Zac Reininger started the season with Connecticut before advancing to West Michigan. (Kevin Pataky/Connecticut Tigers)
The way things have been going in Detroit, a sarcastic fan or two might wonder if Zac Reininger is worth a look in a bullpen that could use a few able men.
A year from now, snickers could turn to nods. Reininger has had a pleasing 2014, with a 2.12 ERA in 40 games, which includes a particularly neat stretch during his last 10 appearances: 1.13 ERA, with 18 strikeouts and four walks in 16 innings.
“He’s keeping the ball down, and he’s got four pitches,” said Mike Henneman, a longtime Tigers bullpen closer who is now West Michigan’s pitching coach. “We’ve talked about how you don’t need to throw 109 mph in this era. Everyone throws hard. The trick is to keep it below the knees and tease the hitter with your secondary pitches.”
Reininger, 21, was an eighth-round pick in 2013 from Hill Junior College in Hillsboro, Texas. He has the height (6-foot-3) that helps his right arm sling a fastball that doesn’t crush batters as much as it leads to ground balls.
“His fastball runs 95 (mph), and sits at about 93,” Henneman said. “He’s got a four-seam, a two-seam, a slider, a curveball, and a change-up. When he gains weight (Reininger is listed at 170 pounds) and adds more strength, there’s going to be some problems for batters.
“I’ll tell you, I ain’t going to face him,” Henneman said. “He’s got a slider and that change, and he’ll show the curveball before he uses that slider to put ’em away. And he’s not afraid to pitch inside.”
Reininger’s first full season of professional baseball has been little different from his 2013 debut at Single A Connecticut. There he pitched in 22 games, had a 1.00 ERA, and a 0.85 WHIP to go with a .172 opposing batting average.
This season, his WHIP is 1.00 while opposing hitters are batting .200.
“What I like is that he’s got a good mentality,” Henneman said. “He’s just a beautiful kid, a country boy, a Texas good ol’ boy like myself. He’s good people.”
Reininger has more pitches than relievers typically display, a repertoire Henneman believes will be pared down as Reininger moves north in the Tigers chain. Given that there are no plans to make him a starter, it’s a safe bet the show-me curveball he now throws almost as a novelty pitch will give way to a fastball-slider-change package.
But there’s little hurry in deciding on ultimate packages and options. Reininger is part of a West Michigan pitching staff that probably has more potential than any group in the Tigers system. Kevin Ziomek (10-6, 2.23 ERA), Austin Kubitza (10-2, 2.38), Jonathon Crawford (7-3, 3.03), Artie Lewicki (2-2, 2.45) — the stable was crowded even after Buck Farmer was promoted in July to Double A Erie, from which he was called for some rough spot-start duty in Detroit.
“Basically, my job is to teach them how to pitch,” Henneman said. “But the difference is, I’ve been blessed with kids who listen. The mechanics stuff tends to be easier when kids will listen.
“David Chadd (Tigers draft overseer) gets good kids. They’re not a bunch of prima donnas. And that’s the key: They’re willing to learn.”
It doesn’t hurt that they also appreciate the occasional zinger.
“Yeah,” Henneman said, speaking of Reininger, “I told him today to get a haircut. He was looking like a hippie.”