If it feels like Alex Lange has been around forever, it’s because in terms of pitching prospects, he has been on the radar for a remarkably long time. Scouts have been interested in the tall hurler since 2012, when he was a sophomore in high school and came onto the radar as a first round talent. He wasn’t selected in 2014 because of a strong LSU commitment, but the Chicago Cubs popped him at the end of the first round in 2017.
The Detroit Tigers’ strong group of pitching prospects just keeps getting stronger, and Lange was among the reinforcements added in 2019. His immediate transition to the bullpen was much a comment on the organization’s depth in starting pitching talent as it was a comment on his skill. A different team may have given him more time to figure it out as a starter, but the transition to the bullpen gives him a more likely path to success. At the very least, his excellent frame, long pedigree and somewhat funky stuff gives the Tigers developmental staff an interesting, if non-traditional, relief project.
A dominant starter from the day he stepped onto campus, Lange was a force to be reckoned with during his time in the LSU rotation. He averaged over ten strikeouts per nine innings over all three years of his collegiate career and threw eight complete games, including three shutouts. Professional baseball has not been so kind, though, and he had a rough go of things in the Cubs’ system. He didn’t have enough strikeouts in High-A in 2018 and walked too many batters in 2019 before a seven-game stint in Double-A saw him fall short in both regards.
The Tigers acquired Lange in the deal that sent Nick Castellanos to the Cubs and he was immediately reassigned to the bullpen. He played in nine games and pitched only 15 2⁄3 innings, but over the course of that short span, enjoyed the best FIP since entering full-season ball.
Lange has gotten to where he is today on the strength of his breaking ball. It has always been his most advanced pitch and it was a big part of what earned him his first-round draft position. It’s been an effective pitch thus far despite an uninteresting spin rate. The report on Lange from 2080 Baseball noted that the pitch has taken on a slurvy shape and even classifies it as a slider instead of the curveball that it cited by other outlets.
The pitch was once seen as a potential plus weapon, but nowadays, it’s regarded as more of a solid offering to keep hitters on their toes. FanGraphs still gives it an above-average grade, but the 2080 Baseball report is more bearish and says it has average potential. Either way, the pitch should serve him against opponents, even at the highest level.
An encouraging development since turning pro is the progression of Lange’s changeup. Once a distant third offering, he’s now able to use it as a weapon against left handed batters thanks to its splitter-like action. According to the 2080 Baseball report — which we’re using heavily here because it’s based on July 2019 viewings — the pitch offers “limited separation but plays due to late action.” Now in a relief role, he’ll be able to dose out offspeed pitches more liberally than in as a starter, and working from a somewhat deceptive windup, they could make him capable of conquering multi-inning duty.
Lange has struggled mightily since joining the professional ranks and there are questions about nearly every part of his profile at this point. The most long-standing concern has been with his delivery. His motion isn’t one that was well-suited to a role as a starting pitcher. It provides an element of deception, true, but it’s max-effort 100 percent of the time and features a heavy head whack at the end. These aren’t especially fixable problems and lead to battles with poor command.
Another problem, perhaps even more concerning, is that his once-mighty fastball has slipped into fringe-average territory at best. He sat in the mid-90s in college, but now works in the 89-93 mile per hour range. It is somewhat surprising because Lange hasn’t undergone any physical changes since being drafted and he still has good arm speed, but the velocity just isn’t there anymore. Perhaps he’ll be able to tap into his old power with a shorter workload, but that remains to be seen.
Lange also works with below-average command, like we mentioned earlier. That is partly due to his poor delivery and the main reason why he couldn’t make it work in the rotation. As a reliever, his issues with the strike zone will be somewhat less problematic, but major-league hitters will feast on misplaced 90 mph fastballs if given the chance.
If the former top prospect is able to recapture his old magic in the bullpen or otherwise address any of these concerns, he could be a valuable piece in the Tigers’ relief corps. As it stands now, though, he has a hard cap on his ceiling. “If he’s living off of deception, perhaps his future role will be limited to a one time through the order type of guy,” said FanGraphs, “but that’s still more than a generic 40 FV reliever.”
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Now that Lange is a full-time reliever, there’s no reason why the Tigers shouldn’t push him hard. That means a promotion to the highest level of the minors is in line for the curveball specialist. If all goes well, he’ll be pitching in Detroit by the time the season ends. Because the organization decided his talents would be best used in the bullpen, he’ll move faster than he would as a starter, but it’s time he starts putting it together in his new role.