For reliever Ian Krol, curveball could be ticket back to Tigers
Clearwater, Fla. — Ian Krol threw a curveball when he pitched for the Tigers in 2014 and 2015. But he didn’t throw this curveball, not the one he’s featured in his three scoreless, hitless outings this spring, the one that’s helped him record six punchouts, the one that may push him into the Tigers’ pitching plans at some point this season.
“He’s getting an opportunity to show he belongs back or near this level,” manager AJ Hinch said Tuesday after Krol got the final four outs in a 6-5 spring win over the Yankees. “When you come in and throw strikes, with multiple pitches, he can go home knowing he did his job and he’s continuing to make a good impression.”
Krol, who turns 30 in May, spent last summer in a makeshift independent league after his career bottomed out in 2019, bouncing between the Reds and Twins Triple-A affiliates. But it was with the Twins that he started tinkering with a curveball, which may end up being the tool that facilitates his return to the big leagues.
He was a two-pitch pitcher — fastball, cutter — for most of his big-league career. But his pitching coach at Triple-A Rochester, Mike McCarthy, pushed him to come up a pitch with more vertical break.
“I learned the analytics of my fastball and I started tunneling pitches off that,” Krol said. “We messed around with a couple of different grips. The one that felt the best, had the most spin and bite to it was a knuckle-curve.”
By gripping the ball with a spiked index finger where the seams form a horseshoe, Krol has been able to generate about 2,800 rpms of spin on the pitch. Thus, the late and sharp plummeting action. Thus the parade of locked knees and feeble swings he’s getting with it this spring.
“It wasn’t something that came to me right away,” Krol said. “It was a really tough pitch to learn. The muscle memory of trying to get your fingers to grip a curveball and then grip a cutter off of that is difficult at times.”
He hasn’t had much trouble with it thus far. He threw six curveballs (79 mph) and six cutters (87) off his 93-mph fastball against the Yankees. Granted, three of the four hitters he faced were lefties, but he struck all three of them out. Only one ball was put in play.
“I would say I’m confident in my stuff,” Krol said. “The stuff I’m putting out there now is definitely better than in the past. But, one game, one pitch at a time. I just need to be consistent with it.”
Krol, in camp as a non-roster invitee, also knows that barring injuries, he’s not likely to break camp with the Tigers. But that’s not the point. What he’s doing this spring is making himself a viable option for later in the season.
“They know what kind of pitcher I can be,” he said. “Hopefully I can eat up some innings for them down the road.”
Make no mistake, though, Krol has some unfinished business he’s looking to take care of.
“I’m coming for everything they said I couldn’t have,” he said. “I feel like I want revenge for my performance when I was here before. I want revenge for the kind of person I was here on and off the field. I just want to be a better, well-rounded person and try to help as much as possible.”
Seeing new shapes
Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez got a 48% swing-and-miss rate with his sweeping slider last season. But the breaking ball he featured in his one scoreless inning against the Yankees on Tuesday had more vertical drop than sweep.
“His breaking ball shape has changed a tick,” Hinch said. “He can feel a difference from a little more of a top-down breaking ball. I don’t care what he calls it. (Pitching coach Chris) Fetter has been talking about optimizing spin and throwing it for strikes.
“Having command is going to be super important, especially as he elevates his fastball. Having the down action on breaking balls is something they’re flirting with.”
His fastball topped at 95 mph Tuesday and he had a velocity range on his slider between 79-84 mph.
On his drive from Lakeland to Clearwater on Wednesday, Hinch was thinking about how he might position his defense against some of the Phillies left-handed hitters, namely Bryce Harper, and the idea of playing a four-man outfield popped into his head.
“Yeah, I’m still waiting for the first four-man outfield of the spring,” said Hinch, who deployed four outfielders at times when he managed the Astros. “I could do it today with Harold (Castro). It might be fun.”
It was more of a thought than a plan, but there’s no doubt we will see that unique alignment throughout the season.
Toward that end, both Castro and Niko Goodrum will start to get outfield work soon. Hinch already has alerted Goodrum that he’ll be getting a couple of outfield starts, including one in center field, either Sunday or Monday at Joker Marchant Stadium.
Soon after, Castro will get outfield work, too.
“Heck, maybe Harold sees his action out in left field (today),” Hinch said with a wry smile. “Before I even give him work out there.”
Didn't happen and it didn't matter. Matthew Boyd struck out Harper twice.
Around the horn
First baseman Renato Nunez spent Wednesday in Lakeland taking live batting practice off relievers Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser. Hinch said he came to camp in good shape, albeit late, and is expected to see his first game action Friday.
…Shortstop Zack Short is away from the team as part of Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocol requirements. Hinch couldn’t be more specific, only to say that Short didn’t violate any of the rules. Short had recovered from being hit in the helmet by a pitch last week.
…Outfielder Daz Cameron, working his way back from an elbow injury, took live batting practice back in Lakeland Wednesday. Hinch said Cameron could get his first game at-bats of the spring on Friday and possible get a start at designated hitter on Saturday. He’s not cleared yet to play in the outfield.