'We got a lot better today': Tigers hire Michigan's Chris Fetter to be new pitching coach
Detroit — The hiring of University of Michigan's Chris Fetter as the new pitching coach on AJ Hinch's staff was being touted across the baseball world Friday as a progressive move by the Tigers.
And that caused Fetter to wince just a bit.
Yes, he's 34 and he built one of the most successful pitching programs in the country at Michigan through the use modern technology and data.
Still, he'd rather not be so rigidly defined.
"I think it's a problem in today's game that everyone puts those two things (old school and new school) in separate buckets," Fetter said. "I think that a lot of stuff we talk about with data and technology and analytics, pitching coaches from years prior had seen with their eyes and were able to explain it.
"We're just able to explain it in a more succinct way."
Fetter admits there was a time when he operated strictly by the numbers, by the data.
"It was the end-all, be-all for me. I wanted to back up everything I said as a coach with objective data," he said. "But there are times when you can go too far there and lose that gut feeling on guys.
"I think the pendulum has swung from trusting the data to the nth degree to now I'm starting to take a step back and move more, not toward the middle, but combining the two. There's always a balance between staying up to date but not going too far."
The fact is, Fetter's base in old-school fundamentals, discipline and ethics is as strong and integral as his use of technology and data. He credits his minor league pitching coach Jimmy Jones and manager Rich Dauer for establishing some of his core coaching beliefs.
"I never want to be labeled a new-school guy or the progressive guy," he said. "Nor do I want to be in the same boat in 30 years as an old-school guy. Everyone is constantly evolving.
"A lot of what we're seeing in today's game is what those older guys have seen but couldn't explain because the data wasn't accessible to them at that time."
Fetter had been on general manager Al Avila's radar even both he hired Hinch to be his manager last week. In fact, he had talked to Fetter before hiring Chris Bosio three years ago.
"But when we interviewed AJ and asked him about staff, he mentioned Chris," Avila said. "And when he told us he'd already had a relationship with him, well, that was a great benefit for us."
As a counterbalance to Fetter not having any big-league coaching or playing experience, Avila hired veteran pitching coach Juan Nieves, most recently at Triple-A Toledo, to be an assistant pitching coach and bullpen coach.
"That eases some of the uncertainty," Avila said. "Juan has been working with all of our pitchers and brings a little more stability. He can give Chris some inside information as he's building relationships with our pitchers."
It's not that Fetter is in any way a novice when it comes to working with big-league talent. He pitched in the Padres system for four seasons and then served as a scout for the Los Angeles Angels and minor-league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers before coaching one year at Ball State and then three years at Michigan, where eight of his pitchers ended up being drafted.
"We looked at how dynamic a pitching group we have and where we want to take it, the progressiveness of a guy like Chris Fetter and everything he's done, his vast experience across the board from scouting to player development to the college ranks — and he's excelled everywhere he's been," Hinch said.
"For us to be good, for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to get the pitching right. And we got a lot better today."
Fetter's relationship with Hinch goes back to 2009 when his playing career petered out. It was Hinch who pushed to keep Fetter in the system as a minor-league coach. Later, he encouraged Fetter leave the field and go into scouting.
"He sent me to scout school and he was the one who set up interviews for me right out of the gate," Fetter said. "Because of that relationship and who he is as a person and his vision for developing an organization — that's what you want.
"When you are talking about a guy you're going to be standing next to in that dugout, in the trenches, day after day and going to battle with, you want that to be someone you trust and feel comfortable with. I've found that with AJ."
Fetter was also enticed by the wealth of talented pitching prospects the Tigers have stockpiled the last few years. Five of the organization's top 10 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, are pitchers, including Casey Mize (No. 2) and Tarik Skubal (No. 5), who made their MLB debuts last season. Matt Manning (No. 3) and Alex Faedo (No. 10) could make their debuts in 2021.
"I don't know him personally, but the things that I have heard have been really positive," Mize said on Friday. "With his knowledge of technology and analytics, it seems like he can make us a lot better. I don't know a lot about him but I am looking forward to getting to know him and learning from him."
Mize, like most of the Tigers' pitchers, had a strong bond with former pitching coach Rick Anderson.
"I have the most respect for Rick Anderson," Mize said. "He was very patient and just really awesome for me. I really appreciate having the experience that he brought and all the things he did to help me feel comfortable at that level.
"With Chris Fetter and Juan together, though, I think that's going to be an awesome combination of pitch development and experience. I really like what I see from the staff AJ is putting together."
Fetter isn't going to be a firebrand, at least not initially. He said he's going to stand back and observe for a while. He wants to establish a relationship with the person first and the pitcher second. He wants to figure how each player processes information, how their minds operate and then work on ways to maximize their strengths.
"Is there a stigma that I didn't pitch in the majors — maybe," Fetter said. "But that kind of goes out the window when you can prove that you care and you can prove what you know. As a pitching coordinator I worked with some of the highest level of arms in the world, so there's some credibility there.
"Will there be some initial pushback? I don't think so. As long as you open up your chest and show them who you are as a person and that all you want to do is make them better, make them successful, that's how you create buy-in."
Hinch said Fetter's ability to maximize the technology — an area the Tigers' have poured millions of dollars into the last three years — and translate the data to on-field performance was a key selling point.
"It's the way he's been able to squeeze the most out of every pitcher he's coached," Hinch said. "But I like his scouting background. He's going to be able to tell us a lot about the quality of pitchers we have and how that factors into the decisions Al has to make about personnel.
"He's got a little edge to him that you guys haven't seen yet. And that's going to push some things moving forward with guys trying to maximize their skills. He and I align perfectly in that our job is to get the most out of each pitcher under the umbrella of a pitching philosophy. We couldn't be synced up any better."