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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Daniel Norris hoping to build on recent road run

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Norris is coming off two solid starts, both on the road. He will get a third in a row in Cleveland on Sunday.

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Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Daniel Norris has had something of an up-and-down 2019 season. He hit a low point when he was stuck in the bullpen to begin the season, but made good use of his first start of the year, throwing five scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox on April 21. He has made 11 starts since then, some great, some... not so great. His most recent rough outing came on June 1, when the Atlanta Braves tagged him for six runs (five earned) in a 10-5 Tigers loss.

While some might argue that his next start wasn’t the best either — he gave up three runs on 11 hits in 5 23 innings against the Rays — his last two outings are what we want to focus on. Norris has given up just four runs on 10 hits in his last 11 innings. Those two starts, both on the road, have led to Tigers victories, even if Norris wasn’t credited with either win. He has 10 strikeouts to three walks in those 11 frames, and even worked six innings (a rarity for him this year) in his last start.

The Indians have had Detroit’s number this year, but Norris has generally gotten the better of them in his career. He is 3-1 with a 3.54 ERA against them in 28 innings, with over a strikeout per inning and — jinx alert — just one home run allowed. Can Norris keep the Tribe offense in check and deliver another win on Sunday?

Detroit Tigers (26-46) at Cleveland Indians (41-35)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, ESPN+, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-5, 4.40 ERA) vs. RHP Zach Plesac (2-2, 2.56 ERA)

Game 74 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Norris 73.2 18.2 6.0 4.71 0.8
Plesac 31.2 21.7 8.3 4.94 0.2

If you thought Aaron Civale was a nobody on Saturday, Zach Plesac might be even more unheralded. The nephew of former big leaguer Dan Plesac, Zach was a 12th round pick out of Ball State in 2016. He hasn’t made a top-100 list, and wasn’t even on FanGraphs’ or MLB Pipeline’s top 30 prospect rankings for the Indians organization.

So, naturally, he is way better than you might think. According to FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, Plesac is throwing much harder than he did as an amateur, with a fastball that ranges from 94 to 97 miles per hour. He pairs that with an above-average changeup, which he throws nearly one-third of the time to left-handed hitters. Longenhagen noted that Plesac’s slider was still “not great,” but it has generated an 18.6 percent whiff rate so far because of course it has. He also mixes in a curveball, which he throws more often against lefties than righties.

Most scouts project that Plesac will end up in the bullpen in the future, and his advanced metrics support this. While he has held opponents to a 2.56 ERA in 31 23 big league innings, he has a 4.94 FIP and has allowed 1.71 home runs per nine innings. Opponents are hitting .273 against his curveball and slugging .500 off the slider. However, we should take these small sample sizes with a grain of salt. I would bet on the Indians more than most organizations to squeeze everything they can out of a random pitcher you have never heard of, especially against an offense like the one the Tigers will field on Sunday.

Key matchup: Plesac vs. right-handed hitters

As one might imagine with an above-average changeup and subpar slider, Plesac fares better against left-handed hitters than righties. He has limited lefties to a .178/.223/.268 line across all levels this year, and a .664 OPS in 144 23 minor league innings last season. Meanwhile, righties have managed a .607 OPS this year (over 100 points higher than what lefties have done), and hit .273/.310/.408 against him in 2018. With most of Detroit’s best hitters checking in from the right side, they will need to take advantage of any mistakes Plesac offers up, whether they come off the slider or his fastball.

Prediction

The Tigers go down easy again and Cleveland collects another sweep.