Lakeland, Fla. — The odds look stacked against him, but when was that ever not the case for Buck Farmer?
Farmer has pitched in parts of the last four seasons with the Tigers, finishing last year in the starting rotation. But he made the opening day roster just once. That was as reliever in 2016, filling in for injured mainstays Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy.
So, that he’s on the outside looking in again — presumably battling for a rotation spot though willing to accept bullpen work — is nothing new.
Yet, somehow it feels different this year. Farmer, who turns 27 on Tuesday, is down to his last minor-league option.
“This is kind of a make-or-break year for me,” he said. “But it’s just, go out there and try to control what I can control and let everything else fall into place.”
Farmer has already used the allotted three options, but because he used them in less than five years, he has earned a fourth.
It’s been a dizzying ride for Farmer, one the Tigers readily admit could have and probably should have been better administered. He was rushed, out of necessity, to the big leagues in 2014. He was 23, started the season in Low-A, made just two starts at Double-A Erie and two at Triple-A Toledo before being summoned.
Predictably, that didn’t go well and Farmer has spent the last three seasons riding the Interstate 75 shuttle between Detroit and Toledo. It didn’t help, either, that the Tigers could never quite come to an agreement on whether he was best suited to start or be used out of the bullpen.
What has always been true about Farmer is the quality of his pitches — when he’s able to command the strike zone, he’s tough to hit. He relies mostly on the fastball — four-seam and two-seam, 92-93 mph — which opponents hit just .230 against last season. His slider, which he refashioned last season with a bigger break, and a change-up are his secondary pitches.
What also has been true, though, is his inconsistency. Case in point: He beat the White Sox and the Angels in his first two starts last season, on May 27 and June 7 respectively. He went six-plus innings in both, a combined 13 innings of shutout ball, allowing three hits in each. He struck out a career-best 11 White Sox in what was his first big-league win.
But in the two starts after that, he failed to get out of the third inning and allowed a total of 13 runs.
“Still, it was the most positive notes I’ve taken from a year,” Farmer said. “I had 11 starts, the most I’ve had. And it’s always nice to have faced the Twins; I’ve pitched pretty well against them and a lot of the new coaches that came over have seen me and know what I am capable of.”
Farmer finished the season against the Twins in Minnesota, pitching a strong five innings (four hits, one run). He set out this off-season to rid himself of his bi-polar ways on the mound.
“I changed a lot of stuff that I do in the off-season,” he said. “I started a weight ball program with a guy (physical therapist) in Atlanta. And I tried to clean up a few mechanical pieces to hopefully get that consistency.”
Farmer said he got the message loud and clear in his exit interview with general manager Al Avila after the season.
“Al said, ‘You have the stuff, it’s just becoming more consistent. That’s going to be your big thing. Once you do that, you’ll find a place in the big leagues,’ ” Farmer said. “That was my hope this off-season with all the stuff I’ve implemented.”
Farmer pitched through some persistent pain in his right trapezius muscle last season. To address that issue, his physical therapist built a new workout program for him, using some of the techniques pioneered by pitching academies like DriveLine and Florida Baseball Ranch — including the weighted balls (which help strengthen the decelerator muscles in the back of his shoulder) and connection balls (a device Justin Verlander used when he was working his way back from core injuries in 2015).
“All the mechanical things I tried to alter came from the Florida Baseball Ranch, stuff that Verlander did like the connection ball,” Farmer said. “I’m using it in a different context than he did, though.”
Verlander’s drill was to hold a connection ball (a soft rubber ball a little larger than a soccer ball) in the crook of right while throwing to force himself to keep his throwing motion tighter. Farmer puts the connection ball under his right arm to discourage himself from wrapping his hand behind his back before driving toward the plate.
“That’s the biggest thing I wanted to clean up, just that wrapping,” Farmer said. “Using the connection ball, that doesn’t allow you to get back there. Once you start getting in a good position going back, the good position moving forward will start to fall into place because your arm is going to be on top of your body.”
It sounds complicated, but the end result should be a more simplified and fluid delivery — one that is easier to repeat, which would theoretically lead to more consistent command.
Which, Farmer hopes, will be the key to unlock the potential that he’s flashed the last four seasons.
“I am excited to get started,” he said. “I definitely feel healthy and strong. We’ll see how it all works out.”