DETROIT -- Seventeen months after Chris Fetter helped lead the University of Michigan to the College World Series finals, the pitching coach is headed down the road to take charge of the young pitchers the Tigers are relying on to build a World Series contender.
It’s a job enticing enough for the 34-year-old pitching coach to leave a dream job at his alma mater.
The Tigers will also promote Juan Nieves from Triple-A Toledo to serve as assistant pitching coach. In addition, they announced that Josh Paul and Ramon Santiago will remain on staff as quality control coach and either first- or third-base coach.
Fetter could be the most important hire of Hinch’s coaching staff as he tries to lead Detroit back into contention. The Tigers have the makings of a potentially dominant rotation, with three of the top 42 prospects on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list. Casey Mize (No. 5) and Tarik Skubal (No. 42) made their Major League debuts this summer and ended the season in Detroit’s rotation. Matt Manning (No. 20) is expected to make the jump at some point next season along with former first-round pick Alex Faedo; both were shut down late this season with forearm tightness.
Veteran pitching coach Rick Anderson guided Mize and Skubal into the Majors this summer and coached all of them in Spring Training, having served as the Tigers' pitching coach the previous two and a half seasons under Ron Gardenhire. Fetter will now be tasked with helping them take the next step.
“Couldn’t be more excited to join the staff and the vision that [general manager] Al [Avila] and A.J. have put together for this team going forward,” Fetter said in a Friday afternoon video conference with reporters. “When you start looking at what makes jobs desirable at this level, it starts on the mound, and I truly believe with the prospects they have coming up, along with the prospects that got their feet wet last year in the big leagues, the pieces are there to keep developing those guys. And that’s going to be a priority.”
The Tigers are the latest team to turn to the college ranks for a pitching coach. The Twins became the first Major League team to hire a pitching coach directly from college when they hired Wes Johnson from the University of Arkansas two years ago. The Tigers tapped into the college pipeline a year ago when they hired former USC head coach Dan Hubbs as their director of pitching development.
College baseball, Hubbs explained last Spring Training, has long focused on getting more out of current talent rather than simply acquiring the best talent. That put major college programs on the forefront of pitching analytics, biomechanics and technology, such as Rapsodo machines and high-speed cameras. The pro game is now following suit.
That approach also appealed to Fetter. Beyond the Wolverines’ on-field success, three Michigan pitchers have been drafted in the first three rounds over the last two MLB Drafts.
“A lot of guys are coming from the college game to the professional level, and we’re getting more and more players that have been used to these types of technology and equipment as they’ve been coming up through the amateur game,” Fetter said. “It’s just something that they’re used to now. They seek it out. We want to be as well-versed in every different capacity of player development as possible. That way, we don’t feel like they have to go off somewhere else to get the proper instruction.”
Fetter’s ability to blend that new-school knowledge with traditional instruction has made him a coveted coach the last couple offseasons. The Yankees and other clubs interviewed him for their pitching-coach position last offseason. The White Sox were interested in adding him to Tony La Russa’s staff in Chicago, according to Morosi. The Yankees interviewed him for their pitching-coach position last offseason. The White Sox were interested in adding him to Tony La Russa’s staff in Chicago, according to Morosi.
The Tigers offered not only the opportunity to work with a bevy of talented pitchers, but to do it within commuting distance from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich.. Fetter has spent the past three years at his alma mater after serving as the Dodgers’ pitching coordinator prior to that.
Fetter also has a history with Hinch, having pitched in the Padres’ organization from 2009-12. Hinch was in San Diego’s front office as assistant general manager and scouting director from ‘11-14 and encouraged Fetter to get into coaching.
“What made him good at Michigan and all the stops along the way is going to make him good as the Detroit Tigers pitching coach, and that started with intellectual curiosity,” Hinch said. “There’s a competitive fire in there that he combines that with, and his belief in people and doing things the right way, that step-by-step process. He was very methodical in how he learned his trades.”
Hinch said he kept in touch with Fetter through his journey from Padres Minor League coach to player development to Michigan. When Hinch took the Tigers job, he had Fetter in mind.
“We had Chris on our radar from past conversations internally,” Avila said. “And when we interviewed A.J., he brought up Chris then, and that obviously piqued our interest even more so in the sense that there’s a good reason for him to come here now. He’s got a good relationship with A.J. and we thought that would be obviously beneficial to us and we were hopeful. Once we hired A.J., we moved fast on Chris.”
The Tigers are also joining the trend of hiring an assistant pitching coach rather than a bullpen coach, a reflection of the increased duties and shared responsibilities that often go on now. In that sense, Nieves’ pro experience complements Fetter’s resume. Nieves has been a Major League pitching coach in Boston (2013-15) and Miami (‘16-18) before serving as the Mud Hens’ pitching coach last year. With the Minor League season cancelled by the COVID pandemic, Nieves returned to Toledo this summer to coach at the alternate training site, where he worked with all four aforementioned Tigers pitching prospects.
Santiago and Paul will be the only holdovers from former manager Ron Gardenhire’s staff, according to Hinch. That wasn’t a surprise. Anderson and hitting coach Joe Vavra have been closely tied with Gardenhire throughout their careers.
Lloyd McClendon and Dave Clark both interviewed for the latest managerial opening before the Tigers hired Hinch. McClendon spent more than a decade on the Tigers' staff under Gardenhire, Brad Ausmus and Jim Leyland. Clark spent seven years on staff for Gardenhire and Ausmus.
“We do owe a lot of gratitude to the staff before us that laid a foundation,” Hinch said. “We do owe a lot of gratitude to the work they’ve done with the players.”