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Tigers vs. Twins Preview: Where have you gone, Daniel Norris?

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Norris will make his first start of the second half (yeah, seriously) on Friday.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you are looking for a player to blame* for the Tigers’ struggles in 2017, one might argue that a finger or two should be pointed at Daniel Norris. The 24-year-old lefthander entered this season with the hype train at full speed. A lot of people (myself included) predicted a breakout year for Mr. Norris after a strong finish to the 2016 season.

Suffice to say, that didn’t happen. Norris scuffled along for most of April and May, pitching just well enough to keep the Tigers in most games. He didn’t wow anyone, but struck out enough hitters to leave us wondering whether he would take the next step. He posted a 4.42 ERA through his first 13 starts, then gave up five runs in each of his next three outings, ballooning his season-long ERA to 5.29 on July 5.

Worse news came a day later, when Norris was placed on the disabled list with a groin injury. He missed the rest of the month, tweaking the injury again in a rehab start at Triple-A Toledo. He then struggled so much in subsequent rehab outings that the Tigers decided to put him in the bullpen when rosters expanded on September 1.

Things have still been iffy since then — he has given up five runs on eight hits in four appearances — but that enticing raw stuff is still there. Norris averaged 93.5 miles per hour with his fastball in his last outing, reaching as high as 96 mph.

*For lack of a better word

Minnesota Twins (79-74) at Detroit Tigers (62-91)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Kyle Gibson (11-10, 5.07 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (4-7. 5.38 ERA)

Game 154 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Gibson 147.1 16.8 8.9 4.81 1.1
Norris 92.0 19.7 10.2 4.41 1.1

It’s a little baffling to me that the Twins are in position to win a Wild Card spot. They have been wildly unimpressive for large stretches of the season, and have flirted with a negative run differential all year long (they were at -3 prior to Thursday’s whitewash). Their offense has been a league average unit according to wRC+, while the pitching staff has the fifth-highest ERA in the American League.

Kyle Gibson might be a perfect case study for this phenomenon. His numbers are fine for a fourth or fifth starter on a playoff contender, but he is clearly Minnesota’s No. 3 guy. He is third on the team in innings pitched, third in fWAR, and just behind third-place Adalberto Mejia in ERA and FIP. Opponents are hitting .290 against him while putting more than 1.5 runners on base every inning.

And yet it’s still working for him. Gibson’s success is largely predicated on a high ground ball rate and limiting home runs. He has done the former a little better this year, bumping his ground ball rate back above 50 percent after a slight dip in 2016. Twins defenders have turned 23 double plays behind him this year, the fifth-highest total in baseball (it’s the fourth year in a row he has generated 20+ double plays). The home run rate has ticked upward over the past two years, but not much more than anyone else’s has during the same time period.

Key matchup: Daniel Norris vs. staying healthy

It’s an old refrain at this point, and one that won’t be answered in this game alone. The Tigers have only gotten 37 major league starts from Norris in nearly two and a half years of action, with a small handful of bullpen appearances mixed in. He has flashed plenty of promise — even in a somewhat disappointing 2017, his peripheral numbers are decent — and is still only 24 years old. A strong outing from him on Friday won’t save his season, but it might foster a bit of optimism heading into 2018.

Pick to click: Ian Kinsler

No Tigers player has more career plate appearances against Kyle Gibson than Ian Kinsler. The Tigers’ second baseman hasn’t hit for much power in those at-bats, but he is a solid 11-for-37 with five walks and just three strikeouts. Kinsler has been hotter lately too, producing a .761 OPS since August 15. Eleven of his 20 home runs this year have come in the past two months.

Prediction

Norris pitches well but the Tigers lose again.