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Tigers at Twins preview: Tyler Alexander starts as the final road trip of 2021 begins

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The Tigers look put an exclamation point on a fine season of growth and development by finishing strong.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We’re already well into the reflective mood that follows a major league season, but the Detroit Tigers’ work isn’t done just yet. With a six-game road trip set to open tonight in Minnesota, the upstart Tigers have six more games with which to leave a strong impression with ownership this offseason. They’ll kick the trip off against a Minnesota Twins club whose season has brought only frustration, regret, and a lot of rethinking about their immediate future.

So far, the Twins have had the best of the season series, winning nine of 16 matchups to date. The Tigers are only 2-5 at Target Field, in particular. So, despite a better record, this remains a pretty even matchup. The Twins pitching staff has underperformed, Kenta Maeda blew out his elbow, and Jose Berrios was traded away to the Toronto Blue Jays, but the Tigers pitching staff isn’t in much better shape. Key losses of Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto in particular have recently weakened a bullpen that made up for a lot of injuries in their own starting rotation this year.

The Twins have yet to even name a starter for this one, which tells you the shape they’re in at this point. We assume some sort of bullpen game is in the works. The Tigers should have the edge tonight with Tyler Alexander on the mound.

Detroit Tigers (75-81) at Minnesota Twins (69-87)

Time/Place: 7:40 p.m. EDT, Target Field

SB Nation Site: Twinkie Town

Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network

Pitching Matchup: LHP Tyler Alexander (2-3, 4.10 ERA) vs TBD

Game 157 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Alexander 94.1 4.52 19.0 6.2 1.43 0.8
TBD -- -- -- -- -- --

2021 has been another interesting one for human Swiss Army knife, Tyler Alexander. At times he’s pitched middle relief. On a few occasions he’s been called on to hold a lead. And with losses to the rotation, Alexander has also now made 13 starts on the year heading into Tuesday night’s matchup.

No matter how A.J. Hinch has deployed him, Alexander has continued to thrive.

The 27-year-old lefty isn’t going to be mistaken for an ace out there, but considering the constantly changing demands on him as a swingman, he’s held up quite well. A particularly interesting feature of his game, is that instead of the classic soft-tossing groundball artist you might expect, Alexander has actually become a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher, who doesn’t give up that many line drives. All year long, he’s racked up routine ground balls and flyouts, and generally managed to avoid giving up too many home runs with runners on base. Avoiding the big inning has allowed him to give the Tigers the innings they need from him and typically put them on solid footing to win in the late innings of his starts.

Beyond his command, and a pretty good changeup that helps equalize matters despite his low velocity stuff, the difference maker this season has been the development of his cutter. Adding a cutter is de rigeur these days for lefties without premium velocity, and Alexander has really leaned into it in order to keep right-handed hitters in check. His fastball and slider percentages are both way down as a result, with the cutter taking over as his second most used pitch, to the point that his fastball percentage is now just 35.8 percent of his repertoire, with the cutter checking in at 32.3 percent.

The change has really balanced Alexander’s splits, and in the process it’s allowed him to alter his approach. Rather than pitching around power-hitting right-handers in a lineup, Alexander is now nearly as adept at handling them as he is lefties. As long as his command is sharp, an opposing manager can no longer stack right-handed hitters together in a lineup and expect to do damage. Alexander does still give up too many home runs, but he’s generally tough to string hits together against, controls the running game well, and limits his walks, meaning that a team has to earn their way on base. As a result, teams have found too often that when they do finally land a big blow, they still only manage to score a run or two.

Key Matchup: Tigers gameplanning vs. Twins pitching

A game in which there is no starter to plan against makes for a tough task for the Tigers’ coaches, analytics department, and advanced scouting. While the Twins won’t have the luxury of rolling a good starting pitcher out there to get them most of the way through the game, Scott Coolbaugh will have to prepare his hitters for a host of different contingencies. They won’t see the same thing twice, and so that preparation, and a disciplined approach from the lineup, will be the key to taking advantage of the Twins bullpen and getting the series off on the right foot.