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Tigers vs. Athletics preview: Joey Wentz to the main stage

Tigers fans are getting a good look at the organization’s pitching depth so far this season.

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The offseason additions the Detroit Tigers made over the offseason drew most of the attention to the major league club this spring. However, rumors of the end of the rebuilding era may have been a bit exaggerated. The Tigers are still trying to develop their main crop of top prospects at the major league level while waiting on Riley Greene to heal up. But without a host of stars on hand already, the major league roster is going to need a steady influx of talent in the years ahead if the Tigers are going to build a legit contender.

The injuries this spring have been frustrating, but if there’s a silver lining, its that fans are beginning to get an idea of how much deeper the organization is in pitching than was perhaps expected. Despite multiple injuries to expected starters like Casey Mize and Matt Manning, as well as relievers Kyle Funkhouser and Jose Cisnero, the pitching staff continues to hold up its end of team performance.

We hammered home this point during the offseason. While the club still shows no real signs of developing hitters — we’ll see if the new player development system changes that fact in time — they are making a lot of progress on the pitching side. Despite the graduation of the big three pitching prospects, they still have a deep stable of arms to draw upon.

Leaving aside the top arms still in A-ball, like Jackson Jobe, Ty Madden, Wilmer Flores, and Dylan Smith, there are now plenty of interesting starting candidates in the upper minors. We’ve already seen Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo, but there is also Reese Olson, Garrett Hill, some interesting relief candidates like Dario Gardea, Angel De Jesus, Elvin Rodriguez, or Yaya Chentouf, and Wednesday night’s starting pitcher for your Detroit Tigers, left-hander Joey Wentz.

Background and Profile

Wentz was initially drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the Competitive Balance Round A of the 2016 amateur draft. He was the 40th overall pick out of Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. The 6-foot-5 lefty’s advanced strike throwing and feel for a changeup made for a nice base of skills on which the Braves hoped to build a dominant power arm.

However, the velocity expected from his large, powerful frame never arrived. When the Tigers dealt for Wentz in 2019, sending closer Shane Greene to Atlanta, he was still more of a feel pitcher whose fastball topped out at 93-94 mph and averaged closer to 91-92 mph. His advanced changeup was his best pitch at that point. Still, he was still just 21 years old when the Tigers acquired him, and there appeared to be plenty of projection left. That assessment has proved to be accurate, but it took a long time to get there.

Wentz underwent Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2020 and didn’t return until last May. His command started coming around by season’s end, but he still looked a bit diminished from his pre-surgery days. Of course, building back up after UCL surgery takes time. One offseason later and the picture is very different now.

The velocity that the Braves were always hoping for has arrived. This spring our ears perked up immediately as Wentz started posting 96-97 mph readings on his fourseamer. Since his season began and he started stretching out into longer outings, he’s averaging more in the 94 mph range, but that’s still a substantial difference to his pre-surgery fastball and Wentz is now reaching back for 96-97 mph whenever he wants extra. This development has really brought the whole repertoire together, making both his tight, high-70’s curveball and low-80’s fading changeup play more effectively.

Here he was two starts ago back on May 4. You’ll get an idea of the delivery and the movement on his riding fourseam fastball and fading change, as well as the high, over-the-top arm angle that makes it extra tricky for hitters to pick up the separation between the two. Wentz will at times mix in his sinker as well. The arm slot comes with a drawback as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Wentz’s primary breaking ball is a sharp power curve that will draw a fair amount of whiffs when he’s spotting it well. He’s also working to take advantage of that arm slot with a new cutter in the low-90’s that helps him get into the kitchen of right-handed hitters. That pitch, as well as his fastball command generally, will eventually be crucial to his success as Wentz still struggles to locate to his glove side, and really needs to learn to keep right-handed hitters honest with hard stuff on their hands. If he can locate inside to them effectively, it really opens up the outside of the plate for high fastballs and fading changeups away.

The crucial flaw in Wentz’s game is his intermittent wildness. If his command had improved, he probably would’ve gotten a look before Alex Faedo. Wentz can look really impressive for stretches in his starts, spotting his full repertoire for few innings, and then suddenly start missing up and arm side with fastballs while spiking the curve in the dirt. That’s a testament to the high arm slot and the need to sync up his long levers to effectively time his delivery and release. As a result of the arm slot, he doesn’t tend to miss as much horizontally as he does up and down. The question is whether he can learn to self-correct more quickly when he loses his rhythm. Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter is well equipped to help him with that, but we’ll have to see it to believe.

At his best, Wentz draws his share of whiffs and gets a ton of routine outs in the air. In that sense, Comerica Park is a great fit for him, and the Oakland A’s a very reasonable first opponent. As long as his fastball command is reasonably sharp, he’ll be effective by getting ahead of hitters using his whole repertoire early in counts, and then expand the zone on them from there. However, maintaining that command has been the problem for him all along. He’s racked up a ton of strikeouts for the Toledo Mud Hens so far this season, but his walk and home runs against numbers are scary. We’ll see which Joey Wentz the Tigers get tonight.

Detroit Tigers (9-21) vs. Oakland Athletics (12-19)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation Site: Athletics Nation
Media: Bally Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Joey Wentz (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. LHP Zach Logue (1-1, 2.84 ERA)

Game 31 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Pitcher IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 fWAR
Wentz (AAA) 19.2 5.01 33.8 13.0 1.83 N/A
Logue 6.1 6.71 21.4 10.7 2.84 -0.1

26-year-old lefty Zach Logue makes for a pretty interesting matchup for Wentz, as they have similar issues, though Logue is much more of an east-west sidearm slinger with a quick arm to Wentz’s over-the-top north-south power stuff. Logue struggles with his control and will issue some walks as well. And while he’s less home run prone than Wentz, his stuff draws fewer whiffs and strikeouts overall.

His fourseam fastball is his primary pitch and checks in averaging 91 mph. It’s a really low spin fastball but the 6-foot-0 Logue is able to use it up in the zone because of his low release height. It doesn’t draw a whole lot of whiffs generally but the tailing action gets a lot of weak contact and he moves it in and out on hitters pretty well.

A low-80’s changeup is Logue’s best pitch and if he can get to it effectively he’ll probably give the Tigers’ scuffling lineup problems. That pitch he can really turn over and get it tailing and diving away from right-handed hitters. He’ll look to tie up the Tigers’ right-handed hitters inside with the fastball and breaking balls and then expand the outer edge with the changeup and a a tricky mid-70’s curveball to induce plenty of weak contact. He’s certainly pretty hittable, and the Tigers “should” do damage, but this is the type of lefty that will sometimes give even hitters who aren’t struggling fits at the plate.

This matchup seems likely to come down to which lineup gets to its power. So far, that’s been a huge problem for the 2022 Detroit Tigers. On paper, they should have the edge, but the reality has been very different through 30 games to open the year. If the Tigers are going to win a game that has the potential to turn into a slug fest, someone like a rapidly heating Jonathan Schoop, or perhaps Spencer Torkelson or Eric Haase, is probably going to need to do some damage tonight.