Considering the success of the Detroit Tigers already this season, it’s a trick to figure out what’s left to be gained over the season’s final weeks. They’ve found numerous young players who are filling roles, built a pretty good bullpen, and tested and failed players who don’t have a part in the future. But, while second place in the AL Central remains in play, the real rooting interest is simple now. The Tigers are going to continuing playing tough teams down the stretch, and holding their own is just one more nudge to ownership that it’s time to get serious this offseason.
One of the low-key success stories has been Tyler Alexander’s development. The lefty swingman has been the pitching staff’s jack of all trades all season, and he’s continued to develop and evolve despite a hybrid role. He’ll lead the way on Thursday night as the Tigers storm Tropicana Field looking to build on their recent 4-1 stretch.
If Alexander’s nine straight strikeout performance back on August 2, 2020 was the coming out party for his revamped slider, the summer of 2021 has seen the emergence of his new cutter. The pitch has really transformed Alexander from a sinker throwing groundball artist into a lefty who can really tie up right-handed hitters and is now getting a lot more fly balls without giving up too much hard contact in the air.
Per FanGraphs, the cutter has usurped the fastball to become Alexander’s primary offering, especially against right-handers. At 87 mph, he’s still not going to overpower anyone, but combined with his good command and a quality changeup and slider, the new weapon has helped Alexander eat innings and avoid the big inning. While his home runs allowed rate is a little high, he just doesn’t make it easy to get runners on the basepaths when one of those balls finally leaves the park.
Detroit Tigers (70-76) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (90-56)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Tropicana Field
SB Nation site: DRays Bay
Pitching Matchup: LHP Tyler Alexander (2-2, 4.09 ERA) vs. RHP Louis Head (1-0, 2.67 ERA)
Game 147 Pitching Matchup
Opposing Alexander is a pitcher who has become a pretty great story for the Rays. A 31-year-old career minor leaguer, Head has suddenly emerged with some tweaking from Tampa’s elite development staff to become a viable short starting option for them. It’s just another example of how the most advanced organizations can always find pitching help by optimizing stuff, approach, and defensive positioning.
Head is basically a two-pitch pitcher. He has a fourseamer that averages 94 mph, and a low-80’s slider that he’s shown some ability to shape multiple ways. He’s a pretty extreme fly ball pitcher, yet through 23 appearances has really limited home runs. The key to his success appears to be some tuning the Rays did to tunnel the fourseamer and slider more effectively. Neither pitch is particularly impressive in isolation, but when he racks up routine fly balls and keep hitters to center field, all without giving up home runs, he’ll really frustrate hitters. Head has managed that for several months now, and it’s been a remarkable turn of fortune for a pitcher who has been grinding it out in the minors for nearly a full decade.
Of course, the Rays are the Rays, and Head is only starting because their rotation is quite depleted, so don’t expect to see Head in there for very long. Kevin Cash will no doubt have his bullpen lined up to be a problem for the Tigers’ offense. Despite his success this season, Head is pretty hittable, and if the Tigers can get to him early, they’ll earn the opportunity to really work the Rays bullpen, which could pay dividends all weekend even if tonight’s contest doesn’t go their way.
Key Matchup: It’s all about the defense
Alexander being Alexander, he probably won’t give up the big inning, but he is liable to leak a few runs as he goes along. To ensure that the game plays out that way, the Tigers positioning and defense are going to need to be on point. He probably won’t rip through nine strikeouts in a row in this one, and at some point, one of a tough Rays’ lineup is probably going to get to him for a home run. The Tigers will need to keep that same gritty pain-in-the-butt energy they’ve shown the past two series and put all their weapons to work to take down the AL East’s best.