Detroit — Count lefty Matt Hall among the growing number of pitchers in the Tigers organization singing the praises of Toledo Mud Hens’ pitching coach Juan Nieves.
“He’s done it, he’s left-handed and he’s got an excellent mind,” said Hall, whom the Tigers brought up Tuesday to serve as the 26th man for the doubleheader against the White Sox at Comerica Park. “He has a cure for everything, and if he doesn’t have one he won’t sleep until he gets one.
“And then he will bring it to the field the next day and he’s there bright and early before you are and he didn’t even sleep.”
Nieves is no stranger to this, of course. He was the Red Sox pitching coach in 2013, grooming a staff that posted the second-lowest ERA in the American League and helping Boston win the World Series. He threw a no-hitter for the Brewers in 1987, one of his three big-league seasons before an arm injury effectively ended his career.
He’s also been the pitching coordinator and assistant pitching coach with the Yankees and White Sox.
“He the kind of guy who doesn’t leave the field before three or four in the morning and then you will see him back at it early the next day,” Hall said.
Hall, who pitched in five games with the Tigers last September, was expected to be the eighth or ninth starter on the organization’s depth chart coming out of spring training. And with injuries to six pitchers that were ahead of him, he should have been up long before this.
But he struggled this spring and he continued to struggle early at Toledo. That’s when Nieves entered the picture.
“Juan and I had a lot to work on,” Hall said. “I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be at the start of the year, so Juan and I just scratched everything and went back to basics – ground zero. And I had to build my way back up.”
The numbers certainly reflect the difficult of taking on that kind of reclamation project during a season — the 5.30 ERA, the 1.53 WHIP, the 16 home runs allowed.
But as he’s gotten comfortable again, other numbers began to take shape — like the 106 strikeouts in 86.2 innings, the strikeout rate per nine innings of 11. And, after he rejoined the Toledo rotation at the end of July, he made back-to-back starts without allowing a run — 10 innings, 13 strikeouts.
“I went back to my old mechanics,” he said. “At the end of last year, I started working on new things, then I went back to my old things with a couple of minor tweaks. It all just started to click better for me.”
Hall inherited runners at first and second with no outs in the ninth inning of Tuesday's 5-3 Game 1 loss and got out of it in seven pitches. He struck out Eloy Jimenez with a curveball and got Welington Castillo to hit into a double play.
"Nice to see Hall come in and get those outs right there," manager Ron Gardenhire saidi. "He made a couple nice pitches there."
Hall’s best weapon is his curveball. He has an above average spin rate on it (nearly 2,900 revolutions per minute). But it has taken him a long time to adjust to the new Major League baseballs that are being used in Triple-A this year.
“What helps (with his improved strikeout rate) is pounding the zone,” Hall said. “When you can command all your pitches in the zone then you can throw out of the zone and hopefully get some swings.
“I always had it (the high spin rate), but when I got up here with the new ball and whatever, it wasn’t the same. But I started working on it again, went back to basics and it’s back to normal.”
For sure it was frustrating for Hall to see 11 different pitchers start games for the Tigers and not get called. But then again, he knew he hadn’t built much of a case.
“I hadn’t necessarily been having a great year,” he said. “I just kept going out and working hard every day to be ready when the phone did ring … I feel pretty good right now. My stuff is as good as it’s been. I am just ready to get another opportunity.”
Splitting the difference
Switch-hitting Niko Goodrum is having a good-not-great year offensively — 10 home runs, 40 RBIs, .251 average, .325 on-base average. Just imagine how much better it would be if he hit left-handed even nearly as well as he did right-handed.
“It is what it is, man, I’m naturally right-handed,” Goodrum said with a shrug.
His splits this season have followed his career history, even going back to the minor leagues, vastly better average right-handed, more power left-handed.
Batting right-handed: 91 plate appearances, one home run, .383/.440/.543 — .983 OPS
Batting left-handed: 328 plate appearances, nine home runs, .214/.293/.378 — .670 OPS.
“I hit more home runs left-handed, so maybe that has something to do with it,” Goodrum said. “I take more chances. I face more righties, yeah, but it doesn’t concern me. It’s year to year, next year could be different.
“I just keep working at it and try to be better. My thing is, I switch-hit. It’s going to even out. It’s not like I am just a left-handed hitter.”
Around the horn
As expected, the Tigers placed third baseman Jeimer Candelario on the injured list because of a left thumb sprain. He was held out of the game Monday after injuring the thumb on a swing in Texas.
"His hand is not good," Gardenhire said. "It's not broken, but it's going to be a while."
Dawel Lugo was summoned from Toledo to take his place.
... The Tigers claimed right-handed pitcher David McKay off waivers from Seattle. He's had a 5.15 ERA at Triple-A Tacoma, but with 71 strikeouts in 30 appearances covering 43.2 innings.
McKay made his big-league debut with the Mariners this season and gave up five runs in seven games. He fills the final spot on the Tigers' 40-man roster and will report to Triple-A Toledo.
... Left fielder Christin Stewart was in the Tigers clubhouse before Game 1 uncertain when he'd start a mandatory rehab assignment. He said he was symptom-free after serving the seven-day concussion protocol. Well, he found out — he would be in the lineup at Triple-A Toledo on Tuesday night.
White Sox at Tigers
First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
►RHP Ivan Nova (6-9, 5.10), White Sox: He’s given more hits (154) than any pitcher in baseball this season, but over his last three starts he’s been mighty stingy. In 20 innings over that span, he’s allowed just two runs with 13 strikeouts, limiting hitters to a .159 average.
►LHP Tyler Alexander (0-2, 4.50), Tigers: This will be his fifth start and he will likely face another mostly right-handed hitting lineup. Right-handers are doing almost all the damage against him — .313 average, .531 slugging and 117 OPS-plus.