Mike Fiers signed a free-agent contract with the Detroit Tigers on Friday, which means he’ll be working with a new pitching coach. After spending the last two-plus seasons with Brent Strom in Houston, Fiers will now be under the watchful eye of Chris Bosio — himself a new Motown arrival.
Back in October, I happened to ask the 32-year-old right-hander about coaches who have made an impact. One was Rick Kranitz, who he had in Milwaukee for his first several seasons.
“When I got to the big leagues, Kranny told me to trust in my stuff,” related Fiers. “Even though I was a right-handed pitcher throwing 88-90 with a slow curveball, he instilled in my head that what I did worked for me. I didn’t have to try to be like somebody else. We had Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse — guys who’d had success in the big leagues — but what I needed to do was be myself, not try to steer myself into being a pitcher I wasn’t.”
What Fiers was — and for the most part still is — is a righty with a standard build, average-at-best velocity, and solid-but-unspectacular secondary offerings. Lacking plus stuff, he lasted until the 22nd round of the 2009 draft. Pitchers who share those characteristics are a dime a dozen, and most don’t make the majors.
I challenged Fiers with a difficult-to-answer question: Why have you succeeded, while the majority of pitchers with your profile never get off the farm?
“I guess it’s about just never telling yourself you can’t do anything,” responded the over-achiever. “Most of the guys in this room have probably come in contact with someone who told them they couldn’t make it, but it’s about what you believe in your own mind.
“Pitching mostly comes down to location and knowing what to throw in certain counts — doing your homework on the hitters you’re facing. There are guys who throw 100, and there are guys who get outs throwing 88. Ultimately it’s about being a gamer and trusting your stuff.”
And then there is Brent Strom. Fiers credits the Astros pitching guru with helping him come to terms with one of his most important weapons.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs with my curveball, and he got me back to the basics,” explained Fiers. “Lance (McCullers) has one of the best curveballs in the game, but I can’t try to throw his curveball. What Strommy instills in me is to throw mine with confidence, and with the arm speed that Lance does. There are little things in there too, like hand speed.”
I asked the veteran hurler how he’d define hand speed.
“It’s like you’re thinking fastball the whole way,” explained Fiers. “Then, once you get out front… it’s that hand speed out front. Instead of just throwing with your arm and letting it come down, you’re more so coming through and snapping it. Basically, you have to think hand speed more than arm.”
Shohei Ohtani will be throwing a different baseball in MLB than he did in NPB. That could impact the action on some of his pitches, although probably not to a meaningful degree. Like most other Japanese pitchers who have come over, Otani shouldn’t have too much trouble adapting to our particular permutation of horsehide sphere.
Eric Neander expressed a similar sentiment when I asked him what role the ball plays when evaluating foreign players.
“Be it a different country, be it the amateur level… even the minor league ball isn’t exactly the same as the major league ball,” said Tampa Bay’s GM. “While there are subtle differences, at the end of the day what we believe tends to translate are things we can contextually strip away from the ball itself — the physical attributes, mechanically, how guys work and how they present. If you’re a strike thrower and can repeat a delivery… that’s what shines through, whether you’re throwing a rock or a baseball.”
When I talked to Riley Pint this summer, he told me he’s pleased to be in the Colorado system. The young right-hander pointed to the three rookie starters in the Rockies rotation as evidence that the club does a good job of developing arms. He feels he’s been making great strides since entering pro ball in 2016.
If you read this past Thursday’s interview with Rockies farm director Zach Wilson, you know that the team agrees. Asked about his subpar numbers, Pint said all he cares about is continually getting better. He doesn’t “give a crap about the stats.”
For the most part, he doesn’t care about analytics either. While Pint is familiar with tools like TrackMan, he’s “more of a feel type of guy. If it feels good I’m going to keep doing it, and if it doesn’t feel good I’m not going to do it. I kind of just judge everything off of that.”
That shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Pint isn’t serious about his craft — it’s more that he’s a believer in keeping things simple. That attitude extends to his relationship with his mentors.
“The first couple years of pro ball are mostly about adjusting to your surroundings, and to the pitching coaches you have,” said Pint. “You pretty much have to roll with the punches. Every pitching coach has different ideas on things, and thank goodness I’ve had the same one (Ryan Kibler) in rookie-ball and low-A. I got lucky. A lot of guys get a lot of different ideas thrown at them, and he and I have been on the same page.”
Offense was at a premium in 2014. Runs were down, strikeouts were up, and people all across the game were concerned. That included the men entrusted with building rosters for their respective teams. Were we seeing the beginning of a long-standing trend, or simply a cyclical blip? At that year’s GM meetings, I asked several of them for their opinion.
Three years later, that question is again pertinent. Strikeouts remain high, but the overall offensive environment has changed markedly, particularly terms of taters. Fences were cleared in record numbers this year (was it the baseball?). As before, wwe’re left to wonder what that means going forward.
White Sox GM Rick Hahn foresees a furthering of ebb-and-flow.
“I think well see some sort of cyclical reaction,” Hahn told me. “The (increased number of) curveballs is a reaction to the balls in the air and the home runs. Pitchers will adjust. Defenses will adjust. Roster construction will adjust. I think we’ll see some regression back the other way because of that.”
Cincinnati’s Dick Williams feels much the same way, albeit somewhat less certain.
“I think that ultimately things will remain cyclical, but how long those cycles are, I can’t tell you,” said the Reds GM. “I mean, velocities are at an all-rime record, strikeouts are at an all-time record, three true outcomes are at an all-time record. Breaking balls. Pace of play. This game is going in lots of areas where it’s never been before. The way pitchers approach the game, the way hitters approach the game. We need to figure out the long term trends versus the short term trends. Maybe there’s a new normal?”
What if an altered baseball is responsible for the home run surge, as many believe? And if behind-the-scenes tinkering occurred — many believe that as well — what are the chances that next year’s will be re-engineered to make them less like Wham-O Super Balls? How would teams respond to the change?
Which brings us back to Neander.
“I think you have to be careful not to chase your tail and be overly paranoid about where something like that could go,” opined the Tampa GM. “But you do need to have a close eye on it. You have to pay attention to details and be very responsive if certain trends are starting to show up, be it on a results-based level or a pitch level.”
That obviously extends well beyond how far the baseball is flying. The Rays need to be as cutting edge as possible in order to compete with their deeper-pocketed rivals.
“In order to have success, we have to be different in terms of how we operate,” said Neander. “Whether it’s a first-mover advantage or a second-mover advantage, we need to be in-tuned as we possibly can with the other 29 organizations and what’s allowing them to have success. At the end of the day, compared to most teams, we need to stretch our finances further in order to get the job done.”
The rebuilding Tigers would presumably like to deal Miguel Cabrera, but his contract status — he’s owed $30 million annually for the next six seasons — makes that easier said than done. And money isn’t the only obstacle. Cabrera is coming off a career-worst year where he was hampered by herniated discs.
Health-wise, Detroit’s man-in-charge feels the 34-year-old future Hall of Famer can follow the path of a player the Tigers inked as a free agent in 2004.
“When we signed Pudge Rodriguez, he had back issues,” said Al Avila, who was the Tigers’ assistant GM at the time. “We took a risk on Pudge. Our first medical doctor said, ‘Don’t.’ They didn’t want us to sign him. Mr. Ilich took a risk. But his workout routine allowed him to play for many more years, and there’s no reason Miguel can’t (do the same).”
Rodriguez — 32 years old when he came to Motown — slashed .298/.328/.449, and was awarded three Gold Gloves. in his four-plus seasons with the Tigers.
Chris Hoiles 1993 belongs in the great-overlooked-seasons category. In what was by far his career year, the Baltimore Orioles catcher slashed .310/.416/.585 with 29 home runs in 503 plate appearances. Not a lot of people seemed to notice. Despite having the third-most WAR (7.0) in the American League, Hoiles finished 16th in MVP voting.
Originally drafted by Detroit out of Eastern Michigan University, Hoiles spent all of his big league time with the Orioles, putting up 24.8 WAR from 1989-1998.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Dale Murphy went 2 for 34 against Greg Maddux.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Wall Street Journal, Jared Diamond wrote about how The Yankees Defy Conventional Wisdom With Their New Manager.
Over at The Guardian, Patrick Hruby asked if ESPN — “one of the most important companies in American television history” — can manage its own decline.
Which hitters had the most extreme spray charts in 2017? David Adler gave us the answer at MLB.com.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Minnie Minoso (who belongs in the Hall of Fame) had a .298/.389/.459 slash line and a 130 adjusted OPS in 1,835 big-league games.
Joe Torre started 836 games at catcher, 713 at first base, and 493 at third base.
On December 12, 1933, the Philadelphia A’s traded Mickey Cochrane — coming off a season where he slashed .322/.459/.515 — to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Johnny Pasek and $100,000. Cochrane captured the AL MVP in 1934.
In 1935, Red Sox right-hander Wes Ferrell went 25-14 and threw an AL-best 31 complete games. At the plate, he hit .347 with seven home runs and a .960 OPS.
A pair of Jim Walkups — cousins born in Havana, Arkansas — played in the big leagues. James Elton Walkup, a right-handed pitcher, went 16-38, 6.74 for the St. Louis Browns and Detroit Tigers from 1934-1939. James Huey Walkup, was a left-handed pitcher who threw an inning-and-two-thirds for the Detroit Tigers in 1927.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.