Jupiter, Fla. — As front offices take more of an analytical approach to building baseball teams, computers are helping to build pitchers.
In the newly acquired Paul Richan however, the Tigers now have a pitcher who builds computers.
Richan was among four former top-two round picks added by the Tigers organization in the hours and minutes leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. And while the returns for Shane Greene and Nick Castellanos were perceived as modest, this past week served as a peek of the vision the Tigers front office envisioned from the haul.
In addition to new everyday right fielder Travis Demeritte, Greene fetched lefty Joey Wentz from Atlanta, while Richan and reliever Alex Lange were the prizes from Chicago for Castellanos.
Demeritte entered Saturday hitting safely in nine of his last 10 games, hitting .371 with a home run and four RBIs in that stretch.
Meanwhile, the trio of arms all earned victories last week in the minors, combining to go 3-0 in 13 innings, striking out 14 batters and allowing two earned runs for a combined 1.38 ERA.
Even the most optimistic projections can’t point to these four players as potential bedrocks for winning baseball down the road at Comerica Park, but they could all be building blocks for better times.
“They’re just rich with history,” Richan said Thursday after a Florida rainout, one night before his first win with the High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. “They’ve had incredible pitching throughout the years in Detroit. I kind of knew right off the bat that I’ll be in good hands.”
The early returns of how the organization handles highly drafted arms has been solid in the rebuild, with first-round pitchers Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Casey Mize all so far living up to their lofty billing.
In Richan, Lange and Wentz, the Tigers added three arms all picked within the top 78 picks of the last four drafts.
Traded from the Cubs, gunning this summer for their fifth straight postseason appearance, Richan recognized the opportunity ahead with the Tigers, currently listless at the major league level.
“Being able to see the kind of opportunities that Detroit has really makes me excited,” he said after Al Avila and Theo Epstein’s staffs beat the deadline buzzer with the deal. “It was a little hectic, but I’m really excited to be here.”
Richan, the 78th pick of the 2018 draft, said a Tigers scout was at his last half-dozen or so starts with High-A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League.
There, they found a meticulous mind who has built computers and lists coding as his top offseason hobby. During the year, he keeps his low-to-mid 90s fastball down in the zone but sometimes struggles to finish the job, often because of a lack of speed variance from his off-speed stuff.
“The main thing that’s positive is he’s a strike-thrower,” Lakeland manager Andrew Graham said. “Good kid, good frame, 92-94 with a sinker. He’s got a good arm on him.”
Graham, the Australian skipper who guided West Michigan to the 2015 Midwest League title, was a catcher in the Tigers organization for five seasons after being selected in 2003’s 19th round.
Graham said he’d like to see Richan expand the zone when ahead in the count.
“I get ahead of guys and I need to be able to throw more pitches to get them out as opposed to just throwing strikes to throw strikes,” Richan said.
Richan said Brendan Sagara, the Cubs minor league pitching coordinator, tasked him with an analytical approach upon joining the organization. Most of the work was done after the game, charting every pitch to reflect on the approaches and sequences against different hitters.
Richan brought his notebook to Lakeland after the trade, but now does more of his analytical work before the start. This week, Richan set up his usual pregame blueprint with catcher Grayson Greiner, playing with the Flying Tigers on an injury rehab, putting pen to pad about how he would attack each hitter.
“It’s more of a pregame kind of map,” Richan said. “Looking into the analytics now, it’s incredible. Pretty much, if you can hit the box, you should be a successful pitcher.”
Richan struck out seven Bradenton batters on Friday in six innings, raising his season record to 11-6 with a 4.19 ERA over 20 starts.
Wentz was the most highly rated of the Tigers trade haul, ranking No. 11 in the Detroit News Top 50 prospects list.
He’s 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA with Double-A Erie, which leads the Eastern League’s Western Division with a little over two weeks to play.
Wentz went from a middling Southern League team in the Mississippi Braves to a playoff push with the SeaWolves, the inversion of the parent clubs statuses.
HIs five innings of shutout ball Friday against Akron lifted Erie to its fourth straight win, a streak started with Lange winning Tuesday in relief.
Avila declared after the Chicago deal that Lange, who was picked 30th in the 2017 first round, would pitch out of the Erie bullpen after exclusively starting with the Cubs organization.
All the three pitchers have had to deal with change these last three weeks, but have settled in well as of late, allowing them and fans to dream of days getting significant summer outs in future Detroit summers.
“I had to understand that from the get-go going into pro ball, that’s just how baseball goes, that’s the business side of it,” Richan said. “But the development here is incredible. I think they work every time with me throwing and perfecting my mechanics and getting better every day.
"I’m just really happy to be here.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.