Goals for the 2018 Detroit Tigers must be modest ones. “Don’t be awful” is a reasonable starting point in negotiations. However, job No. 1 for the Tigers is to build up their pitching staff. The proposed rebuild will have many facets, but one constant is that pitching wins baseball games more often than not. Bad pitching loses, and for several years the Tigers have seen stacked lineups and strong frontline arms undone by poor support work from the bullpen and the back half of the rotation.
The man tasked with turning this trend around is new pitching coach Chris Bosio. While the Tigers haven’t added much in the way of notable new arms this offseason, they are largely new to Bosio. He appears to have wasted little time in getting to know them. Bosio and many of the Tigers’ key arms have already developed and implemented improvement plans this offseason, with Bosio reaching out with specific goals, mechanical adjustments, drills, and an aggressive philosophy to impart. His impact on a staff that finished with the worst ERA in baseball will be a key storyline to follow this season.
The veteran on the Tigers’ staff has proven one of the worst signings in recent history. Neck issues have plagued the formerly excellent Zimmermann almost since the moment he put on a Tigers uniform. Zimmermann will get an injection soon that he hopes will get him through the season without flare-ups of pain and irritation that have affected him in the past. He also changed his offseason weight lifting routine in an attempt to strengthen his back and core muscles to better support his neck.
Bosio has a few other ideas to get Zimmermann back on track. Bosio watched a lot of video on him this offseason, and saw plenty of the righthander when he was at his best, tormenting Chicago Cubs hitters several years ago.
According to Bosio, he saw a few things that Zimmermann had changed in his routine and mechanics, presumably as a result of the injuries. Bosio told Zimmermann that he wasn’t working quickly the way he used to, and both men agree that’s something that has to change in 2018. As reported by George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press, the two men are in sync on Zimmermann’s spring training work.
“I think we’re going to really connect,” Zimmermann said. “He was watching video of me. He sees some things that I was doing last year, the last two years, that I wasn’t doing in D.C. So, try to fix those. It was definitely good to hear.”
Zimmermann said Bosio told him his time throwing to the plate was “way slower than it ever has been. I gotta pick up the pace a little bit,” Zimmermann said.
It is best to keep expectations for Zimmermann well in check, but it’s good that he and Bosio already have a plan in place to right the ship. Bosio himself knows from experience how a nagging injury can force a pitcher out of his comfort zone.
“When you are hurt, you start to develop different habits, just trying to get by,” Bosio said. “I wasn’t here, but from the conversations I’ve had and the things I can see on video, he was really trying to gut things out.
The Tigers’ young ace has one main task in 2018, and that’s simply to stay healthy. But Bosio has some additional ideas for Fulmer as well. In particular, the two have discussed working on a softer front leg landing with his slider this spring. Getting a little more depth on his slider is really the key to unlocking Fulmer as an elite starter, so it’s good to see they already have a plan in mind to sharpen it.
Boyd struggled at times during the 2017 season, but he finally put it together late in the year, nearly spinning his first no-hitter and holding opponents to a 2.95 ERA in September. While his 3.92 FIP would suggest there was a good deal of luck involved, the improvements came with tangible changes to Boyd’s delivery. He continued the ongoing process of lowering his arm slot with former Tigers pitching coach Rich Dubee, and it started to click for him in late August.
As a result, Boyd found a bump in velocity on his fastball. Coming late in the season, that’s a fairly encouraging sign. The lower arm slot also changed the movement on his curveball to a more 11-to-5 shape, yet the pitch seemed to play well off his changeup. Boyd still wasn’t striking out a ton of hitters, but enough to stay out of trouble and pitch deep into games.
Boyd has continued his weighted ball work and throwing program this winter, but he changed things to work on grooving the lower arm slot with all his pitches. To that end, Bosio suggested some drills to incorporate into Boyd’s routine this offseason.
Despite frustration with Norris’ ongoing injury issues — frustration felt by no one more so than Norris himself — there is reason for optimism in 2018. On a list of best things that could happen to the Tigers in 2018, Norris breaking out as an above-average starting pitcher is one of the more reasonable ones to root for. He remains a very talented young pitcher who has yet to turn 25 years old, and a series of nagging injuries and missed starts may explain the way his command backed up in 2017.
Norris changed his training regimen this offseason, training with Peak Performance in Los Angeles and Atlanta. They focused heavily on improving his core strength and hip mobility. Norris felt the effects on his range of motion and balance on the mound and on the surfboard.
“I’m telling you, man, I could really see the benefits of it, because I was surfing better than I ever have,” Norris said, laughing. “I was making bottom turns, and I wasn’t able to do that before.”
Bosio and Norris spoke during the holidays. Bosio offered some video analysis of Norris, and suggested some additional drills to improve his balance.
Norris was worth 1.3 fWAR in just 101 2⁄3 innings last year, with a 4.39 FIP, so the possibility of a league average season in 2018 isn’t far-fetched. But the ceiling remains a good deal higher than that. If the offseason work and Bosio’s influence pay dividends for Norris in 2018, the Tigers could find themselves with another good young starter to pair with Michael Fulmer.
Bosio demands an aggressive mindset
For Bosio, this is all part and parcel of his overall philosophy. He is going to treat each pitcher as an individual. But he wants a consistent mentality as well. He referenced Zimmermann’s formerly fast-paced, aggressive style on the mound as something he plans to demand from his pitchers.
“It was the tempo, but it was also the ‘I’m going to ram the ball down your throat’ attitude,” Bosio said. “That was infectious. You can feed off that. And that’s what I want to stress here with everybody. Dictate tempo.
“We’re going to play an up-tempo game. We’re going to try to control the tempo of the game, try to get three quick outs and turn it over to the offense. But we need to control tempo.”
Bosio also wants his pitchers to throw inside, because, of course, every pitching coach wants his pitchers to be aggressive and pitch inside. This is all somewhat standard fare. The question is whether or not he can impart this and turn a somewhat scruffy pack of young pitchers into a consistently effective unit.
He has his work cut out for him, but he also has some young talent that has fallen short of its potential. The Tigers will hope Bosio can unlock some of that talent in 2018. If he can’t, it’s destined to be another rough season for the Tigers.