers?

Detroit Tigers (15-14) at Oakland Athletics (13-17)

Time/Place: 4:05 p.m., Oakland Coliseum
SB Nation blog: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.00 ERA) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (0-1, 6.00 ERA)

Game 30 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 27.0 18.3 11.9 3.48 0.5
Gray 6.0 16.0 8.0 9.20 -0.2

Throughout the year, we have seen flashes of the electric stuff that the Tigers were hoping to unleash when they acquired Daniel Norris in 2015. He was not able to translate that raw stuff into strikeouts in April, fanning 15 batters in just 21 innings. However, he found his strikeout touch against the Cleveland Indians on May 1, striking out eight in six innings.

Unfortunately, Norris’ command issues were still present. He walked four Cleveland hitters in his last start, bringing his season-long total to 15 in 27 innings. Norris’ 11.9 percent walk rate is a bit troubling — no qualified pitcher had a walk rate that high in 2016 — but he has generally been able to limit the damage. Even Norris’ 4.00 ERA is marred by some poor defense played in That Series That Shall Not Be Named.

Key matchup: Athletics hitters vs. who is this dude

Fun fact: Daniel Norris has never faced the Oakland A’s before. It seems a bit odd, given that Norris has seen major league action in parts of the last four seasons. Only two hitters on the A’s roster — former AL Central foes Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe — have faced Norris before, and the A’s have managed a paltry 89 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this year.

Outlook

While Saturday’s result was disappointing, the Tigers have dominated the current series. They have managed 20 hits in two games, and have left a whopping 20 runners on base. Gray has the type of arsenal that the Detroit offense has often struggled with; they have a .288 on-base percentage and .678 OPS against Gray in three meetings, but they punished him for four runs when he walked four in just two innings against them last April. Both he and Norris have struggled with command recently, but the Tigers’ lefty has been able to get away with it at times. Expect the same today.

Prediction

Norris strikes out at least seven and the Tigers take the series.