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Tigers vs. Twins Preview: Daniel Norris’ velocity is still an issue

Despite reports during spring training of mid-90s heat, Norris’ fastball still lacks the zip it once had.

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Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I don’t know that there was a more encouraging report that came out of Lakeland, Fla. this spring than when Daniel Norris’ fastball started to touch 92-93 miles per hour in a mid-March outing. We celebrated his strong start, naturally, and hoped that he would slot into the Opening Day rotation. Spencer Turnbull eventually stole that spot after a strong spring, but Norris eventually got an opportunity after Matt Moore’s knee injury became a season-ending one.

Unfortunately, the velocity hasn’t come along for the ride. Norris averaged 91.3 miles per hour and touched 93 mph with his four-seamer coming out of the bullpen in March and April, but hasn’t managed the same gas since moving to the rotation. His four-seamer has averaged just 89.9 mph in two May starts, and he has topped out at 92.5 mph.

Fortunately, this hasn’t bothered him too much so far. He has a 3.81 ERA on the season, and a 3.60 ERA in four starts. His 2.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio just barely trails that of Spencer Turnbull (2.44), and he has managed to allow just one home run in 20 innings as a starter.

This might not last, though. Norris’ low home run rate isn’t sustainable, and his advanced metrics aren’t nearly as shiny as that ERA. His 4.93 xFIP is higher than that of Tyson Ross (4.92), and his Deserved Run Average (DRA) is a whopping 6.42. Opponents are hitting .338 and slugging .574 against his four-seam fastball this year, which he has continued to throw nearly 60 percent of the time (more on that later).

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Norris has been able to miss barrels for the most part. His hard hit rate (per FanGraphs) is just 35.6 percent, lower than the MLB average of 37.1 percent. His expected wOBA (per Statcast) is .340, which isn’t great, but is actually a touch lower than his actual wOBA allowed (.350).

Can Norris continue to work around an iffy fastball and pick up a series split?

Detroit Tigers (17-20) vs. Minnesota Twins (25-13)

Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (1-1, 3.81 ERA) vs. LHP Martin Perez (5-0, 2.83 ERA)

Game 38 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 28.1 17.5 7.5 4.41 0.3
Perez 41.1 22.8 9.4 3.08 1.1

In a cruel twist of fate, Norris gets to face off against Martin Perez, a 28-year-old lefthander who has suddenly discovered a bit more velocity on his heater. Perez’s four-seamer is averaging 95 miles per hour this season, the first time in the career he has gotten that high. He averaged just 93.5 and 93.2 mph with the four-seamer in 2017 and 2018, respectively, making this year’s velocity bump a rather significant one.

While the results of this added velocity have panned out like you might expect — he’s 5-0 with a 2.83 ERA, and on pace for the best season of his career — things didn’t start out that way. Perez allowed a 5.31 ERA in his first five outings, including a trio of starts. A couple of rough outings out of the bullpen tanked his ERA, but he struggled with his command in both roles, walking 12 batters in his first 20 13 innings.

Since then, Perez has been nails. He has 20 strikeouts to just four walks in his last three starts, and has allowed a 0.43 ERA. This includes eight scoreless innings against the Houston Astros on May 1, an impressive performance that helped the Twins clinch the season series over Houston. He has won his last four starts, and five of six overall, but that’s partly thanks to a generous supporting cast; Perez has received over eight runs of support per game this year, the second-best total in the American League.

Key matchup: Daniel Norris vs. slider usage

We identified why Norris’ fastball is an issue above, so let’s skip straight to the point; he should probably be throwing his slider more often. Opponents have hit just .125 and slugged .156 against the slider this year, and have swung and missed at nearly 15 percent of them. Norris is throwing it a healthy 26 percent of the time, and much more often when he gets ahead in the count, but it might behoove him to take a page out of Matthew Boyd’s book (36.1 percent slider usage in 2019) and go to his breaking ball more often.

Prediction

The Twins get to Norris in the middle innings and take the series.