Detroit – Juan Nieves had a simple question for reliever John Schreiber.
“Why do you throw every pitch to the same side of the plate?”
Schreiber, the 25-year-old from Rockwood, Mich., had ascended swiftly through the Tigers system in four years, and was promoted from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo on April 24. Nieves, the Mud Hens pitching coach, watched a side-arming right-hander throw all his pitches, especially his slider and change-up, to his glove side – inside to left-handed hitters, outside to right-handed hitters.
After seeing him struggle to put away hitters in his first few appearances at Toledo, especially lefties, Nieves went to work.
“I asked why he didn’t throw a back-door slider,” Nieves said. “He’d never heard of that before. He was a one-sided guy, glove side, with his slider going into lefties and lefties were hitting a high average against him.
“I showed him he could throw a back-door slider and I showed him he could pitch up in the zone, too.”
Once he saw that he could spin a slider and clip the outside corner against left-handed hitters, once he saw that with his arm angle, his 91-92 mph fastball could be effective up in the strike zone against launch angle-conscious big-league hitters, he was transformed.
No longer was he a one-dimensional, right-handed specialist.
“I’ve never wanted to be a specialist,” Schreiber said. “I want to be a guy who can face anybody, left or right. There’s still a bunch of stuff I need to work on, just like everybody else. It’s just a continuous process.”
Since he yielded a two-run home run to Yankees slugger Edwin Encarnacion and blew a save on Sept. 10, Schreiber has not allowed run in his last fiver outings. He’s struck out nine, allowed four hits and an opponent average of .180 in his last six innings.
Most of the damage against him has been with his fastballs. Opponents are 9-for-30 with two home runs off his four-seam and 3-for-3 against his sinker. But, Schreiber also has a 26.5 percent strikeout rate with his four-seam and a 32 percent swing-and-miss rate.
“I need to work on those pitches and be able to command them (in the strike zone) and execute pitches in the right counts,” he said. “The biggest thing at this level, if you don’t execute pitches on 0-2 or 1-2, and you make mistakes, they will crush it.
“Especially the big hitters – like Encarnacion and (Royals Jorge) Soler. If you are behind in the count, you can’t just give in to them. They’re already sitting fastball.”
And that’s where being able to spin a back-door slider to lefty or elevate one to a righty comes into play. Opponents are 0-for-9 against Schreiber’s slider (which is read as a curveball by Statcast). Of the 53 he’s thrown, 45 percent have been swung at and missed.
“Before this year, that was something I really wanted to work on,” Schreiber said. “Especially to lefties. I worked on the back-door slider to lefties and a change-up to lefties. Working with Juan, I had a lot more success this year locating that slider back-door. It’s really been nice having him helping me throw that pitch.”
He’s struck out seven of the 21 left-handed hitters he’s faced, allowing an OPS of .697. Right-handers are hitting him harder -- .996 OPS, two homers and five strikeouts.
“The main thing this year is finding trust with it,” Schreiber said. “Trying to get that feel for it, having that spin coming into that location. The biggest thing is trust and not being hesitant with it and being worried that it’s going to get hit hard.”
It came together for him in a big way last Tuesday in Cleveland. He was summoned with the bases loaded and two outs in the fourth and he walked the first batter he faced, Greg Allen, to force in a run.
But he dispatched the next seven hitters, striking out four including lefty Mike Freeman, Francisco Lindor and Oscar Mercado.
"He's got the funk," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He throws from underneath and that slider comes up. He's fun to watch. I like him. I've always liked someone who can do something different. That submarine stuff works for me."
It worked for Schreiber again Sunday. He struck out four in 1.2 innings of work in the Tigers' 6-3 win against the White Sox, including Jose Abreu and Eloy Jimenez in the seventh inning.
“I was a little uncomfortable the first couple of outings, which I guess is natural,” he said. “Now I’m starting to find my groove, starting to be a little more confident out there. But there is still room for more confidence and comfortability.
“I’m just excited to keep going.”
Around the horn
Miguel Cabrera was held out of the lineup for the second straight game Sunday. His right knee was visibly swollen and too sore to play. Asked if he considered shutting it down for the remainder of the season, he sternly said, "No."
... Matthew Boyd no longer leads the Major Leagues in home runs allowed (he's second), but he did take over the lead in balks. He was charged with his fourth balk of the season in the second inning.
... Reliever Buck Farmer made his 71st appearance, throwing a scoreless eighth inning. He became the eighth Tigers pitcher to make at least 71 outings in a season since 2000 and the first since Al Alburquerque pitched in 72 games in 2014.