Tigers’ Saupold takes lessons out of brutal 2017 finish

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — No surprise that right-handed reliever Warwick Saupold was the last pitcher to arrive in camp; he traveled the farthest to get here.

“Not that bad this year, 30 hours,” said Saupold, who flew multiple connections from his home in Perth, Australia, to Orlando, arriving 10 p.m. Sunday. “The worst part was the eight-hour layover in Los Angeles.”

There was a bright side to the layover, though — he got to meet Sugar Ray Leonard.

“I walked into the Delta lounge and the next guy who walked in was Sugar Ray. So that was kind of sweet.”

The two sat next to each other at the bar drinking coffee.

“I talked to him a little bit, but the guy next to him was absolutely star-struck,” Saupold said. “He was doing all the work, wouldn’t take his hands off him. So I just sat in the background and soaked it all in.

“He’s a pretty cool dude.”

Spending a few hours picking the brain of a fighter — a fitting way for Saupold to gear up for spring training, especially after enduring a second half last season about as punishing as going 10 rounds with Leonard himself.

“I didn’t cope with it well at all, to be honest,” Saupold said.

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Saupold was called up April 18 and quickly established himself as one of the Tigers’ more capable bullpen arms. In his first 18 appearances, 31.2 innings, he allowed just seven earned runs with a 0.979 WHIP. He struck out 20, walked only nine and opponents hit .200 and slugged .318 against him.

“I felt so good at the All-Star break and I was thinking I was going to be a big influence down the stretch,” he said. “Unfortunately, things went south.”

He threw 31 innings after the All-Star break, allowing 27 earned runs, a 2.065 WHIP, walking 22 with opponents feasting on him — .323/.423. September was particularly grim. He gave up 11 earned runs in 9.1 innings.

The issue was arm fatigue.

“I handled the workload OK, but the stuff between outings killed me,” said Saupold, who is 28. “I think I just threw way too much and it just caught up to me after the All-Star break.”

He was doing heavy long-tossing between outings, which closer Shane Greene quickly advised against.

“Greeney told me to arc it on the way out and throw harder on the way in to give my arm a break,” Saupold said. “But the damage had been done. The arm was gassed. I tried to go out every outing and give it my best, but the body just said no.

“It was kind of a crappy way to end, to be honest. I was trying to get out of a funk, then my arm started barking a little bit and I changed my mechanics to try and take the pain away — it just all went south.”

Saupold had been a starting pitcher in Australia and up through the Tigers’ organization. Last year was his first extended work out of the bullpen, and he admits he wasn’t ready for the daily grind of it.

“A lot of times I’d be up early, like in the first and second inning and then sit back down,” he said. “I’d finally get in the game and maybe go three innings. And I’d have like three up-and-downs the night before. It was taxing and something that I’ve definitely learned from.”

He’s picked the brains of Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson and Greene about how to navigate through those situations last year, but his arm was already spent.

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“I know how to manage that now,” he said. “When I sit back and look at it all now, I took a lot out of it. It was a huge learning curve for me.”

Scans on both his elbow and shoulder showed no structural damage and no surgery was needed. That was the blessing.

“It was just fatigue,” he said. “The time off was good and I feel great right now. It’s a matter of doing more arm-management things between outings. I was always a big arm-management guy before. Now I will have to double up.”

Make no mistake, the Tigers need Saupold to be the pitcher he was in the first half of the season. He’s going to be given every chance to be one of the bullpen mainstays for manager Ron Gardenhire.

And toward that end, pitching coach Chris Bosio reached out to Saupold soon after he was hired to make sure he was giving his arm ample time to rest. Saupold told the Tigers he had committed to playing some winter ball in Australia.

“I was actually annoyed on the phone call (with Bosio) because he was telling me not to start throwing too soon,” Saupold said. “But once I explained what I was trying to accomplish and I told him what my plan was, he was OK with it.”

Saupold wanted to throw a few innings this winter to work on his change-up and sharpen his breaking ball. And the structured nature of things in Australia ensured he wouldn’t over-extend his arm — bullpen on Tuesday, long toss the rest of the week, pitch in a game Friday or Saturday.

“I didn’t throw too much,” he said. “And I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. Everything was good and I am happy where I am at coming into camp.”

Even better once the jet-lag subsides.