The last time the Detroit Tigers won a baseball game, Daniel Norris was on the mound. That was five days ago against the Minnesota Twins, who had the best record in baseball at the time (they’re second now). Norris navigated his longest start in nearly two years, throwing 6 1⁄3 innings while allowing just a pair of runs to a dangerous Twins lineup. He spotted his fastball well, and worked both sides of the plate effectively in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.
Now, he will be asked to do it again. The Tigers have been outscored by 32 runs in the four losses since Norris’ gem, which has left the fanbase a little jumpy, to put it lightly. Sure, three of those losses came against the actual best team in baseball (sorry Minnesota), but getting pounded day in and day out isn’t fun.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Norris has done well to keep his club in the game across all five of his starts. He has not allowed more than four runs in an outing this season, and has a 3.31 ERA (with just one home run allowed) in the month of May. Working deeper into starts has eluded him so far, but he has only been allowed to throw more than 90 pitches in his past two outings.
If previous trends hold true, the Tigers offense might help him out a bit. Norris has received the best run support of any Tigers starter this year, at 5.1 runs per game. This figure is somewhat skewed by an 11-run outburst (in a loss, no less), but they have scored at least four runs — yeah, it’s a low bar — in three of his five starts.
Can Norris and the Tigers snap the losing streak on Friday?
Oakland Athletics (20-25) at Detroit Tigers (18-24)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Athletics Nation
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Frankie Montas (4-2, 2.78 ERA) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-1, 3.63 ERA)
Game 43 Pitching Matchup
He isn’t exactly pulling a Matthew Boyd here, but righthander Frankie Montas is currently enjoying a breakout season. The one-time Chicago White Sox prospect previously struggled with various combinations of command, strikeouts, and keeping runners off the basepaths — sometimes it was all three — but has a career-best 2.78 ERA through 45 1⁄3 innings in 2019. That innings total is already just 20 frames shy of his MLB career high, which he set last season (he also threw another 71 2⁄3 innings down in the minors).
What has changed? A lot, actually.
- Montas’ walk rate has dropped to just 5.8 percent, the lowest of his career. This is a continuation of the progress he made last season, when he walked just 7.4 percent of MLB hitters in 65 innings.
- His ground ball rate has jumped to 51.9 percent, the highest of his career. This is largely thanks to increased use of his two-seam fastball, which he has used more often than ever in the past couple years with the A’s.
- His strikeout rate has returned to previous norms after dipping to just 15.2 percent last season.
The biggest change, which potentially feeds into all three of the above bullet points, is the advent of a splitter. Montas previously sported an 88 mph changeup, but clearly didn’t trust it. He only threw 29 of them last season according to Brooks Baseball, a scant 2.92 percent usage rate. Opponents have slugged .471 against it in a small sample of at-bats over the course of his career.
The splitter, on the other hand, seems like a true weapon. Montas has been using it over 17 percent of the time this year, and roughly one-quarter of the time against left-handed hitters. It has generated a healthy 20.3 percent whiff rate, and leads to ground balls 59.1 percent of the time when put in play.
Key matchup: Montas vs. right-handed hitters
Despite using a more predictable pitch mix against righties — the fastball or slider comes out roughly 90 percent of the time — those batters have only managed a .641 OPS against Montas this year. Lefties have managed more power, with nine of the 11 doubles Montas has allowed in 2019. However, righties have drawn more walks in fewer plate appearances, and are striking out just 18.7 percent of the time. He uses his fastball nearly 70 percent of the time against righties to lead off an at-bat, and has been hesitant to use the splitter against righties, even when ahead in the count. With Jeimer Candelario in the minors and Niko Goodrum struggling, it will be interesting to see if Ron Gardenhire goes with a righty-heavy lineup against Montas, even if it seems a bit unconventional.
Norris has another strong outing and the Tigers finally get back in the win column.