When one of your colleagues writes an article titled “It’s time for the Tigers to start tanking,” it really takes the wind out of the sails of the upcoming series.
Of course, that was already happening. Once again, the Detroit Tigers gave us a glimpse of what could be when they followed up a walkoff win on Thursday with a Friday shellacking of the Tampa Bay Rays. However, they immediately shot themselves in the foot, losing both weekend games against Tampa. The losses pushed them back to 32-36, four games below .500 and 4 1⁄2 games behind the suddenly surging Cleveland Indians. They went 2-4 on their recent homestand, and are just 7-8 in a June that was supposed to be the smoothest part of their schedule.
Now, they get to travel out west again. Awaiting them are the Seattle Mariners, who have been mired in similar mediocrity. The M’s are 34-37 on the year, and are a game over .500 on June. Like the Tigers, they are currently in fourth place but within a couple games of second. Unlike the Tigers, Seattle has to contend with the Houston Astros, who hold an 11 game lead over their AL West competition.
However, Seattle has fallen into this hole largely because of injuries. Both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have been on the disabled list, forcing the M’s to use something called a Sam Gaviglio in their starting rotation. Newly acquired manbeast Mitch Haniger missed a few weeks with an injury, and has struggled to regain his previous form since coming off the DL a week ago. James Paxton also hit the disabled list at one point, Drew Smyly hasn’t thrown a pitch for them this season, and shortstop Jean Segura will miss this week’s series, as he is currently on the shelf with an ankle injury.
With Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Segura set to rejoin the M’s later this week, there is optimism in Seattle. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the Tigers right now.
Game 1: RHP Anibal Sanchez (0-0, 9.00 ERA) vs. RHP Sam Gaviglio (3-1, 3.41 ERA)
Monday’s game could go one of two ways against Sam Gaviglio, a 27-year-old righthander out of Oregon State. Minor League Ball profiled him back in May prior to his major league debut:
A ground ball pitcher, he doesn’t throw especially hard, topping out at 91, and relies a lot on his slider and change-up. There’s nothing spectacular about him but he throws strikes and keeps the ball down. Long relief seems like the role for him.
He has given up nine home runs in just 34 1⁄3 innings, but somehow sports a 3.41 ERA in seven appearances. Not only have five of the 18 runs he has bequeathed have been unearned, he has maintained an unsustainable 81 percent strand rate.
However, if Anibal Sanchez’s recent results hold, Gaviglio will have plenty of room for error.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (5-5, 5.35 ERA) vs. LHP Ariel Miranda (6-3, 4.17 ERA)
If you had told Mariners fans that Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo would lead their team in innings pitched — by a full 20 frames, no less — in mid-June, their response would have gone something like “Well, at least we get the No. 1 pick next year.” Miranda has been serviceable, at least, pitching to a league average ERA+ while upping his strikeout rate slightly. At 28, he probably won’t develop into anything more than a decent back-end starter, but he has out-performed Wade Miley (whom he was traded for last summer) for a fraction of the cost.
Game 3: RHP Justin Verlander (4-4, 4.50 ERA) vs. LHP James Paxton (5-2, 3.23 ERA)
We salivated over a potential Daniel Norris-James Paxton back in April, and... well, it didn’t go well for the Tigers. Norris struggled while Paxton dominated, striking out nine in seven innings. He allowed four hits, which is three or four more than it felt like the Tigers were able to eke out off him. Things haven’t gone so well for Paxton since he came off the disabled list in late May, though; he has allowed 14 runs on 20 hits in his last three starts, with just 11 strikeouts to nine walks. His command has been an issue at other times this season — he walked five in an early May start before hitting the DL — but his velocity has not. Expect Paxton to snap out of his funk soon.
Game 4: LHP Daniel Norris (4-4, 4.42 ERA) vs. RHP Yovani Gallardo (3-7, 6.30 ERA)
Yovani Gallardo has been about as bad as everyone anticipated he would be this season. His strikeout and walk rates have regressed slightly after a horrible 2016, but his ERA has trended in the wrong direction. While certain metrics suggest it will come back to earth at some point — probably on Thursday, if we’re being honest — Statcast data suggest otherwise. Gallardo is allowing hard contact at a 34.7 percent rate this season, one of the hardest rates in the American League.
Unfortunately, Daniel Norris ranks even worse on that list, at 42.5 percent.
Who’s hot: Mike Zunino
When the Mariners drafted Zunino with the third overall pick of the 2012 MLB draft, they expected him to be the type of two-way stud catcher that a team starts 120-140 times a season for a decade. Not all players pan out like that, of course, and Zunino faltered early in his career. After an improved 2016, Zunino has been on fire lately, hitting .325/.369/.662 over the past month. His walk rate has dropped off from last season’s 10.9 percent — a big reason why he finished the year with a 115 wRC+ — but he is well on his way to having the most valuable season of his career. The .380 BABIP may come down at some point, but he is hitting more line drives and making more hard contact than ever before.
Who’s not: Taylor Motter
Remember when Taylor Motter was on fire in April and everyone was super excited about him?
Even if you weren’t, it happened. Motter had a .988 OPS entering the series between these teams at Comerica Park back in late April, and added a few more hits to his resume along the way. However, he has been ice cold since then, hitting just .175/.239/.230. One should probably expect this type of production from a utility infielder, but Motter has played far too much for anyone’s liking in Seattle. He already has 208 plate appearances on the season, tied for sixth on the team, yet has been worth -0.2 WAR. Only Danny Valencia has been worse in more playing time, but that is largely due to his horrible defense; at least Valencia has a 100 wRC+ in 64 games played.
How the Tigers win this series
With Anibal Sanchez inexplicably taking the mound on Monday and Daniel Norris continuing to struggle, the Tigers enter this four-game set behind the eight ball. They need to find a way to get results, and will have to do so against a Mariners pitching staff that has struggled with injuries and poor performance for most of the season. The M’s are one of a few teams in baseball with a higher ERA than the Tigers, and their 4.91 FIP is rather surprising given the spacious confines of Safeco Field. Detroit will need better out of their starters as well — Norris and Justin Verlander, in particular — but they won’t get far if the offense doesn’t produce against a beatable Mariners pitching staff.