Lakeland, Fla. – Tigers left-hander Daniel Stumpf reared back and threw a high fastball. This was Wednesday afternoon against the Braves at ESPN Champions Stadium, and the pitch felt good, fluid delivery, ball came out of the hand nice and easy and the hitter, Alex Jackson, swung right through it.
Feeling pretty good, Stumpf looked back at the scoreboard to see the radar gun reading, and – huh?
“I mean, you read the swing and you’re like, ‘Man, I just blew that guy up,’” Stumpf said. “Then you turn and glance back a little bit and you’re like, ‘It says 89 mph – golly.”
To say the least, the radar gun at Champions Stadium is a little off. Tyson Ross’ pitches were all reading 2-3 mph less than normal. Victor Alcantara, who is usually 94-96 was reading in the low 90s.
“It messes with your head a little bit,” Stumpf said. “I talked to Pete (Dustin Peterson, a former Brave who spent four years playing on that field) and he said it stinks to play there. He told me, ‘Don’t pay attention to the gun. It’s off.’”
Stumpf didn’t need radar-gun confirmation of how well his stuff has been working in his three spring outings. He’s faced 11 batters and not yielded a hit. The only runner against him reached Wednesday, on a disputed walk.
“I made two perfect pitches,” he said, of pitches on 2-2 and 3-2 counts that were called balls. “Bobby’s (Wilson, catcher) glove didn’t move either time. You can’t miss both of them.”
Stumpf's fastball has been legitimately sitting between 92-94 mph this spring. And his slider looks as sharp as it was at the end of last season, when he rescued an otherwise rough year by limiting opposing hitters to a .174 average with 12 strikeouts in his final 15 outings (13 innings).
“The depth on my slider right now is good,” he said. “I have the depth like I had toward the end of the year last year; it’s a strike until it gets to the plate. That’s why you are seeing the swings I’m getting – they are golfing it up, getting bloops to third base, or they are beating it into the ground.
“I’m fine with that.”
How important is the slider? In 2017, hitters only hit .176 and slugged .235 off his slider. Last season, even with the strong finish, hitters hit the slider at a .266 clip and slugged .418 off it.
It took him two demotions to Triple-A Toledo to get the slider and his fastball command back on point.
“It will get better as it goes along,” Stumpf said of the slider. “To where it turns into that out pitch, that put-away slider I had last year.”
Stumpf also has another tool that he hasn’t shown much in his two seasons with the Tigers. He possesses, by all accounts, a usable change-up.
“Bobby asked me if I threw my change-up a lot,” Stumpf said. “I said I was comfortable throwing it, but it doesn’t get called for a lot.”
He threw just 31 change-ups last season. Nine were put in play, three for hits. But it was a firmer pitch than it is now. He was throwing it 87-88 mph. Now, after changing his grip, he’s got the velocity down to 84-85 and the action on the pitch fades and sinks away from right-handed hitters.
“I think I can use against left-handers, too,” he said. “It’s just a pitch that never gets called for me, but it’s definitely something I can use.”
Considering he slow-played the first couple of weeks of camp, Stumpf has been remarkably sharp. The day before pitchers and catchers were to report, he felt some tightness in his shoulder and he immediately shut it down.
“I caught up in a hurry,” he said. “I knew I would. It wasn’t anything. When it flared up on me, I just said, Let’s go ahead and take care of it now. I won’t miss too much. I was always told, back when I was with Kansas City, there’s no teams to be made now. The only team you can make is the rehab team.”
But it was frustrating for him. He had come to camp a week early after what he felt was a very productive offseason workout program.
“I felt like I did what I needed to do to be ready, to where this wouldn’t happen,” Stumpf said. “The last month (January) at the gym I workout in, I went in there and had them rewrite my entire weight-lifting program. I told them I wanted it to be like I was rehabbing my arm.”
So he did extra but low-impact shoulder and elbow work. He did more core and scapula exercises.
“I was just strengthening everything,” he said. “When you do stuff like that, there’s nothing heavy. It’s all bands, nothing over five pounds, scap work, wall work – not like I was doing heavy weights. And that was the frustrating part to me.
“I did things to prepare to be ready for this. I threw two innings live before I came here and I threw two bullpens when I got here, and I felt fine. But I took care of it, got treatment and I am ready to roll.”
Stumpf knows he’s in another fight to keep his bullpen spot. Assuming the Tigers take eight relievers north, and also assuming Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez, Drew VerHagen, Victor Alcantara and Blaine Hardy (lefty) are relative locks, then Stumpf, Buck Farmer, Zac Reininger, Louis Coleman and Jose Fernandez (lefty) are fighting for three spots.
That Stumpf was able to get four outs Wednesday and that he’s been getting right-handed hitters, too, are good signs for him. He has never considered himself a situational lefty, though that’s been the role he’s played with the Tigers.
“The biggest thing for me (on Wednesday) was being able to go in with runners on,” he said. “To me, that’s more of a simulation of what’s going to happen in the season. They aren’t always going to wait for you to get a clean inning.
“That’s a big thing for me to be able to do that. Obviously, there were times last year when I was the only lefty down there, so it was tough to stretch me out. To get that one and one (one inning and one batter) and get a good up-and-down was good.”