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There are these habits Zac Houston has developed during three summers of minor-league baseball with the Tigers.

When he debuted two years ago at two Single A stops, Connecticut and West Michigan, his combined ERA was 0.46, his WHIP was 0.86, and hitters had against him a malnourished batting average of .082.

Last season, at West Michigan and Single A Lakeland, the corresponding numbers were: 2.17, 0.98, and .134.

It is July 2018 and Houston has been bumped two more levels, to Double Erie and to Triple A Toledo, and these are the new digits: 2.41, 0.95, and .147.

Or, if one cares to mash it all together, Houston, 23, has for his Tigers minor-league career a 1.78 ERA in 121.1 innings, and an 0.92 WHIP, while batters are doing no better than .135.

It’s the kind of data that normally flows from a reliever whose fastball is upper-90s and who owns a sledge-hammer second pitch. But Houston’s fastball ranges anywhere from 92 to 96. And his second pitch, a curveball, is nothing extraordinary.

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It implies this is a different pitcher, Houston, who is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, who throws right-handed, and who in 2016 was an 11th-round Tigers pick out of Mississippi State.

“I think the pluses are that he’s got an extremely deceptive fastball,” said Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz, who was analyzing Houston during a Saturday pre-game break at Indianapolis. “In today’s game, we get wrapped up too much in what a radar-gun says when hitters are better able to tell you what a fastball does.

“But that fastball is deceptive and gets on you. The thing he has to work on, at times, is his breaking ball is too loopy. It’s got plus-spin. But it’s too big. I think big-league hitters who aren’t always looking for it can still adjust to it.

“I saw it in his first or second outing -- on a breaking ball. I think the guy was sitting fastball and adjusted. He had time to hit it.”

What pops, beyond those primary numbers, are the strikeouts Houston has amassed: 17 in his last 10.2 innings and, since he broke in two years ago, 193 in 121.1. That’s better than a strikeout and-a-half per inning.

But, ah, his walks have been on the plentiful side, as well: 56 unintentional passes in those 121.1. The big leagues aren’t kind to pitchers who put men on base and who work in bad counts.

Houston has some work to do on location, as well as on his second pitch. But that’s why he’s still interning with the Mud Hens.

"We’ve had no worries putting him in late in a game,” Mientkiewicz said. ”What we try to do is put all our guys in save situations -- we think that’s the closest thing we can do to get them ready for what they might see at the next level.”

Victor Alcantara has benefited there, said Mientkiewicz, who, even apart from a bad outing Saturday, has gotten wondrous mileage from a 25-year-old, right-handed reliever the Tigers got two years ago in a deal that sent Cameron Maybin to the Angels.

Alcantara has a 2.94 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 27 games for the Mud Hens, which includes three saves in three chances.

And then there’s Zac Reininger, who might, just might, have begun to figure it all out in his latest stint at Toledo following a couple of earlier shots with the Tigers.

Reininger has pitched 16 innings in his last nine games for the Mud Hens. He has allowed three earned runs, good for an ERA of 1.69. He has struck out 15 during that stretch and walked three.

Strong digits, indeed, for a potential right-handed bullpen gun whose fastball can climb into the upper 90s.

“He’s come a long way in the last three weeks,” Mientkiewicz said. “I don’t know. Not to get long and involved, I think in our game pitching coaches work too much with pitchers and hitting coaches work with hitters, and we don’t switch it enough.”

Mientkiewicz offers this as an intro to Reininger and what the coaches are studying.

His breaking pitch, which is a slider, can behave differently from his fastball, and not only in terms of spin and velocity. There seems to be a divide in how the pitches are executed.

“I’ve never pitched in the big leagues, but I know what pitches look like from a big-league hitter’s standpoint,” said Mientkiewicz, who played 12 seasons in the big leagues, seven with the Twins. “Looking at film, we kind of pinpointed it the other day.

“I don’t know if it’s confidence, but there’s definitely something that looks different.”

Reininger is only 25. He is 6-3, 215 pounds, with one of the best arms in the Tigers relief bin.

“The last four, five outings, he’s been the guy everybody in the Tigers system all along saw,” Mientkiewicz said, turning again to what might be happening in Reininger’s fastball-slider splits.

“I think it’s not tipping pitches – he’s just doing something different with his arm that hitters can see, whether it’s extension or whatever. He really finishes his fastball. But with the breaking pitch, he kind of cuts something off.

“Big-league hitters can pick up whether a pitcher’s fingers are behind the ball or to the side. He does throw some really good sliders, but for some reason, there are times the hitters are picking up on it.”

This, again, is why something called a farm system was invented, and why it has been sustained for 100-plus years.

The minors are where players are taught, where they learn, and where they are prepared for the next stage.

For the likes of Houston, Alcantara – and Reininger – that would be Detroit, which is ready and waiting for trusty relievers, ASAP.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter @Lynn_Henning

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