Return to school pays off for rising star Funkhouser, Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
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Kyle Funkhouser has a 1.72 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in five starts with the Lakeland Flying Tigers after being promoted from the West Michigan Whitecaps. He has thrown 31⅓ innings, allowed 23 hits, struck out 34 and walked six.

Clearwater, Fla. — For players, this qualifies as work. For fans, too.

It is 2 p.m. on a mid-June afternoon at Spectrum Field and it is in the low 90s with humidity that, even sitting in those shaded seats near the concourse, can make one’s shirt look in minutes as if a person has just wrapped up a cruel duel with the treadmill.

So, there are maybe 200 fans, including a gang of school or camp kids wearing yellow shirts, parked in seats beneath the second deck’s sun cover, taking in an otherwise festive Florida State League game between the Clearwater Threshers and Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Music blares between innings. Grill smoke wafts from the one concession stand keeping folks fed and hydrated.

But it is hot. So hot and steamy. Not that Lakeland starting pitcher Kyle Funkhouser seems terribly bothered.

Funkhouser is throwing 92-93-mph two-seam fastballs that Clearwater batters are generally pounding into the ground. He is getting them to mishit balls softly into the air. Sometimes he mixes in a four-seamer that on this afternoon has been running a bit low for Funkhouser, 95, with a couple hitting 97, when often he is firing away at 97-98.

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He strikes out three batters, walks one, and allows no runs on five singles, four of which come on ground balls, the other on a blooper to left. He has carved up the Threshers with two separately gripped fastballs, a solid curveball that yet needs some tightening, a slider he can backdoor to left-handed hitters, and the big reason he is pitching at high Class A – a change-up his coaches are pleased he threw 17 times against the Threshers.

They have squared up one solitary pitch in seven innings against Funkhouser — a line drive the next-to-last batter, Jan Hernandez, lasered straight into the glove of Flying Tigers third baseman Zac Shepherd.

“It was a 2-and-0 two-seamer that started in and ended over the plate,” Funkhouser said, almost contritely, afterward. “But it was the only ball they hit hard.”

Funkhouser has been having quite the romp in 2017. Already he has been promoted once after burning up batters at Single A West Michigan. Now he’s doing the same thing at Lakeland, a step away from Double A Erie.

In five starts for the Flying Tigers, Funkhouser, 23, has a 1.72 ERA and slick 0.93 WHIP. He has thrown 31⅓ innings, allowed 23 hits, struck out 34, walked six.

Back to school

This is happening only 12 months after the Tigers made him their second pick in last June’s draft. Having forfeited two early turns for signing Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, they got Funkhouser in the fourth round, which was national news as draft stories go.

That’s because Funkhouser a year earlier, following his junior year at the University of Louisville, had been a first-round grab by the Dodgers.

It was what high school and college players dream about: first-round status and money.

Funkhouser, though, wasn’t thrilled. He was taken 35th overall and would have been offered a slotted sum of about $1.5 million.

Kyle Funkhouser

No, he would head back to Louisville. Wrap up his senior year. Nail down a degree in marketing. Pitch another season for the Cardinals and see what happened the following June, knowing, as young pitchers understand, that nothing — including his arm remaining intact — was guaranteed.

Things didn’t go smashingly. He was advised to be gentle and not pitch in a 2015 summer league. He did light weight lifting over the ensuing months rather than risk overdoing ligaments and tendons.

This led to a comparatively unremarkable senior spring for Louisville when Funkhouser’s velocity dropped and his ERA finished at 3.86. These were not first-round numbers.

As it turned out, neither had they been second- or third-round quality.

And it bothered Funkhouser not an iota.

“With all that was going on then (2015, with the Dodgers), it just wasn’t the right fit for me,” Funkhouser said, standing in Spectrum Field’s visitor’s clubhouse, an ice pack wrapped around his right elbow.

It really wasn’t a matter of money, his decision to opt for a senior year at Louisville. It wasn’t about dominating hitters and bumping up his draft position in 2016.

No, it was more about getting that diploma. A bachelor’s degree in marketing.

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“My mom went to college and my dad didn’t,” said Funkhouser, who grew up in Oak Forest, Ill, a suburb 25 miles southwest of Chicago. “My mom had always been able to find work when times were tough. Sometimes, my dad struggled to do the same without that college degree.”

The irony to this college pitcher’s story is that, unlike those players who pass on scholarships, or a senior year, all in a bid to get that professional baseball career rolling, Funkhouser looks as if he could have it both ways.

He might well be on his way to a starting rotation job in Detroit inside of two years — with a diploma in his hip pocket.

“He’s an advanced guy,” Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development, was saying Thursday in an office inside the team’s new Tigertown administration building. “In some ways, it was kind of what we were expecting, but you don’t always know if it’s going to go that way.”

'Committed to his craft'

Funkhouser is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. He has hair cropped so short the follicles appear more like a dusting, all the better to deal with this steam bath known as the Florida State League.

It is the strength of his arm and the quality of those four pitches he throws that made the Tigers bite a year ago, believing he simply needed time to re-establish strength lost during that more easygoing senior year at Louisville.

They were careful with him after he signed in June for $750,000 — half the dollars the Dodgers would have been obliged to offer, but significantly more than fourth-round picks typically get.

Funkhouser was shipped to short-summer Single A Connecticut where he pitched in 13 games with a 2.65 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. A decent start, but a baby-steps beginning with the Tigers as they kept an eye on his arm and plotted more of a long-term plan for a pitching talent they believed might have been a draft-day steal.

“He’s committed to his craft,” said Littlefield, who watched as Funkhouser breezed through his next step, West Michigan, where ahead of last month’s promotion he struck out 49 batters in 31⅓ innings. “He’s throwing fastballs for strikes low in the zone and his stuff is so advanced he has a chance to move quickly. He has such a strong ceiling.

“And then there’s the intelligence, the maturity. On top of that, he’s throwing 97 and bumping some 98s. He’ll still show you pitches not as consistent as you need to throw in the major leagues, but he’s on the right path.”

His manager at Lakeland, Andrew Graham, agrees.

“He’s got a great idea of what he’s doing on the mound,” Graham said. “He’s got those four pitches. He threw 17 change-ups yesterday, and he can elevate the fastball when he wants to.

“He’s not anywhere near complete, but he’s starting to show us why he was drafted when he was. And he’s a student of the game.”

Funkhouser’s pitching coach, Mark Johnson, stood Wednesday in a visitor’s dugout at Clearwater, perhaps wondering if baseball had gone from a summer to a sauna sport.

Amid his perspiration shower Johnson dutifully recorded each pitch. He loved, most of all that, a pitcher who never had to bother much with a change-up in college, or at West Michigan, was now working it into his routine, which is what minor-league promotion is all about.

“He’s got four useable pitches,” said Johnson, who pitched in nine games for the Tigers in 2000. “Now, how do we use them? He’s beginning to understand that part of it. He’s seeing that you don’t have to strike out every batter.”

There is no particular urgency, in the Tigers’ minds, to hustle Funkhouser through his Lakeland apprenticeship and push him to Erie. He could force the issue if he begins mixing four pitches that turn Florida State batters into kindling.

But that isn’t the expectation. A nice finish at Lakeland would put him in shape to pitch next season at Erie. From there, it can be a quick trip to Detroit. But that’s dreaming in reckless ways, the Tigers say.

And so does Funkhouser.

“I don’t sit around thinking about it,” he said, enjoying the air-conditioned relief of Clearwater’s clubhouse. “I’m just trying to get better.

“You can’t think about that other stuff.”

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