How did injury-wracked Tigers stay afloat in September? Meet the unsung heroes
Chicago — September isn’t always the best month for player evaluations. Especially for teams playing out the schedule and not revving up for the postseason like the Tigers. Triple-A rosters in April and May are often littered with September heroes from the previous season.
Reliever Bryan Garcia comes to mind. He earned the closer role last September and made four saves, allowing one earned run over his last 11 outings. This season he barely made the team out of spring training and was optioned back to Triple-A at the end of May.
Best to take late-season performances with a rasher of perspective. Still, for veteran players looking to state one last case for a contract next season or for younger players trying to show they belong in the big leagues, a good impression can’t hurt you but a bad one can.
The Tigers managed a winning record in September, 14-12, despite a patch-work pitching staff that featured seven players who’d spent most of the year in Toledo. The top two starters — Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — were restricted to three- or four-inning starts. Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero, who had been stalwarts at the back end of the bullpen, ended up on the injured list.
Kyle Funkhouser, another invaluable workhorse, was pitching on fumes. Joe Jimenez was shut down for a stretch with COVID-19.
And yet, when the calendar turned to October, the Tigers had posted a 3.92 ERA in September, third best in the American League.
Here’s a belated hat-tip to some of the Tigers’ September heroes:
► Wily Peralta and Tyler Alexander combined to make 10 starts with the Tigers winning six of them. Peralta had a stretch of 16 straight scoreless innings and posted a 1.75 ERA in his five starts. Alexander went from being used essentially as an opener, one time through the order, to an unrestricted, every fifth-day starter.
He ended up pitching 100 innings, with one start left to go.
“He was asked to do a variety of things and he’s been able to do them well,” manager AJ Hinch said of Alexander. “In his mind, he’s always been a starter, that’s helped him get his edge. He’s always conditioned himself to throw a lot of pitches, but when you see him throwing 100 innings in a variety of roles, that’s pretty impressive.
“He’s a guy who needs a little more attention for the contributions this season.”
► Alex Lange was sent to Toledo earlier this year with very specific marching orders — start finishing innings in less than 20 pitches. His stuff was too good for him to be nibbling and working long counts consistently. Pound the zone and trust your stuff.
He started doing that and along the way resurrected a pitch that he used when he was a starting pitcher — the change-up. That pitch, as much as any other, changed the trajectory of his season. Hitters are 2-for-18 against it with seven strikeouts and a 47% swing-and-miss rate.
In 13⅓ innings in September, he allowed just three runs with 13 strikeouts. With Soto and Cisnero out, Lange has seamlessly stepped into leverage work.
► Drew Hutchison hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2018, bouncing around from organization to organization looking for another chance. He made 19 starts at Toledo before the Tigers brought him up for a spot start in late August. He responded by allowing an unearned run over 4⅓ innings against his former team in Toronto.
That earned him a second call-up in September and he made the most of that, too. He’s been used in a bulk-relief role, posting a 3-0 record and allowing two earned runs in 14⅓ innings.
► Derek Holland is going to be 35 in a week and you can make an argument that he’s embarking on a new chapter in his career as a reliever. After correcting a mechanical flaw that was causing him to put stress on his shoulder, he has regained the zip on his four-seam and two-seam fastball and become a reliable, multi-role arm for Hinch.
Holland has allowed one run in 14 innings in September, holding hitters to a .174 average.
► Michael Fulmer, too, has refashioned his pitching brand — from bulldog starter to bulldog late-inning leverage reliever. He stepped into the de facto closer role in September and posted five saves and three holds.
He’s allowed one earned run in 13 innings down the stretch.
What this may mean for these players going forward remains to be seen. Certainly Fulmer, who is arbitration-eligible, will be tendered and signed back. It’s unfathomable to think otherwise. Lange and Alexander are still under team control and will go to camp expected to retain their 2021 roles.
As for Holland, Peralta and Hutchison, they may find a healthier market for their services but the Tigers won’t close the door on any of them.