Derek Holland was ready to inherit a jam in the middle of an inning in Tuesday's 7-4 loss to the Yankees. Pitching coach Chris Fetter had warned Tigers relievers that their appearances would start feeling more like game situations. He was not expecting bases loaded and nobody out.
It wasn’t entirely by design. Michael Fulmer hit his pitch count as the third inning unraveled on him, culminating in a hit-by-pitch that scored a run. The Yankees had four consecutive left-handed hitters lined up, so the situation made sense.
Holland, a veteran of 227 Major League starts in his 12-year career, embraced the chaos and swung open the bullpen door.
“I really wasn’t expecting it to be like that,” Holland said. “But to be honest, I … love that. That was great.”
Holland not only left the bases loaded, he struck out the top of the Yankees' lineup the next inning as well. He pounded the strike zone with 95 mph fastballs, dropped a curveball on Brett Gardner for a called third strike and fanned Aaron Hicks on a changeup to end his two-inning outing with five strikeouts.
Holland, a non-roster invitee, has one walk, 11 strikeouts and three hits allowed over six scoreless innings this spring. In embracing a relief role, he has added a further wrinkle to what was already shaping up to be manager A.J. Hinch’s most left-handed bullpen.
Only one southpaw reliever, Tony Sipp, made 50 appearances or pitched 40 relief innings in a season during Hinch’s five-year tenure as Astros manager. Joe Thatcher was the only other lefty to make 40 appearances in 2015, Hinch’s first season. After Sipp left as a free agent, Houston went much of '19 without a left-hander in the 'pen, with Framber Valdez used as a swingman.
Hinch looks for outs more than he looks for matchups. Yet he could begin his Tigers tenure with as many as four left-handers in his bullpen. It wouldn’t be a philosophical shift, but a realization that some of his best options are southpaws.
Hinch knew coming in that he would likely have at least two lefties. Gregory Soto had a place in the late innings no matter who became skipper after striking out 29 batters over 23 innings last season with 99 mph sinkers that flummox hitters from both sides. Once a mercurial starter, Soto now wants to be a closer, a role Hinch hasn’t decided yet.
While Holland and Soto are former starters who have embraced becoming relievers, Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander are relievers who would rather be starters again. Norris likely would have been in last year’s rotation if not for baseball’s shutdown; he missed Summer Camp while dealing with COVID-19 and made only one start before finding a role in the 'pen.
Oddly, he found success in relief, allowing a .212 average with 28 strikeouts over 26 bullpen innings. His average fastball velocity of 92.7 mph was his highest since 2017, and his .338 wOBA off the pitch was the lowest of his career. He has a role on the Tigers; it just hasn’t been defined yet.
“I’ve made that known that I want to start,” Norris said Wednesday. “But having said that, no matter what happens, I also made it clear to [Hinch]: I want you to feel like you need to use me. … I understand covering innings and stuff, but I also want to feel like you need to bring me in the game and have faith in me and confidence in me.”
That message was well-received. Hinch sees Norris as effective against all hitters thanks in part to his changeup.
“Even if he doesn’t make the rotation, he’s going to be a weapon,” Hinch said. “I don’t think bulk reliever is doing him justice.”
Similarly, Alexander has a pitch mix that could play in a variety of situations, though his nine consecutive strikeouts last August against the Reds was a sign of the impact a good long reliever can make.
Holland is the wild card, signed to a Minor League deal after posting 6.00+ ERAs in three of the last four years.
“The velocity is what’s opened eyes,” Hinch said. “He got some swing-and-miss last year when he went to the bullpen in Pittsburgh, and that caught the attention of our people. One of the reasons we brought him on board was this role where he can miss a few bats and, as a veteran player, be a presence in the bullpen potentially.”
The Tigers already have four right-handers seemingly set in the bullpen with Buck Farmer, Bryan Garcia, Joe Jiménez and José Cisnero. Adding four lefties would bring an evenly balanced relief corps. But it’s not balance Hinch is looking for; he needs outs. So far, the southpaws are stepping up.