Have you ever had a freak injury? I have. It was fourth grade and my mom dropped me off for school 10 minutes early, like usual, so I could go play outside at my school’s playground before the teachers let us in and started class. I took about three steps, fell on a patch of ice, and fell straight on my head. The injury required around six stitches, but I was back to full health in about a week (you would really think the janitors would salt the ice right there).
Flash forward to late July 2018. Kyle Funkhouser is walking home from a game, but falls victim to an uneven portion of the sidewalk. I know what you’re thinking: what a funky injury, right? (Is that “Jungle Boogie” I hear in the background?)
No. Stop that right now. This is a man that fell to the Tigers in the fourth round of the 2016 draft after he was a late first round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015. Like we mentioned in our 2018 top 30 prospect coverage of Funkhouser, his future success will primarily rely on how much work his arm can handle moving forward.
Funkhouser gambled on himself by returning to Louisville for his senior year in 2015. Unfortunately for him, he lost some cash in the process, as the Tigers selected him the fourth round the following year.
Since then, he has had two injury-shortened seasons; he made five phenomenal starts for High-A Lakeland in 2017 before elbow inflammation shut his season down — at least he posted a 2.23 FIP and 9.77 strikeouts per nine innings — and he pitched 89 innings for Double-A Erie and 8 2⁄3 innings in Triple-A Toledo last year before the sidewalk incident. The 6’2, 220-pound prospect will turn 25 on March 16, so it’s likely the Tigers will continue to aggressively push him through the system in 2019.
Funkhouser wouldn’t be a Tigers pitching prospect without a plus fastball (60 FV per FanGraphs), but don’t worry; he sits in the mid-90s and can reach 98 miles per hour. His repertoire is completed by a two-seam fastball, a plus slider (55/60 FV), and an above-average changeup (50/55 FV), the latter a pitch he rarely utilized at Louisville but has since developed with pro instruction. MLB Pipeline dove into that a bit more in their latest team rankings update.
The right-hander will sit in the low 90s, but can reach back for 96-97 mph consistently when healthy. His slider has the chance to be a tick above average when all is said and done and his changeup has improved to give him another at least Major League average offering. He still uses a fringy curve as a “get-me-over” different look for hitters. Funkhouser showed the ability to miss bats and induce weak contact on the ground in 2017, all while staying in and around the strike zone.
Let’s see what that combination of a 60 FV fastball and a 55/60 FV slider did to top Colorado Rockies prospect Brendan Rodgers last season.
Kyle Funkhouser disposed of Rockies top prospect Brendan Rodgers on three pitches last night. pic.twitter.com/61Ds1RZRYS— Detroit Tigers MiLB Tracker (@Tiger_Lifer) June 7, 2018
As you can see, this diverse repertoire translates to strikeouts. Funkhouser has struck out a batter or more per inning in every stop he has made in the minors, the lone exception being his injury-shortened stint for Toledo last season. He has also posted an encouraging xFIP at every stop along the way thus far — 2.57 for Low-A Connecticut, 2.33 for Single-A West Michigan, 2.43 for High-A Lakeland, and 3.84 for Double-A Erie. Hopefully, the combination of two plus pitches, his fastball and his slider, will translate to strikeouts at the big league level.
Let’s talk about Funkhouser’s command. It receives the lowest grade on his FanGraphs scouting report (45/50 FV), and has never been projected as a true weapon. While Funkhouser only issued 1.72 walks per nine innings for High-A Lakeland, he walked 3.94 batters per nine in Double-A Erie in nearly three times as many innings. He then proceeded to issue 10 walks in just 8 2⁄3 innings for Triple-A Toledo before his injury.
Funkhouser’s future as a middle-of-the-rotation starter will rest on this command moving forward. Should he struggle to find the strike zone, he could very well end up being another right-handed pitcher out of the bullpen.
Projected 2019 Team: Toledo Mud Hens
Despite a couple of missteps in 2018 (okay, I’m done, I promise), Funkhouser is primed to begin the season in Toledo’s rotation. He will be fully healthy entering spring training, so his future is firmly back in his hands. While he will not be the first starting pitcher in Toledo to receive a call-up in 2019 — that will almost assuredly be Spencer Turnbull — it wouldn’t be surprising to see Funkhouser receive a spot start or two this season. If he continues to develop, he should compete for a spot in the 2020 rotation. Just remember: he’s somewhat of a boom-or-bust prospect, despite his proximity to the majors. If the walks keep coming, he may be destined for the bullpen. If he limits them, the Tigers may have a very solid number-three pitcher on their hands.