With innings scarce and competition fierce, heat is on Tigers' front-end relievers
Detroit — If you were given this set of statistics — four runs allowed in the last 11⅓ innings, with 12 strikeouts, four walks and an opponent batting average of .231 — would you guess those numbers belong to Tigers lefty Daniel Norris?
Bet not. Especially if you watched the Tigers’ 6-5 loss to the Indians Monday and saw Norris yield a back-breaking, two-run single to left-handed hitting Eddie Rosario in the seventh inning and noticed his 5.63 ERA and 1.5 WHIP.
This is the bane of every relief pitcher’s existence. A few rough outings early can stick with your stat line for a long, long time and ultimately obscure the good work you’ve done since.
“I don’t generate my thoughts on him by results only,” manager AJ Hinch said. “His versatility matters. I know he’s a perfectionist. He gave up that base hit last night and it eats at him. But I’ve also seen him be pretty good and I think he can be a valuable part to a good bullpen.
“I clearly trust him more than his numbers indicate. He’s not someone I worry about and when I put him in the game, I expect good things.”
Norris came through the minor leagues as a starting pitcher. He’s made 83 big-league starts. But starting in 2019 and through last year, he had success pitching in shorter stints, either as the starter or out of the bullpen.
Never until now, though, had he been used situationally. Like last night, being summoned for the specific purpose of getting Rosario.
You can debate whether that’s the best way to use him (the Tigers obviously believe so). You can also debate whether such usage puts Norris in the best position to succeed (again, the Tigers believe so).
“I think he can be used in a lot of different areas,” Hinch said. “Quite honestly, there’s not a hitter in the big leagues he can’t match up well against. I don’t have to have a soft landing for him. He’s not weak mentally. He doesn’t expect a layup. There are no layups in the big leagues.”
In a perfect world, Hinch would like to use Norris more often. Monday was just his seventh outing this month, a total of 7⅔ innings. But the Tigers rotation has been averaging close to six innings per start, so the bullpen innings have been scarce and picked over by nine relievers.
“I see the game dictating how we use people, not necessarily the other way,” Hinch said. “I can’t just make up innings for guys to pitch in perfect scenarios.”
Norris isn’t the only one starved for work. Tyler Alexander, Joe Jimenez, Kyle Funkhouser and Bryan Garcia have also had their usage trimmed significantly. It’s one of those good-bad situations for a manager.
“It can change so fast,” Hinch said. “I hope it doesn’t because I like where our guys are — rested in the pen and our starters are logging their innings. I can be more aggressive, like last night I used four relievers in a nine-inning game. And I don’t have to pitch a guy three days in a row or four times in five games or use the same two and three guys over and over.”
And, as Hinch said, there’s nothing wrong with internal competition.
“I do think we’re going to fight for some pitching time,” he said. “The competition should be good and it will be good. …You have to be able to help us win. We’re not giving out free at-bats."
Buck Farmer, who was designated for assignment and re-signed to a minor-league deal, and Jimenez, who has been sent down twice, can attest.
"We want to keep that mindset of winning today’s game at the forefront of our decision-making and we’re going to continue to do so," Hinch said. "If our roster needs tweaking, we've proven we're willing to do that.
"I don't want this to be a shuttle service back and forth between Toledo and here. Right now, I like where we're at.”
Before the game the last two nights, Hall of Famer Alan Trammell has worked a 30-minute clinic with the Tigers infielders, spending a lot of time around second base instructing on the finer points of turning double plays.
Was it a coincidence the Tigers turned three of them Monday night?
“He might need to stay here,” Hinch joked.
Trammell, special advisor to general manager Al Avila, has cleared all the COVID-19 protocols and is now finally able to do what he loves the most — teach and work with young players. He will be making his rounds of all the Tigers’ minor league affiliates starting tomorrow.
“He is welcome here anytime,” Hinch said. “He’s an icon in our organization. We’re very fortunate to have him here. …The players obviously respect him and love that he’s around. I don’t know if they know how unique it is to have someone of his magnitude be willing to go to extended (spring) to see young players there and up to here.
“We’re blessed to have him.”
Imagine what a thrill it was for Eric Haase to have Trammell working with him at first base, as he did before the game Tuesday. Haase grew up in Westland attending Tigers games when Trammell was at the end of his career and then managing. He even got Trammell’s autograph when he was a kid.
Around the horn
Catcher Grayson Greiner (left hamstring strain) will start his rehab assignment with Triple-A Toledo in Louisville tomorrow. Hinch said Greiner will catch part of the game tomorrow, then DH, rest a day and catch two in a row before he’s evaluated again.
Indians at Tigers
► First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1
► RHP Jose Urena (2-4, 4.62), Tigers: If you wanted a visual for what a “pitcher who competes on the mound” looks like, here’s your guy. Crisscrossing the plate with a sinker-slider combination and X-ing out both corners has helped him check right-handed hitters (.215/.291/.366). Opponents are hitting .239 with a 32% swing-and-miss rate against his slider.
► RHP Triston McKenzie (1-3, 6.89), Indians: He was sent to Triple-A three days ago but an injury to pitcher Zach Plesac allowed the Indians to bring him back. He was sent down largely because he's walked an American League high 30 in 21 innings.