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2020 Player Review: Tyler Alexander was a pleasant surprise

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The left-handed farmhand proved to be a valuable piece of the Tigers’ 2020 pitching staff.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season was, once again, one to forget when it comes to the Detroit Tigers’ pitching performance. As mentioned in our yearly review for Spencer Turnbull, the staff finished last in the majors in ERA (5.63) and ERA+ (84), second last in strikeouts (444) and FIP (5.17), and gave up the fourth-most home runs (91), among other depressing numbers.

However, much like the fiery-haired Turnbull, another former farmhand made himself quite useful this past summer: left-hander Tyler Alexander.

Overview

The 26-year-old Alexander played college ball at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and was selected by the Tigers in the second round of the 2015 amateur draft. He spent four seasons working his way up through the minors before getting his first call in 2019, in which he started eight games (and finished one) out of 13 appearances, posting a 4.86 ERA with a 4.15 FIP and 1.40 WHIP in 53 23 innings pitched, striking out 47. He would see time in both Detroit and Toledo that year, though his numbers were a bit better under the bright lights than down in the minors.

The lefty’s serviceable play the previous season earned him a spot on the staff this summer and he was fairly competent in his flex-role, though he pitched out of the pen a far greater percentage than in 2019. Alexander made 14 appearances with just two starts, posting a respectable ERA of 3.98 and WHIP of 1.32 but a bloated 5.16 FIP, while striking out 34 batters in 36 13 innings — including his American League record-setting nine consecutive strikeouts in relief against the Cincinnati Reds. He did, however, struggle with the long ball, surrendering eight home runs for an average of two per nine innings pitched, while conversely, he did well when it came to minimizing walks, issuing just nine free passes for an average of 2.2 per nine.

In comparison to his fellow Tigers, Tyler’s ERA ranked fifth on the team overall — just 0.01 better than the aforementioned Turnbull — while ranking third in innings pitched and his 14 appearances were the ninth-most on the staff. He was also tied for fourth in strikeouts with José Cisnero, tied for fifth with Turnbull in ERA+ (118), and seventh on the team in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4). While his numbers are very mediocre, it is clear he was a major contributor for a struggling staff last season.

Taking a look at his pitching proclivities and velocities, according to FanGraphs, Alexander’s profile is one of a soft-tossing lefty, with a four-seam fastball that sits just under 91 mph that he used 22.5 percent of the time, along with a sinker at the exact same velo that he threw 21 percent, an 83 mph slider that he also used 21 percent, an 86 mph cutter he threw 17 percent, and his 85 mph changeup that saw use 18 percent of the time. He saw a modest reduction in his overall fastball usage — an almost 11 percent drop — which he replaced with higher employment of his secondary pitches, especially his changeup.

Overall, Alexander accumulated an unimpressive -0.1 fWAR, which was just about average for the team this summer as eight other players — including rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — also recorded the same value. While that number is certainly discouraging, it is not entirely deceiving as Tyler’s ceiling has long been projected as a replacement player at best. But what he did do was eat some much-needed innings and helped the team trudge through a difficult summer of COVID.

Advanced metrics

StatCast’s advanced metrics did not like Alexander one bit, owing much to his soft approach to pitching. The good news is that Tyler’s walk suppression was borderline elite, placing in the 82nd percentile among all major leaguers at 5.9 percent — though this was a regression from 2019 when his three percent walk rate was among the top one percent of MLB. Otherwise, it is pretty clear why his FIP was so bloated in comparison to his ERA.

As far as the other numbers? Well, the lefty was in the 49th percentile or worse in every other category that StatCast reports on its MLB Percentile Rankings, with hard hit percentage representing that high-water mark. The saddest news is his fastball velocity, which sits in the 12th percentile overall; otherwise, he mostly falls between the 30th-to-35th percentile range with a few outliers. Tyler did manage to improve his average exit velocity from last season when his 90.4 mph average was among the bottom nine percent of the league.

Before we jump into the pitch tracking numbers, there is a discrepancy in what FanGraphs reports as Alexander’s pitching repertoire and what StatCast has to offer. While the former has him throwing five pitches, the latter also includes a curveball to give him the following proclivities: four-seamer (22 percent); sinker (21.9 percent); changeup (17.9 percent); slider (15 percent); cutter (14.2 percent); curveball (9 percent). For what it is worth, Brooks Baseball omits the cutter from Tyler’s arsenal but provides enough data to justify the distinction between his two breaking balls.

With that in mind, Alexander’s best pitch for missing the opposing bat was his slider, on which he earned a 30.2 whiff percentage, though it was not a dominant putaway pitch at 20.5 percent. His four-seamer was fairly hittable at 19 percent and 20.6 percent whiff and putaway rates, respectively. Oddly, his sinker was incredibly hittable with an 8.8 percent whiff but a personal-high (tied with the cutter) 28.6 percent putaway rate; his 90.6 mph exit velocity on both of his fastballs is enough to make one cringe, however. Tyler’s other offerings hover in between, with his cutter possibly being his most effective pitch at 24.5 whiff and 28.6 putaway percentages with an average exit velocity of a modest 86.3 mph.

The rest of the advanced metrics show a slight improvement in performance from last year — which is borne out in the traditional stats — as he lowered his average launch angle from 17.2 to 11.7 degrees, which is not an insignificant difference, though it did not show up well in his lack of home run suppression. While his barrel percentage and wOBA both saw slight upward bumps, he otherwise improved in sweet spot percentage, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, xwOBAcon, hard hit percentage, and strikeout percentage. Interestingly, despite his marginal improvements, he failed to post a positive fWAR as he did in 2019 (0.9).

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Alexander is the quintessential replacement player — and there is really nothing intrinsically wrong with that. At least in more recent assessments, he was not expected to be much more than what we have seen, and for a franchise that is cheaping its way through the rebuild, Tyler’s contributions were perfectly acceptable. He is a fringe major leaguer but a major leaguer nonetheless; however, he would not likely make the roster on a contending team.

The 26-year-old lefty’s value is derived mostly from his MLB minimum wage paycheck along with his ability to chew up innings in relief. A starter’s repertoire which includes a decent changeup gives him some ability to deal with righthanders in relief, which is necessary in the three-batter minimum paradigm. His strikeout feat was a lot of fun but by all stretches of the imagination nothing more than an amazing outlier. Still, he was a bit of an unexpected bright spot on a miserable pitching staff, and it is these little gems that often make lost seasons more interesting. If Alexander can continue to make improvements next season, he could very well be worth hanging on to as a cheap change-of-pace pitcher out of the pen.