After the Tigers swept their doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox last Tuesday, things were looking up for their long road trip. The three-city, nine-game swing looked a lot more manageable after beating the Red Sox twice in a row. With a couple of wins over the lowly White Sox over the weekend and another win either in Boston or Philadelphia, the Tigers could even push above .500 for the entire trip.
Instead, the Tigers limped to the finish of their series in Boston, lost two more to the White Sox, and saw a third game get postponed. But after Tuesday’s surprising 3-1 victory over the Phillies, the Tigers now have a chance to get back to .500 on the road trip (and the season) in Wednesday’s series finale.
The only thing standing in their way? Phillies ace Aaron Nola. The 25-year-old righthander was one of the best pitchers in baseball last season, with a 2.37 ERA and 224 strikeouts in 212 1⁄3 innings. He posted career-best numbers in nearly every pitching statistic out there, including a 12.4 percent swinging strike rate. He nearly swept the third place votes in the NL Cy Young voting last year, and looked poised to continue that run of dominance heading into 2019.
That hasn’t happened yet. Nola has a 5.68 ERA through his first six starts, and has given up at least five runs on three separate occasions. He didn’t allow five runs in a single start last season, and only once failed to make it through five innings — something he has already done twice in 2019. He even looked like his old self on Opening Day, with eight strikeouts in six innings against the Atlanta Braves. The five walks were weird, but not necessarily a sign of things to come.
Since then, Nola has a 6.66 ERA in 25 2⁄3 innings. He is still racking up strikeouts, but has also allowed 35 hits (including seven home runs) in those 25 2⁄3 frames. His last start was something of a step forward, but he will need to take it even further to make it back to where he was for nearly all of 2018.
Here’s hoping he waits at least one more start to do that.
Detroit Tigers (13-14) at Philadelphia Phillies (16-13)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., Citizens Bank Park
SB Nation site: The Good Phight
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (1-0, 3.93 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Nola (2-0, 5.68 ERA)
Game 28 Pitching Matchup
The Daniel Norris, Starting Pitcher experiment is still exactly that after two outings. Norris looked sharp in his first start of the year, tossing five scoreless innings with six strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox. But those same White Sox roughed him up last time out, scoring four runs on 10 hits in his latest appearance. His command hasn’t been too bad so far — he has walked three batters in 10 innings across those two starts — but his location within the strike zone has still been an issue.
Despite losing a bit of velocity off his fastball, Norris has still used his four-seam fastball more often in 2019 than at any other point in his career. He is throwing the four-seamer 63 percent of the time this year. Unfortunately, opponents are hitting .306 and slugging .612 against that pitch, including all four home runs Norris has given up in 2019. Meanwhile, opponents are hitting just .177 and slugging .235 against his slider. It might be time for him to start throwing that pitch a bit more — something he did en route to a career-best 25.5 percent strikeout rate in 2018.
Key matchup: Aaron Nola vs. finding the strike zone
Here’s a stat for you; last season, Aaron Nola was second among qualified MLB pitchers in first pitch strike percentage. Nola got ahead in the count 69.4 percent of the time, which set him up to use his lethal curveball with abandon as hitters tried to protect the plate. That curveball ranked third among all qualified pitchers in FanGraphs’ curveball pitch values, and was responsible for 107 of his 224 strikeouts on the year.
This season, Nola has had trouble finding the strike zone. His five walks on Opening Day are something of a worry, but free passes generally haven’t been the issue. Instead, Nola is missing early in the count. Opponents have seen a first-pitch strike from Nola just 53.2 percent of the time in 2019, the ninth-lowest figure among qualified starters this year. His numbers have not yet been negatively affected by falling behind so often — opponents are actually faring better after he gets ahead 0-1, strangely — but that oddity should resolve itself soon if Nola keeps missing with his first pitch.
Nola finds his footing and forces a series split.