KANSAS CITY -- Two years have passed since Tigers general manager Al Avila talked about Kyle Funkhouser as an option for Detroit’s starting rotation. He was a ranked prospect at Triple-A Toledo with inconsistent results but a high strikeout rate, and the Tigers needed pitching help.
Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo were the future, but they were in Double-A Erie at the time. Funkhouser and Beau Burrows were in line to help the Tigers sooner.
“My hope is that those two guys get back to Toledo, doing what they're capable of doing,” Avila said at the time. “And if that's the case, you'll probably see those two guys at some point up here at the Major League level later in the summer. That is our hope.”
Funkhouser’s career has been a roller coaster since then, from an Erie-Toledo shuttle that summer to a lost Minor League season last year. He made his Major League debut last season in Detroit’s bullpen, but ended up serving as an extra reliever, largely filling innings in lopsided games. He was relief depth again to begin this season and didn’t get called up until the Tigers needed help due to injuries in the middle of a three-city road trip.
After all the ups and downs, Sunday was special. With family and friends in the stands behind home plate, Funkhouser not only helped an injury-depleted Tigers rotation in his first Major League start, he tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings against a White Sox team he followed while growing up in suburban Chicago. He couldn’t do anything for the Tigers' offense against Carlos Rodón, but he could give Detroit a chance by keeping the game close.
And as Funkhouser headed to the clubhouse after his outing, he received more than a pat on the back from Miguel Cabrera.
“He just said, ‘Really good job, man. Way to attack. You’ve been good for us. Just keep up the good work,’” Funkhouser said.
Considering Cabrera saw Funkhouser during his prospect years and throughout his struggles last year, that meant a lot to the 27-year-old right-hander. Between Sunday’s start and his bullpen work leading up to it, Funkhouser is delivering on the potential the Tigers saw in him a couple of years ago. It just took some patience. His emergence is quietly becoming one of the pleasant surprises of Detroit's season.
“Everyone’s path is different,” Funkhouser said. “For every 21-year-old that makes it, there’s a 29-year-old who debuts. Not everyone’s road is a crystal-clear straight line and lines up perfect. I had a lot of ups and downs, but it just molded me to where I am now, just kind of a different mindset, seeing some situations a little differently than I might have early in my career.”
The fact that Tigers manager A.J. Hinch turned to Funkhouser a day later to get out of a fifth-inning jam, having lost Alex Lange to right shoulder discomfort, was just as impressive. Funkhouser was only available for an emergency and that's what he got, inheriting runners at second and third base with one out in a 7-2 game. He didn't have time for warmup tosses in the bullpen, only on the mound.
Funkhouser walked Hunter Dozier on five pitches to load the bases before striking out Kelvin Gutierrez and retiring Edward Olivares.
“I feel bad for Lange, obviously,” Funkhouser said. “You never want anyone to get hurt, but especially a teammate and a friend. It really stinks, but I’m really glad I was able to get out of there unscathed.”
For Funkhouser, mindset is key to his success. What he’s throwing isn’t vastly different than last year. His four-seam fastball is up from 95.2 mph to 95.7 this season, according to Statcast, but he’s throwing it less. He’s throwing his sinker more with better results, including a .182 batting average against and a negative-9 average launch angle. His slider hasn’t changed, but the exit velocity off it is down from 92 mph to 87.2.
“It really kind of comes down to just attack,” Funkhouser said. “If I’m going to lose, lose in the zone. Make them hit it. Make them get three, four, five base hits in a row to knock me out of the game or whatever.
“You’re not always going to have your best stuff. You’re going to walk some guys. You’re going to give up some squib hits, some gappers, some homers. But a lot of times, when you’re positive and you’re attacking, things are going to go well. The more passive you are at times, you get hit harder. It’s just the way the game goes. It’ll humble you real quick.”
Sunday’s start might well end up being a one-time assignment. Those prospects who were once waiting behind Funkhouser are either in the big leagues or on the cusp, with Mize and Skubal in the Tigers' rotation. But Funkhouser could well have a future as a leverage reliever, filling a huge role right now. He certainly has the mentality for it.