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An overhauled pitch mix made Alex Lange a much improved relief option in 2021

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Acquired as a starting pitcher in the Nick Castellanos trade, the Tigers ‘penned Lange and reaped the rewards.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tigers brought Alex Lange into the organization, conversation about the deal focused on Nick Castellanos’ departure to Chicago rather than Lange and fellow pitcher Paul Richan’s arrival. To that point in his career, professional baseball hadn’t been kind to Lange. Detroit, hoping to unlock the potential that scouts had once seen in him before stalling out in the Cubs’ pipeline, took a flyer on the once well-regarded prospect.

Before turning pro, Lange was the ace of the LSU Tigers’ squad. He grabbed attention with his curveball, a pitch that ranked among the 2017 draft class’ best and could have stacked up neatly with the curves thrown by MLB pitchers before he’d played a single professional game. That pitch was the selling point that earned him a place in the first round, selected by the Cubs with the 30th pick.

In baseball, though, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The exceptional nature of his curveball—so distinctive that it’s often mistakenly categorized as a slider—was too much for collegiate competition to handle and papered over other issues that lingered beneath the surface. His fastball velocity didn’t make expected gains over the course of his college career and the changeup he rarely threw was hardly good enough to keep hitters from sitting on a curve. Additionally, his command of the strike zone wasn’t exactly picturesque and his high effort delivery did little to foretell growth in the command department.

Those problems were placed in full sunlight when pro hitters got ahold of him. Over the course of two seasons at levels of competition that are ordinarily a pit stop for college players drafted so high, his strikeout rate sloped downward and his ERA and FIP sloped upward. A career as a starting pitcher wasn’t meant to be for Lange, a fate possibly sealed by the team who selected him, famous as the mid-aughts Cubs were for failing to help their pitching prospects connect the dots.

Instead of trying to force the issue with Lange as a starting pitcher, the Tigers sent him to the bullpen after acquiring him at the 2019 trade deadline. There, in an environment more suited to his skills and needs, he was able to find quick success with the team. The Tigers placed him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft before the 2021 season and he went on to find a place on the MLB roster when injuries opened the door for him this season.

During the first part of the season, Lange didn’t do much to write home about. His command issues were still serious enough to be disqualifying as a major league reliever. However, with some adjustments, Lange returned from Triple-A exile to impress over the season’s final months. From July 18th until the end of the season, he was nearly untouchable. His glimmering ERA of 1.37 is impressive on its own and it’s supported well by the accompanying 2.76 FIP. So, what changed for Lange?

One possibility was the emergence of his changeup as a real weapon. Starting in July, its usage spiked. It’s not a coincidence, then, that his average exit velocity against and barrel rate against both dropped noticeably in the second half as hitters battled a new version of Lange designed to both draw whiffs and prevent hard contact with deception and a deeper pitch mix. That’s not to say the changeup was just a change of pace for weak contact — hitters were left with nothing but a cool breeze on nearly a third of their attempts at the change in August and over a quarter in September.

Another encouraging indicator is his walk rate, which came down from 5.06 walks per nine innings to a much more palatable 3.20 clip. That decrease in free passes corresponded with a severe drop in strikeouts as well. However, he was sitting down opponents at nearly a batter per inning even then, making this exchange one that any manager would gladly take.

Additionally, the fastball velocity the Cubs hoped so desperately would develop finally emerged when he was transitioned to the bullpen two years ago. His season-long average velocity was a respectable 96.6 miles per hour, rising closer and closer to the 97 miles per hour mark as the season progressed. That’s a far cry from the velocity he sported as a starting pitcher, which ranged from 89-94 miles per hour, without much else in the tank when he needed it.

As a result of these changes, the curveball that got him drafted is still an important part of who he is as a player, but Lange isn’t a one-trick pony anymore. In fact, despite scaling back the usage of his breaking ball, it’s more effective now than ever. In a preseason interview, he discussed his his vertical arm angle and how he takes advantage of the spin axis that creates to create “mirror images” of his fastball and curveball coming out of his hand.

With an increased difference in the speed between the two offerings, hitters are forced to make a faster decision on whether or not to pull the trigger and when. Yet, they look the same, in essence making both pitches harder to hit.

Are we looking at the handiwork of first-year Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter here? One would imagine so. Lange’s big breakout happened only after Fetter had ample opportunity to work hands-on with the pitcher. Furthermore, Lange is something of a gearhead himself when it comes to understanding pitching. He speaks effortlessly about spin rate, spin efficiency, spin axis, pitch tunneling, and vertical approach angle. He would have quickly taken to Fetter’s tech-assisted approach to pitcher development and as a result the pairing seems like a perfect match.

Reliever performance is one of the least reliable aspects of baseball when it comes to year-to-year consistency. Every indication is positive, but due to sample size volatility, it’s tough to say whether he’ll be a major contributor to the Detroit’s efforts next season. If he can continue to command all three offerings and avoid getting too fastball heavy, the success should continue, but that’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, he’s in a great position to succeed and Lange now has an inside track toward a major role in the Tigers’ 2022 bullpen.