'I'm a strike-thrower': Tigers' Tyler Alexander making his mark with precision over power

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — So there was Tyler Alexander, minding his own business, intently paying attention to the morning pitchers’ meeting when all of a sudden all eyes were on him. He'd become the center of attention, an abject teaching point.

“It was cool, I guess,” the Tigers’ left-hander said Friday. “I’m a pretty quiet guy when it comes to the coaching staff and media, so I didn’t necessarily love all the attention.

"But it was cool for him to acknowledge something I did.”

Tyler Alexander.

To illustrate the point about the importance of strike-throwing, of getting ahead in counts and keeping count leverage on hitters, manager AJ Hinch referenced Alexander’s historical nine-consecutive-strikeout game against the Reds last season.

“The value of pitching ahead, being 0-1 instead of 1-0, it’s a big difference,” Hinch said. “That is the reason (pitching coach Chris) Fetter preaches leverage counts over and over. We need to get our strike percentage up and we need to beat guys over the plate.”

In racking up those nine straight punch-outs against the Reds, Alexander got ahead of five of the nine hitters and faced only two three-ball counts. He also had two strikes on the 10th hitter in that run, Mike Moustakas, but he hit him in the foot.

“I just want to show them what type of pitcher I am, that I’m a strike-thrower,” said Alexander, whose career walk rate (4.1%) is in the upper 18th percentile in baseball.

Kirk Gibson, the former Tiger and Dodger and current Fox Sports Detroit analyst, asked Alexander to rank, in order of importance to his success, velocity, movement and location. Alexander didn’t hesitate.

“Location is first, then movement and velocity is third,” he said. “I’m a guy who has been throwing 88 mph since he was 16 years old and I’ve been able to get people out with 88 mph at every level. I’ve been able to throw the ball where I want at every single level.

“I’ve had to work hard on movement but if you can hit your spot, no matter what you throw, you’re going to be in a good spot.”  

More: As Rick Porcello reunion talks perk up, Tigers' AJ Hinch keeping focus internal

Alexander, who like fellow lefty Daniel Norris excelled last year as a bulk reliever, has a chance to win a rotation spot this spring. Toward that end, his diverse mix of pitches will serve him far better than his 90-mph fastball.

“It’s still about where you put it in the strike zone,” Hinch said. “Yeah, velocity lights up the radar gun and it looks good on TV, but hitters can time up 100 mph much easier nowadays than they can adjust to a well-executed secondary pitch.

“It’s still about disrupting timing between the hitter and the pitcher…I don’t really care if we have power arms or finesse pitchers. I just want good ones.”

Hinch watched Alexander’s bullpen session Friday and liked not only his five-pitch mix but he liked the way he could add and subtract velocity on his pitches.

“I’d use as many pitches as I could if I was a pitcher,” Hinch said. “The key is to apply that broad arsenal to a game plan and how you go against each hitter. His ball moves. He can make it move both ways. He can take something off. He’s very creative.”

Alexander is going to break Statcast one day. Because each of his pitches have their own unique movement profile, they are often misread. Statcast has Alexander throwing 223 curveballs the last two seasons. He does not throw a curveball.

“My four-seamer registers as a two-seamer and my two-seamer registers as a four-seamer,” he said. “My cutter shows up as a slider and my slider is always read as a curveball. I don’t hate that. I like the movement on all of them, as long as they play off each other well.

“As long as my slider looks like a cutter until a certain point and my fastball feels good, I don’t care…As long as the velocity is where I want it (on the secondary pitches) and it’s deceptive, I don’t care what it’s called.”

Alexander spent time breaking down his own analytics this offseason, something he’d never done before. And with Fetter’s help, he’s working on some things to improve both his fastballs.

Subscribers: Once the quiet kid in the corner, Buck Farmer is now the oracle of Tigers bullpen

“I want to get that vertical break on my four-seam, get that ride through the zone,” he said. “That’s just about hand placement where I release it. I’m trying to get more on top of the ball. And mechanically, I’m doing stuff with my hips and torso and torque to maybe find a little more velocity in there.”

But he’s not doing anything drastic, nothing that would significantly alter his delivery.

“At the end of the day, I still need to throw the ball where I want to throw it,” he said. “If I gain one or two or three more miles-per-hour on my fastball but have no clue where it’s going, that’s almost not worth it to me.”

What wasn’t mentioned at the meeting Friday was that the cap Alexander wore in that nine-straight-strikeout game now resides in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — a museum Alexander has yet to visit.

“I have a picture of it, though,” he said, smiling.