Tigers reliever Ian Krol has lowered his ERA from last year's 3.95 with the Nationals to 2.33 with the Tigers this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — You’ve heard about this town, Detroit, and now you’re being told by way of a December telephone call that you’re going there. To live. And to work.
You’re a big-league baseball pitcher headed for a Tigers team that just traded the venerable Doug Fister for you and a guy the fans knew only as Robbie Ray. And the locals, most of them, aren’t happy.
Cut now to the first week of June, six months after the Nationals shipped a left-handed reliever named Ian Krol to Comerica Park. A reporter wonders how it has all worked out. The town. The team. The change in culture for a kid who grew up in suburban Chicago.
“If I were to rank it on a scale of 1-10,” Krol said Tuesday a few hours before the Tigers met the Blue Jays at Comerica Park, “for the team and the living experience and everything, I’d give it a 10.
“I’m really happy with my lifestyle and my opportunities here. I live in Royal Oak and it reminds me of Naperville (his suburban Chicago hometown). Nice area. Can walk all around town. And I’m very happy with the organization. It’s been unbelievable.”
That’s quaint, because it has worked out also for the team that acquired Krol on Dec. 2, 2013. He has been one of the few steady souls in manager Brad Ausmus’ bullpen through the season’s first two months.
Krol, who last month turned 23, has a 1.88 ERA in his last 20 games and a 2.33 ERA on the season (27 games). He has thrown strikes (four walks in 191⁄3 innings) and on most nights has allowed fans to set aside for at least a few batters their ever-present bottle of bullpen anxiety pills.
“I like to say it’s the best role in baseball,” Krol said of his first-choice status when Ausmus needs a left-handed fireman. “I’m very fortunate to be coming in against lefties, at least in most of those situations.”
He makes it tough on batters, even on right-handers, because of a fastball that whirls at 91-94 mph, a change-up he can vary with two grips, and a steadily improving curveball.
It is the curve that has helped most, particularly lately, and all because of a new approach he discovered last weekend in Oakland during a session with Jeff Jones, Detroit’s pitching coach, and Mick Billmeyer, who supervises the bullpen.
“I moved to the first-base side of the mound (pitching rubber),” said Krol, who in 2009 was headed to Arizona on a baseball scholarship until the A’s drafted him in the seventh round.
“My breaking ball before was crossing the plate and finishing out of the strike zone. Now it’s finishing for strikes. And I’m actually starting to throw it harder.”
Jones is on board.
“I think it’s gonna help him a lot,” Jones said of Krol’s first-base-side shift. “The thing was, he was doing pretty well. But to me his breaking ball could be better to left-handers.”
Krol is something of a fascination and not only because of a beard that tends to make fans wonder what’s behind that fuzzy veneer. He has a guileless, unaffected bounce to his ways on and off the field. It is how he comes off, anyway — undistracted by the world around him — and his manager doesn’t disagree.
“His temperament can be a bit of a bull in a china shop,” Ausmus said, sitting in the Tigers dugout Tuesday as his hitters cracked pitches in the pregame batting cage. “But that’s a good thing because he’s not afraid of any hitter in any situation.
“He gets a little quick-tempered sometimes. But his personality is part of why he’s the good relief pitcher he is. He’s not intimidated.”
Krol sees no reason to fear a life he loves. He always had a hunch the Detroit thing would work out. Among those who reassured him there was his uncle, Mike Krol, who lives in Midland and who works for General Motors, and his agent, Mark Pieper, who studied at Michigan. Both told him Detroit and its suburbs would treat a 23-year-old newcomer just fine.
As for pitching, Krol thought that might be a fit, also, after he worked in 32 games for the Nationals in 2013 and put together a 3.95 ERA that rose later in the season “after hitters starting figuring my stuff out.”
“Actually, I’ve learned more here than I did there,” Krol said of his Tigers initiation. “On the field, off the field. Really, it doesn’t get much better than this.”