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The evolution of Buck Farmer: From raw thrower to dean of Tigers' bullpen

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — There was a minute there in the early stages of the quarantine when things got a little too weird for Tigers reliever Buck Farmer.

“I mean, there I was, a big-league pitcher and I am playing catch in my backyard,” he said in a Zoom session Wednesday. “My neighbors came out and it was like, ‘What is this guy doing?’ Mentally, it was kind of strange.”

Fortunately, Joey Bart, a fast-rising catching prospect in the Giants organization, lives just a couple of miles away from his Farmer's home in Buford, Georgia.

“I could call him up and ask if he wanted to play catch and he’d say he’d be over in five minutes,” Farmer said, laughing. “It was like asking my dad to go outside and play catch, like I had to ask permission or something — ‘Can I go play in the backyard?’

“Man, what are we doing?”

Eventually he and Bart were able to move to a nearby high school field and throw off a mound. But the backyard flat-grounds weren’t the only thing Farmer has brought back from his youth.

“Oh, you mean the mullet?” Farmer said, showing his retro hairstyle. “It’s a childhood thing. I was shuffling though some pictures and I found a Christmas picture. Everyone is asking where the inspiration for the hair comes from, it was that Christmas picture when I was like 5 years old — the same exact style.”

Tigers reliever Buck Farmer posted a career-low 3.72 ERA over 73 appearances last season.

His hair may be a party in the back, but Farmer is all business where it counts. After years of toggling between Triple-A and Detroit, between starter and reliever, Farmer has emerged as one of the most durable and vital pieces of the Tigers’ bullpen.

He worked in 73 games last season, 67⅔ innings, and the importance of his late-inning setup role will be magnified by the condensed 60-game run this season.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a sprint, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s going to be 110% from Day One. It’s going to bring a lot of fun to the game. The huge pressure situations are going to mean a lot more this year.

“Not that they didn’t before, but in a 60-game season, every situation carries a lot more weight.”

It’s hard to fathom that Farmer, 29, is the second longest-tenured Tigers player after Miguel Cabrera. He’s the old-head in the bullpen. After years of soaking up knowledge from the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price and Anibal Sanchez, Farmer is the guy young relievers like John Schreiber, Nolan Blackwood and Bryan Garcia can lean on for advice.

“It’s a two-way street, really,” Farmer said. “I learn from them, too.”

The message he most often imparts, though, is something he was told when he made his debut in 2014 — respect hitters, but don’t fear any of them.

“The guy that steps into the box — not taking any credit away from them — but when you are on the mound, he’s just another bat with a name,” Farmer said. “You can’t give them too much credit. It’s still a game of failure. If you get three hits in 10 at-bats you’re going in the Hall of Fame. I’ll take those odds.

“When you are on the mound, you can’t give those guys too much credit. You are here for a reason, don’t lose sight of that.”

If any of the young pitchers want to talk about analytics, though, they should probably seek out Matthew Boyd or Casey Mize.

“I’m super old-school when it comes to that,” Farmer said. “I do look at hitters charts, the hot zones and cold zones and stuff like that. I’m not saying I don’t use them at all. But I’m not as heavy on it as a lot of other people.

“I’m one of those guys who, you can teach it all you want, but unless you can go out and execute that pitch, it’s pretty much useless information to you.”

So what Farmer has done over the course of the last six years is lock in and refine the three pitches in his tool bag — the heavy mid-90s fastball, an elite-level change-up and a sweeping slider-curve hybrid. He cut his walk percentage from 13.3 to 8.3 last season and was inducing a 53% swing-and-miss rate with his slider and a 31% whiff rate with his change-up.

“I’m trying some new things,” he said after throwing an impressive live bullpen session on Monday. “Trying to throw front-door breaking balls to right-handers and then throwing the other pitches off that same line.”

When Farmer was still making spot starts and pitching in long relief, he attacked hitters with both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball. He’s taken the two-seamer out of the mix and last season used his four-seam just 49% of the time.  

“Nowadays, unless you are throwing 100 mph, especially in my situation coming in late in games, it’s one of those things where you have to mix,” Farmer said. “I mean, based on scouting reports, there are some guys you can be heavier in certain areas than others.

“But in this day and age, with so many numbers available, if you are throwing 85% fastballs, guys are going to know that, and they are going to lock in on that.”

It’s been an impressive evolution — from a raw, country hardball thrower to a heady, three-weapon pitcher. Off the mound, too. Farmer showed up in 2014, wide-eyed and quiet. Now he’s married. He and wife Kayla have a daughter, Evelyn, and another child on the way.

So he had to weigh the risks to his family when he decided that he would come back and play despite the lingering threat of the coronavirus.

“There is some concern, not only for my health but for my wife and little girl,” Farmer said. “But honestly, the way I see it — and everyone is going to have their own opinion — but there’s not a whole lot of difference between putting my wife and child in a car and going to the store on a normal day. You are still taking that risk.

“That’s just the way I see it. Everything you do in life poses a risk. It’s how you go about it and try to minimize that risk. That’s what we try to do now.”

When it came down to it, Farmer said there was no chance he wouldn't come back to play, especially after reviewing the safety protocols the league and the Tigers have put in place.

“Yeah, I am in a clubhouse with 50-some other guys,” he said. “But I would much rather be here, in a controlled environment where I know if something happens to me or my wife, if we were to test positive, I know I have every resource available to contain it.

“At home, I’d be all on my own trying to find a hospital that could contain it. Coming back to play was a no-brainer for me.”

And a big, full-bearded, mullet-headed perk for the Tigers' bullpen.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky