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Anthony DeSclafani could be a bulwark for the Tigers pitching staff

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The long-time Cincinnati Reds starter struggled in 2020 and seeks a speculative short deal in free agency this winter.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Picking inexpensive free agent targets in the offseason can be an exercise in futility. Like buying accessories for a major purchase you haven’t actually decided on yet, lots of players sound good until you see the broader strategic plan come into form. However, pitchers you believe are undervalued are always a key part of team building. In that vein, long-time Cincinnati Reds righthander Anthony DeSclafani makes a lot of sense for the Detroit Tigers.

The 30-year-old was originally a sixth round selection in the 2011 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was quickly flipped to the Miami Marlins and reached the majors with them in 2014, but was then traded after the season to the Reds for starter Mat Latos. DeSclafani has been a starter for the Reds ever since, and for most of that time has performed like a good backend starter despite nagging injury issues.

Early in his major league career, DeSclafani was limited in his ability to generate whiffs. He put together a pair of nice seasons in 2015-2016 anyway, and looked like a possible breakout candidate. That progress was derailed in 2017, when he was derailed by an elbow sprain that cost him the entire season. He then suffered an oblique injury that cost him the first third of the 2018 season, but when he finally returned he did so with an improved slider and began racking up better strikeout numbers. That late improvement carried into a strong 2019 campaign, and DeSclafani looked to be entering his walk year in excellent shape to earn a big contract in free agency.

Unfortunately for him, he missed the start of the short 2020 season on the IL with a mild teres major strain, made just seven starts sandwiched around a break in late August for the birth of child and ultimately never got settled in. He was removed from the rotation in early September, and was eventually left off the Reds’ postseason roster entirely.

DeSclafani has always had pretty good control and rarely has trouble with walks. His repertoire isn’t deep, but he generally pounds the zone and has improved his strikeout numbers as his career has progressed. Over the past three seasons those strikeout to walk numbers remained consistently solid until his disastrous 2020 campaign, but like so many seemingly talented pitchers in recent years he has been regularly undone by the long ball.

Anthony DeSclafani 2018-2020

Season IP ERA K% BB% HR/9 BABIP EV maxEV LA Hard Hit Rate
Season IP ERA K% BB% HR/9 BABIP EV maxEV LA Hard Hit Rate
2018 115.0 4.93 22.3 6.2 1.88 0.294 88.6 114.0 11.7 33.1
2019 166.2 3.89 24.0 7.0 1.57 0.273 89.1 113.3 12.3 37.6
2020 33.2 7.22 15.8 10.1 1.87 0.318 89.6 108.4 11.0 46.5

Many things went wrong for DeSclafani in 2020, but home runs have consistently been the crux of his problems. It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a bit late in the game for DeSclafani to be “fixed” at this point. He’s 30 years old, and his stuff and command aren’t going to change too much. The Reds have really modernized the their process for coaching pitchers over the past two years, so DeSclafani has already had exposure to cutting edge, data-informed coaching. Imagining that Chris Fetter is going to discover some new pitch or delivery cue that markedly improves him is probably wishful thinking.

The hope isn’t to reinvent DeSclafani but just to get him back on track with his 2019 form, perhaps with some minor tweaks. If the Tigers can manage that, they’ll have a good mid-rotation starter. If not, there is a fallback plan in which DeSclafani becomes a hybrid arm handling spot starts and pitching in relief.

His raw stuff is decent overall but a mediocre pair of fastballs makes for a pretty shaky foundation at times. DeSclafani sits 94-95 miles per hour with his fastball mix and can reach back for 97 mph under pressure. His fourseamer is the most used variant, but it checks in with somewhat pedestrian spin rate and movement profiles. He gets about an inch more ride than average, so it is useful up in the zone, but it’s also fairly straight and anything middle or down tends to get hit hard.

In 2019 and 2020 combined, DeSclafani threw the fourseam 37.8 percent of the time despite the fact that he gave up a rather scary .220 isolated power mark against. DeSclafini gets far more whiffs from his fourseamer than he does his sinker, but also gives up more power. The sinker rarely draws whiffs, but doesn’t give up so many home runs and the average contact against it is relatively weak, with an average exit velocity against of just 86.9 mph. Neither version of the heater is particularly good, but the combination has generally been far more effective than his choppy 2020 campaign would indicate.

DeSclafani’s slider is his best pitch, and he’s built well above average depth into it over the past two seasons. He generates plenty of whiffs and weak contact with it, and he’s upped his usage to over 30 percent sliders, so he’s already turned to his best pitch more often. He’s probably already taken that as far as a starting pitcher can.

Finally, DeSclafani has a decent fading changeup and a sketchy curveball, neither of which he throws much at all. The average velocity on the changeup is 88 mph, so it just doesn’t have very good separation from the fastball, but it is functional as a change of pace against lefthanded hitters. The curveball is unusable other than to steal a strike here and there. You can see why DeSclafani struggles go deep into games even in his best form. He can do some things with the mix of fastball types and heavy slider usage, but he lacks that third pitch to help him get through a batting order a third time.

Limiting his exposure

So the first key point about a potential signing with the Tigers is that DeSclafani shouldn’t be signed with the expectation that you’re going to get some huge breakout where he goes six or seven innings in starts and posts an ERA of 4.00 or better. He’s decidedly a pitcher who should have support waiting as soon as he’s gone through an order twice, and you don’t want him facing a lefthanded power hitter in a tense situation with runners on base late in his outings.

As we pointed out a few weeks ago, the Tigers rotation seems relatively deep on paper, but in reality it is paper thin. Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd may prove completely useless in starting roles. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made the leap this season, but their innings progressions were really short-circuited in 2020, meaning that even if everything goes beautifully with both, they unlikely to be allowed to throw anything close to 150 innings. Other than Spencer Turnbull, there isn’t a single starter who has a firm lock on a rotation spot heading in 2021.

One of the reasons DeSclafani could fit as a piece of the Tigers pitching staff is that he’s not really in a position to complain about how he’s used. The Tigers could promise DeSclafani—or Disco, as he’s charmingly referred to by Reds fans—starts as long as it’s going well, but if he’s really struggling early in the season putting him into the pen and letting him pump his best fastball along with heavy doses of the slider could produce a pretty good relief arm as well. He’ll have to earn his role as the season progresses and the Tigers consider promoting their pitching prospects.

Second, as essentially a two-pitch pitcher who has throttled righthanded hitters with the fastball-slider combination for most of his career, there is also a fallback plan in relief here that would be interesting to see the Tigers try. Mediocre starters often make the best relievers, particularly when a smart team protects them from their weak points as much as possible.

Comerica Park vs. Great American Ballpark

The final point to mention here is the advantage of taking a pitcher with a home run issue out of a launching pad like Great American Ballpark and dropping them into the more spacious confines of Comerica Park. Here are his 2019-2020 home runs allowed superimposed over Comerica’s dimensions. There’s nothing radical here, but Comerica would arguably have held 6-7 of the 36 home runs he’s allowed.

There’s no guarantee there of course. We can overlay all fly balls allowed by DeSclafani and see that things could simply be a wash if a few more balls go out in left-centerfield. Still, Comerica offers a deep safe zone in centerfield to a pitcher that can avoid letting hitters pull the ball in the air too much.

Conclusion

It’s really difficult to peg the Tigers this early in the offseason. The pitching staff needs help, but they also have next to nothing in the outfield or catcher heading into next year. Assessing their priorities isn’t going to be easy until they’ve made their initial moves. The team build has reached a key point where there are still a ton of unknowns based around prospects and younger players on the roster, but with a built up farm system, a new manager and coaching staff, plus five years of misery under their belts, it’s also time for the Tigers to start rapidly improving.

MLB Trade Rumors suggests a price tag of $4 million on a one year deal. Presumably, DeSclafani is looking to rebound in a starting role and get a second crack at free agency from a better bargaining position. Teams that can offer him a full-time role as a starter will have the advantage. The Tigers certainly have room in their rotation, but they also need more flexibility with so many questions to answer in 2021. Perhaps a two-year commitment with some incentives would be required to overcome trepidation as to where DeSclafani might fit into their plans. But if the Tigers are going to focus their spending on offense, he’s a low cost option that could really help tie the pitching staff together.