By Rogelio Castillo
As a Detroit Tigers fan growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, left-hander Steve Avery, who was from Taylor, Michigan, made the entire area including my hometown into Atlanta Braves fans.
Keep in mind that was in the ’90s, when the Tigers switched owners and were trying to
recapture the glory of being one of the best teams of the 1980s.
One of the reasons behind Avery’s success in addition to the rest of one of the best starting rotations of all time in John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine was Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. That was the first time I was introduced as a teenager to how a pitching coach had an effect on an entire staff. Later, I would learn how Roger Craig showed Jack Morris and others on the Tigers’ staff how to throw a split-finger fastball, forever changing the fortune of Morris into a Hall of Fame player.
Mazzone, ironically enough, was a co-pitching coach with Johnny Sain in 1985. Sain helped the 1968 Tigers win the World Series with his spinner tool so the strange way Detroit ties itself to all of this is rather astonishing.
Smoltz said he became a different pitcher after he was traded from the Tigers to the Braves because of Mazzone.
"He simplified everything," says Smoltz. "I'll never forget it, he said, 'Give me your best athletic delivery.' I threw it, and he said, 'That's perfect.'"
Now I may have the opportunity to see how much one coach can make his pitchers on a regular basis.
During the 2021 season, manager A.J. Hinch hired pitching coach Chris Fetter, who is just 35 years old.
They first met around the time Fetter was switching gears into coaching and was already considered arising star in the industry.
At the University of Michigan, he quickly turned around a staff that made it to College World Series final in 2019. His intelligence that helped him maximize all his abilities as a pitcher in college and later in the Padres minor league system he applied to the young arms of the Tigers rotation, including Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning.
Manning was starting to grow as a starter towards the end of the season because Fetter gave every pitcher on the 40-man roster a pitching plan to follow.
Manning started to throw sliders and as a result, teams could not just sit on his fastball and changeup. He started to develop a good out pitch.
Tyler Alexander, who was pitching out of the bullpen last season, showed improvement when he moved to the rotation back in the early summer. His cutter usage increased, which resulted in his other pitches being much more effective.
Kyle Funkhouser, who was one of the first cuts in spring training, looked transformed and was a go-to reliever when he was called upon.
Same with reliever Alex Lange, who develop a changeup to go with his fastball and a spiked curve. The team that finished dead-last during the shortened season in 2020 with an team ERA of 5.63 suddenly fell to 4.32.
To put that into full-season context, in 2019, the staff had a composite ERA of 5.24.
What made the improvement more impressive was the amount of injuries to the starting rotation. The pitching coach, along with Hinch, was able to take what they had and make it work.
Starters Spencer Turnbull and Julio Teheran were out for the season and Matthew Boyd missed large chunks but minor-league free agents like Wily Peralta and Drew Hutchison stepped up.
Peralta started to throw a splitter for the first time since 2015 at around 22% of the time and batters hit just .080 against it.
Across the roster, fans could see the difference.
Perhaps we are starting to see a new foundation building in Detroit with Chris Fetter at the helm. We in Detroit have noticed. Hopefully you will too.
Rogelio Castillo is the co-editor at Motor City Bengals.com, co-founder of the Tigers Minor League Report that discusses the Tigers minor league system, and co-host of the Tigers Radio Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @rogcastbaseball, @tigersMLreport and @TigersRadioPod.