What makes Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter the perfect hire

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter is a straightforward guy.

Just take his nickname in college: “Cheese.” It’s a short jump from Fetter to “Feta,” and a shorter jump from there to “Cheese.”

It was a slightly bigger jump in high school, though, that gave him his claim to athletic fame, even before he stepped on the mound for Michigan baseball. Back then, the 6-foot-8 multi-sport athlete gained recognition for blocking 7-foot Greg Oden, the future 2007 NBA draft No. 1 pick, in an AAU basketball game.

“Cheese blocked Oden!” his Michigan teammates would scream whenever Oden, the NBA, or any topic related to basketball came up in casual conversations more than a decade ago. 

The video is out there somewhere, his former teammate and longtime friend Matt Petry swears, but an in-depth online search suggests otherwise.

“He certainly liked to let everyone know he blocked Greg Oden in a basketball game,” Petry, now Orchard Lake St. Mary’s baseball coach, told the Free Press on Friday. “We’d like to give him some fun for it.”

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Fetter, 34, isn’t called “Cheese” very often any more. (His former teammates still use it, though.) He doesn’t talk about blocking Oden either, despite how impressive it is. (How many non-NBA players can say they blocked a No. 1 overall pick?)

But those who know Fetter say he remains the same competitor, with the same tenacious approach that led him to make Oden look foolish on the basketball court. But it’s a more methodical push these days, as he uses his competitive instincts to inform his preparation as a pitching coach. His pitchers’ mental approaches are just as important as their mechanics, and both get exhaustively studied in search of a tactical advantage, no matter how small.

That’s the approach Fetter — the Wolverines’ pitching coach for the last three seasons — will bring to the Tigers for the forseeable future, after his hire Friday as manager AJ Hinch’s pitching coach

“Major league teams have been knocking on his door for the last year or two, and he wanted to find the right fit,” Petry said of Fetter, who literally wears his love for Michigan on his sleeve — he has the phrase “Those who stay” tattooed on his arm, a reference to Bo Schembechler’s iconic 1969 speech. “He absolutely loved Michigan, as a player and as a coach. He didn’t want to leave for just any job.

“He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife (Jessica) and son (Cole). When the Tigers came calling, that was something that checked all the boxes. He said in a text message it’s a bittersweet day, but he’s really excited about this.”

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‘Show them who you are’

Indeed, MLB teams have been chasing Fetter.

That’s because Fetter is more than just an assistant coach for a recent College World Series finalist. He is an analytics guru who mixes new- and old-school teachings after nearly a decade of moving back and forth between the pro and college coaching ranks.

John Shoemaker noticed Fetter’s expertise in 2017 at spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shoemaker has been a minor-league coach and manager in the Dodgers’ organization since the early 1980s; Fetter, still learning, came in as the team’s minor-league pitching coordinator.

“We were together in meetings a lot talking about how the organization can get better,” Shoemaker said Friday. “He’s very well-spoken. He’s a hard worker. He’s knowledgeable. He has experience. I’m sure he will be able to deliver for the Tigers.”

Fetter took it upon himself to learn from the Dodgers. He submerged himself into the analytics and learned how to use the numbers to his advantage without relying on them too much. His advanced understanding of these statistics — combined with producing six draft picks in three seasons at cold-weather U-M — put him on the big-league radar.

[ Michigan baseball pitching coach Chris Fetter masters the numbers and the mind ]

But there’s one thing, Shoemaker says, that stands out: Fetter is focused on knowing his players as people first, and then pitchers second. What he means is Fetter doesn’t demand a pitcher possess every attribute on an imaginary checklist for success.

Rather, think of his style as a Venn diagram, where many parts — or players, in this case — intersect with each other based on personalized teaching techniques to create a strong starting rotation.

“Coach Fetter does a great job individualizing plans for everybody on the pitching staff,” Michigan pitcher Jeff Criswell told the Free Press before he was selected No. 58 overall in the 2020 draft. “If you talk to everybody on our pitching staff, you can realize that everybody does something a little bit different. That kind of individualized approach is what has really helped guys take off. Coach Fetter is really good at that, teaching things in different ways.

“It is a unique approach to pitching, but I think it’s really helped us be so successful.”

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So, it’s no surprise Hinch made Fetter his top priority on his new coaching staff. And the relationship between them, which goes back to the early 2010s when Fetter was a minor-league pitcher and Hinch was the San Diego Padres’ vice president of professional scouting, sealed the deal for Fetter to join the Tigers.

Fetter’s dream was to pitch in the major leagues, but he was cut by the Padres in 2012 and quickly shifted his attention to coaching. With Hinch’s recommendation, the organization hired him to coach in Double-A, with the San Antonio Missions. He has coached ever since.

“Will there be some initial pushback?” Fetter said Friday about his first season in the majors as a coach or player. “I don’t think so. I think as long as you just open up your chest and show them who you are as a person, I think everyone wants to continue to grow, get better and become established big leagues and have the highest level of success.”

‘Hot commodity’

Because of Fetter’s approach, Petry considers him the “perfect guy” to develop the Tigers’ pitching prospects and help them win as major leaguers. The “perfect balance” of development and winning, Petry explains, is rare to find.

Petry’s father, Dan, knows firsthand about this.

Dan Petry pitched for the Tigers for parts of 11 seasons (1979-87, ’90-91) helping guide the franchise to a World Series championship in 1984.

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Petry wasn’t the star of that title team, but he was an effective big-league starter for many years, including an AL All-Star berth in 1985. He didn’t always have the best stuff, but he was durable, efficient and tenacious while working within his own skills.

It’s a mantra that emulates what Fetter stands for: Not every pitcher is the same, so find a way to exploit personal strengths. That’s the key to a great pitching coach, Dan Petry believes.

“I always think back to myself and Jack Morris,” Petry said Friday. “Obviously, Jack is a Hall of Famer, but we had similar stuff. Jack would go after hitters a certain way, and (the coaches) would say, ‘OK, this is the way to do it.’ And I tried it, and it didn’t work. One thing might work for Jack, but it didn’t work for me.

“I had to figure out a way to do what was best for me. That’s what I think they have to do.”

The Tigers enter 2021 planning to rely on a wealth of pitchers looking for their first big-league success, including Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal (who both made their MLB debuts last season) and Matt Manning and Alex Faedo (both waiting for the big-league call). There’s also a touch of big-league experience with Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer — who both struggled in 2020 — and Spencer Turnbull, who is on the cusp of becoming an ace.

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Each of those seven pitchers will present their own challenges, a different human with specific needs.

It’s Fetter’s job to balance those needs with a methodical, player-first outlook. And the elder Petry doesn’t think there’s anyone better for the job.

“He’s such a hot commodity in the baseball world,” the ex-World Series champ said. “Just being so young, he’s going to be able to relate very well with that young staff that the Tigers have coming up.”

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

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