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Tigers vs. Mariners Preview: Detroit gets their first look at Yusei Kikuchi

The Japanese lefty has had an up-and-down season.

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Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

I’m not going to regale you with tales of nacho goodness in today’s preview — in part, because I don’t need to. Friday’s Tigers-Mariners matchup features a bit more sizzle than the series opener, especially if you ignore what has been going on for the past few months. On one side is Yusei Kikuchi, the 28-year-old Japanese lefthander the Mariners inked to a three-year deal last winter. While Kikuchi is no Ohtani or Darvish, he was expected to be a solid mid-rotation starter for a club that hasn’t really had many of those over the past two decades.

On the other side? Lefthander Daniel Norris, who has seen a bit more of the shine wear off him this year. This time, however, it’s performance-based. Norris has looked solid at times, with season-long ERAs of 4.18 and 4.40 as recently as late May and mid-June, respectively. However, he hasn’t been able to keep runs off the board consistently enough to be a true difference maker. A season like this was okay in 2017, when Norris was still 24 and coming back from injury. But after another couple injury-riddled seasons, this might just be who he is; the injuries have taken their toll on his raw stuff, leaving him with a slimmer margin for error.

There has been some bad luck along the way, however. Norris was charged with six earned runs in a start that snowballed largely out of his control in late June, and saw a promising outing derailed by a rain delay just six days ago. A couple fewer earned runs here, a couple more innings there, and Norris’ ERA (and season) might look completely different.

Here’s hoping things bounce his way on Friday.

Detroit Tigers (30-68) at Seattle Mariners (43-63)

Time/Place: 10:10 p.m., T-Mobile Park
SB Nation site: Lookout Landing
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Daniel Norris (2-8, 5.02 ERA) vs. LHP Yusei Kikuchi (4-7, 5.37 ERA)

Game 101 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Boyd 126.0 32.1 5.0 3.57 3.3
Milone 60.2 23.1 5.4 5.02 0.1

For a while, it looked like Yusei Kikuchi was starting to adapt to life in the major leagues. He struggled a bit in April, but showed flashes of potential, including a 10-strikeout performance against the Cleveland Indians on May 3. He lowered his season-long ERA to 3.92 after that outing, and 3.43 after an outing against the Minnesota Twins later in the month. Even after a loss in his next start, he was sporting a 3.82 ERA with solid strikeout and walk numbers after his first 12 big league starts.

Since then, things have gone off the rails. Kikuchi has a 7.63 ERA in his last nine starts, and has just two quality starts to his name during that span. FanGraphs’ Al Melchior thinks it could be due to the schedule — namely, Kikuchi has seen a lot of the AL West.

Kikuchi has not had the easiest schedule, even when things were going better for him, but during this 10-start stretch, only three of his outings have come against teams outside of the AL West. One of those was against the Twins, and Kikuchi had a decent start, allowing one run over five innings. His other two non-divisional starts — at home against the Royals and Orioles — were among his three least imposing matchups of the season (the third one being his April 5 start at the White Sox). Kikuchi notched a quality start against the Orioles, in spite of a season-high five walks.

Fatigue could also be an issue, as his fastball velocity has dropped a bit as the season has gone on. Normally, a pitcher gains a bit of velocity as the season progresses — Norris fits into this category — but Kikuchi has gone the other direction. And while there can be other reasons for this anomaly, he is throwing fewer pitches between starts now, a sign fatigue might be a factor in his recent downturn.

Key matchup: Tigers offense vs. scoring runs

Yeah, this again. The Tigers are not the worst team in baseball against left-handed pitching; their 87 wRC+ ranks ahead of six (!) different teams. They have been surprisingly frisky in Norris starts, too, scoring at least five runs in five of his past eight starts. Given Kikuchi’s struggles and the tendency for some random stuff to happen while the Tigers are out west, this one might turn into a high-scoring affair.

Prediction

Norris has a strong outing and the Tigers even the series.