Detroit — There weren’t many success stories for the Tigers last season, but you could count among them the discovery and emergence of left-handed reliever Daniel Stumpf.
All that was known about Stumpf before the Tigers took him in the 2017 Rule 5 draft was that, after he made the Phillies opening day roster in 2016 (he was a Rule 5 pick then, too) he was suspended for 80 games for using steroids and ultimately sent back to the Royals, where he finished the season in Double A.
But the Tigers saw him pitch in the Dominican Winter League — he was teammates with new first-base coach Ramon Santiago — liked his heavy, 94-mph fastball and his feistiness on the mound, and felt he was worth the $100,000 Rule 5 risk.
After struggling with his command in the spring, though, he didn’t initially make the 25-man roster. As a second-year Rule 5 draftee, Stumpf had the option of becoming a free agent — and he took it. Sensing an opportunity with a raggedy bullpen, he then re-signed on a minor-league deal with the Tigers.
It took him two months to pitch his way to Detroit, and once he got there — on June 3 — he never left. He wound up pitching in 55 games, posting a 3.82 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. From July 20 through Sept. 18 — 28 games, used mostly as a situational lefty late in games — opponents hit just .225 against him.
“It was a good year, but I know I can be better,” Stumpf said at the end of the season. “I think, just take a hard re-set this offseason and come back better. I think a lot of us in here are thinking the same thing. Just take a hard re-set and come back better.”
Stumpf chafes at being type-cast as a left-handed specialist. And in his talks with new pitching coach Chris Bosio, he stressed that he had more versatility than that.
“I’m definitely excited for all opportunities that are out there,” Stumpf said last weekend during TigerFest. “I think I showed I was pretty versatile last year. I can do more than just get one guy out. I don’t want to be limited to a situational lefty; I’ve never been that. I think I bring more to the table than that, and I think they see that.”
To earn a more expanded role this year, Stumpf will need to get right-handed hitters out more regularly than he did last season. Righties hit .300 off him last season. Four of the five home runs he allowed were to right-handed hitters.
Toward that end, Stumpf spent a good portion of his offseason back at San Jacinto Community College in Texas, where he starred in 2011 and 2012, working with former big-league pitcher Woody Williams.
“We’ve been working on making my change-up better,” Stumpf said. “I just think I need a little more for the hitter to look for.”
It could also be the answer to his issues with right-handed hitters. He only threw the change-up seven percent of the time last season, according to data compiled by Brooks Baseball, and mostly to right-handed hitters — who clobbered the pitch at a .333 clip.
“I want the speed difference to be bigger than it was last year,” Stumpf said. “I thought my change-up was good, it was just too hard. I’m trying to make it softer.”
Off his 94-mph four-seam fastball, Stumpf had good success with his 85-mph slider against left-handed hitters. But his change-up was ringing in at 87-mph — not enough to get right-handed hitters out in front of it. He uses a circle grip on the pitch and Williams is working with him to hold the ball deeper in his palm.
“Hopefully, doing that will take a couple of miles-per-hour off it,” Stumpf said. “When I talked to Bos, he had a few ideas he thinks will make me better, too. So, I am ready to get to Lakeland and start working.”
Stumpf will have an opportunity to win a late-inning set-up role. With Alex Wilson transitioning into a starting pitcher, at least through spring training, the other candidates include right-handers Joe Jimenez, Warwick Saupold, Drew VerHagen and Johnny Barbato.
Left-handers Blaine Hardy and Chad Bell are expected to be stretched out for long relief or possibly starting roles. So that puts Stumpf as the reigning high-leverage left-hander in the bullpen.
His competition will come from rookie Jairo Labourt, who made his big-league debut last season, and a quartet of non-roster invitees — James Russell, Caleb Thielbar, Will Lamb and Liarvis Breto.
“I still have to go out and do what I can do and take it step by step,” he said. “Like I said last year, I can’t come in and try to do more than I am capable. I’m not going to throw 100 mph. That’s not me. But I have enough in the tank to get a heater in there.
“I just have to stay within myself and do whatever job they ask me to do.”