Detroit Tigers’ new pitching coach Chris Fetter’s formula: ‘Highlight strengths’

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Tigers had the worst starting rotation in baseball last season with a combined 6.37 ERA.

Chris Fetter is tasked with cleaning up the mess.

The former Michigan baseball pitching coach was hired Friday by manager AJ Hinch to join him as the Tigers’ pitching coach. Together, they will work to see the rebuild through and focus on the building stage. The goal is to help the franchise return to postseason and World Series contention. 

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“We’re very excited to make one of the more important hires, outside of the manager’s job, to lead our young pitching into the future,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said Friday. “We feel blessed to be able to bring Chris Fetter on board. We feel we’re headed in the right direction with the right leadership.”

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Here are five takeaways from Fetter’s introductory news conference:

Developing prospects

The Tigers’ farm system is loaded with pitching prospects, namely right-hander Casey Mize and left-hander Tarik Skubal. They made their MLB debuts in the shortened 2020 season and are expected on the big-league roster out of spring training. Next up: right-handers Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, each on the brink of their arrivals. Don’t forget about righty Franklin Perez, who has battled injuries since the Tigers acquired him in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade. Still, the organization is confident in his future.

And there’s Joey Wentz, who had Tommy John surgery in March 2020. He is the organization’s No. 9 prospect, according to MLBPipeline. Mize is No. 2, followed by Manning (No. 3), Skubal (No. 5), Faedo (No. 10) and Perez (No. 14).

It’s Fetter’s job to mold them into sustainable major leaguers. He is ecstatic about the challenge and understands the success of the organization relies on his teachings.

“The pieces are there,” Fetter said. “The pieces are there to keep developing those guys. There’s still a development that goes on at the major-league level, and that’s going to be a priority for us. But it’s going to start on my end, building relationships with these players, seeing what makes those guys tick. Just being as open and honest and available as possible. That’s how you create buy-in and the desire for a player to listen to a coach.”

Strengths into elite factors

Fetter takes an individualized approach when working with pitchers. 

Many coaches, Fetter said, want to develop strengths and improve weaknesses. That’s not going to be his philosophy in Detroit. While focusing on both aspects seem important, he is solely focused on enhancing strengths.

“We’re going to try to highlight those strengths and make them elite,” Fetter said. “And then, at the end of the day, it’s taking those strengths and combining that with the opposition, as well. We can’t just focus on ourselves, we have to dig into reading swings, tendencies, being progressive in that nature, how we’re going to play defensively.”

Fetter’s style is, first and foremost, developing people, and then developing players. To do so, he will emphasize the strengths to make each pitcher dominant in his own way.

“We all learn differently,” Fetter said. “We all learn in different capacities, whether it’s visually, whether it’s on a spreadsheet, on iPad, audibly. We all learn at different levels. First, you have to start off with letting the guys know you care, but then it’s trying to dig into how their mind operates.”

Analytical focus

Fetter’s understanding of baseball analytics was enhanced when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers — before his three-year stint with the Wolverines — as their minor-league pitching coordinator. It was there he learned how to read in-depth numbers.

Yet his focus wasn’t just on understanding.

He learned to apply those numbers to in-game situations. Sometimes, that means not using them at all. Yes, Fetter is a “progressive” hire because of his background in analytics, but the numbers won’t always determine his tendencies.

[ From 2019: Michigan baseball’s Chris Fetter masters the numbers and the mind ]

“There are times where the pendulum can swing too far there, as well, and you lose that gut feeling on guys,” Fetter said. “It may not look right. The data may say it’s not great, but that’s what the player is most comfortable with. And if you’re gonna go down swinging, you want to go down swinging with what you’re comfortable with.

“The pendulum has swung to the objective side really high and trusting the data, and now I’m starting to take a step back and move toward, not the middle, but combining the two. There’s always those checks and balances. You want to stay up to date but, at the same time, not go too far.”

What he learned at Michigan

When Hinch interviewed Fetter, he asked him a question about his career as Michigan’s pitching coach from 2018-20: How have you evolved, and where do your skills translate from pro ball, to college and to the major leagues?

Fetter’s answer: Intellectual curiosity.

He isn’t going to get up in Matthew Boyd’s face, and he won’t pester Michael Fulmer. He isn’t going to overwhelm Mize and Skubal, either. What Fetter wants to do, however, is curiously evaluate them for a few weeks without offering much advice.

“Not come in gung-ho on trying to change a lot of things,” Fetter said. “Just obverse what they’ve been used to, observe how they go about their business, develop that relationship on a personal level, and then, as change needs to arise, you feel there’s a little more sell there, you get a little more buy-in.”

When Fetter was hired at U-M in 2017, this became his tactic. And he produced a slew of MLB draft picks: Jeff Criswell, Tommy Henry, Karl Kauffmann, Jack Weisenburger, William Tribucher and Jayce Vancena.

He hopes his relationship-first approach will work for the Tigers, too.

“For some guys, it was just pitch shaping,” Fetter said. “Some guys, we had to start all over from the lower half, which I believe is the foundation for any pitching delivery. There are different avenues, whether it be biomechanically with an Edgertronic camera (high-speed video) showing them how the ball comes out of their hands. Many different facets that we were able to utilize at the University of Michigan.”

A loyal friend

From 2009-12, Fetter was a minor-league pitcher for the San Diego Padres, after being selected in the ninth round of the MLB draft out of Michigan. When his professional career didn’t pan out, despite a 3.56 ERA, he became the assistant pitching coach for Double-A San Antonio in 2013.

Hinch was the Padres’ vice president of professional scouting from 2010-14. He pushed the organization to make Fetter a coach.

“He was always curious about a little bit of everything,” Hinch said. “His nature is to ask questions. His nature is to find solutions. His nature is to surround himself with challenges. … There’s a competitive fire in there that he combines that with, and his belief in people and doing things the right way.”

During the 2013 season, whenever Hinch came to the ballpark with his professional scouting department, Fetter made it a priority to learn from him. Because of the relationship, Fetter couldn’t turn down the offer to coach with Hinch for the Tigers.

“Who he is as a person, and just his vision for developing an organization, I think those really aligned,” Fetter said. “When you talk about being next to somebody on a day-in, day-out basis, sitting in the dugout, the trenches, going to battle with him, you want that to be someone you trust.

“I definitely found that with AJ.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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