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Tigers at Mariners Preview: Casey Mize looks for a win on the West Coast

The offense faces another good lefty in Yusei Kikuchi.

Toronto Blue Jays v Detroit Tigers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Well, here are we at the venerable 40-game mark folks. As a result, the spirit of Sparky Anderson now gives us license to tell you the obvious; this team is bad, again. Our own Patrick O’Kennedy broke down some of the numbers for you today, but it certainly didn’t take a lot of crunching to know that the offense, defense, and relief work from the 2021 Detroit Tigers are all at the bottom of the league.

On the plus side, the rotation actually grades out right in the middle of the pack as far as results go. Even there however, the lack of strikeouts is concerning. So far the rotation’s success is largely predicated on preventing home runs, a trend that is likely to reverse if the Tigers keep allowing this much contact into the summer months. Considering that the team’s defense is also at the bottom of the league, the only hope is to start punching out more hitters. This much contact is eventually going to bite into the rotation’s relative success thus far.

That description also suits tonight’s starter, Casey Mize. Among all MLB starters with 30 innings or more pitched in 2021, only 10 have a lower strikeout percentage than Mize. Likewise, Mize is toward the bottom in terms of walk rate as well. The only thing saving him has been limiting the home runs.

For a first overall pick and former top prospect who was brought along fairly slowly in his path to the major leagues, these are pretty disturbing results. The pitch that is supposed to carry Mize to a great career, his splitter, has been a complete non-factor, and instead what we’re getting is a starter who relies heavily on his fastball and slider to induce weak contact and ground balls. It’s essentially the profile of a fifth starter, and despite generally good command from Mize, it isn’t going to last.

Detroit Tigers (14-26) at Seattle Mariners (21-20)

Time/Place: 10:10 p.m., T-Mobile Park
SB Nation Site: Lookout Landing
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Casey Mize (2-3, 4.19 ERA) vs LHP Yusei Kikuchi (1-2, 4.30 ERA)

Game 41 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Kikuchi 44.0 4.11 25.6 7.4 1.43 0.4
Mize 38.2 5.05 16.5 9.8 1.16 0.2

On Seattle’s end, their long-term investment in left hander Yusei Kikuchi is starting to pay off this year. After a rough debut in 2019, Kikuchi saw his average velocity jump way up in 2020, with correspondingly large gains in strikeouts, and he’s carried both trends into 2021. If there’s one flaw, it’s been a developing weakness to the long ball. Other than that, he tends to keep the ball on the ground with a good strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Kikuchi features a fourseam fastball averaging 95.2 mph this season, which he throws 30 percent of the time. His main weapon is a low 90’s cutter that he throws 41 percent of the time. Kikuchi uses the cutter a little more against right handers, but he’ll throw it to any part of the plate against either handed hitters. It’s his go to pitch, whereas he tends to try and stay up or away with the fourseamer. He also mixes in his low 80’s slider for whiffs down and away to left handed hitters, and to bury on the rear foot of right handers. He will occasionally use his splitter to steal a strike or as a change of pace below the zone, but it’s more a change of pace pitch for him.

The Tigers have not handled lefties well this year, and as Kikuchi really smothers left handed hitters in general, the right handers in the Tigers lineup really need to get it going for them to put up some runs tonight. Expect to see Eric Haase in left field to get an extra power bat in there against the lefty, and the Tigers could really use some power from the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, or JaCoby Jones to spark the offense to a good night in Seattle.

Key Matchup: Casey Mize v. Jarred Kelenic

When Mize was projected to go first overall by every major media site prior to the 2018 draft, a prep outfielder named Jarred Kelenic was the popular second choice for those who worried about Mize’s fastball and his long-term durability. The Tigers were rumored to be seriously considering bucking the industry consensus and taking Kelenic as well, but they ultimately stuck with Mize. Right now, it’s hard to argue that the Tigers got this one right. Kelenic has rapidly blossomed into an elite hitting prospect and now 21 years old, is in his first week of major league action after tearing the minor leagues apart in his limited farm time.

Apart from Kelenic’s second game, where he racked up two doubles and his first big league home run, he’s been quiet so far. However, if he blows up Mize tonight it’s going to be extra uncomfortable for the Tigers’ front office in the aftermath. The truth of this debate will take years to play out, but for our sanity’s sake, it would be great to see Casey find the handle on the splitter and put up a dominant performance tonight.