Ex-UM stars: New Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter can read a player, and the analytics

Detroit News

Tony Paul
| The Detroit News

Tommy Henry’s first impression of Chris Fetter was, well, man, that’s a tall fella.

“He’s a 6-foot-7 slender, young dude,” Henry said, laughing. “At first, I was like, ‘Who is this guy?'”

There were many more impressions to come for Henry and three years’ worth of Michigan pitchers, who learned from Fetter that fine-tuning the craft isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Fetter, last week, was named the Tigers’ new pitching coach under new manager AJ Hinch, making the leap from college ball to The Show — after years of being courted by the likes of the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mets, Giants, Yankees and White Sox, among others.

Fetter, 34, was on staff at his alma mater, Michigan, for three seasons, helping lead the Wolverines to the College World Series national championship series in 2019.

The staff was led by Henry, 23, now in the Diamondbacks organization, and Karl Kauffmann, 23, now in the Rockies system. Michigan had three pitchers drafted in the first three rounds in the 2019 and 2020 Major League Baseball drafts, Henry and Kauffmann both in the second round in 2019.

“I can confidently say that without Coach Fetter as my coach, or even as a role in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am at,” said Henry, who was 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA in 2019. “He truly is brilliant at what he does, and it’s crazy with how young he is and how knowledgeable he is. He just seems to be an expert at his craft, and he’ll continue to work and always get better at that.”

If you talk to Michigan pitchers who worked under Fetter, his main rallying cry is simple.

Just be yourself.

Now, since every man is different, being yourself is different for every man. And Fetter is a master into unearthing just what makes each man different. He reads people.

“It’s his ability to understand the pitcher,” said Kauffmann, “and putting together a game plan that really focuses on the pitchers’ strengths.

“He’s a players’ coach. He works with you to find the best plan. He’s not going to force anything on you.”

That all starts with relationships, of which Fetter seems to be a master at forming. If you don’t know the man, you can’t possibly know what makes him tick.

And, then, it comes down to communication.

For Henry, Fetter always was stressing for him to use his athleticism, and be aggressive.

“That was a really great cue for me,” Henry said. “I’ve never been told to just be an athlete. I always focused on the mechanics.”

For other pitchers, it might be all about the mechanics and harnessing energy rather than overly exerting it.

“Some guys don’t need to think as much,” Kauffmann said. “Some guys need to think more.”

The relationships Fetter builds so effortlessly also helps him read a situation better than most, especially in games, Henry said. If a pitcher is struggling, that pitcher might not react well to a tongue-lashing — or perhaps it’s that verbal chew-out that a pitcher needs.

Or maybe Fetter uses his trips to the mound to point out a slight mechanical flaw. He spots those easily.

So there’s plenty of “feel” to Fetter’s craft, but there’s also a whole lot of preparation. He’s analytic-minded, going so far as to hold classroom-type sessions at Michigan, particularly on the many ins and outs of TrackMan — teaching players how not just to understand the data, but how to use it to their advantage.

“He would put up slideshows about how to interpret the TrackMan data, and how to use TrackMan to make you better,” Henry said. “For everyone that’s getting into the analytic side of baseball, it’s huge to have that kind of one-on-one understanding. He didn’t assume we knew. We all learned a lot about that.”

Fetter also was a huge believer in Rapsodo, a sports-analytics firm. Henry had to Google Rapsodo.

TrackMan and Rapsodo proved huge in scouting. 

Fetter, his former pitchers said, was excellent at building a game plan around a pitcher’s strengths, but also at building a game plan around a hitter’s weaknesses. Fetter knows a lot about hitting.

That proved huge at Michigan, especially as it kept advancing through the NCAA Tournament in 2019, meeting better competition at every turn.

“If you look at the top prospects we played, we did a really good job of minimizing their damage,” Kauffmann said. “That’s a credit to his ability.

“He found the holes in guys when people didn’t always see holes in their swings.”

Michigan, in 2019, led the Big Ten with a 3.46 ERA, and was seventh in the nation allowing 7.44 hits per game. Michigan finished third, then second, in the Big Ten in Fetter’s first two seasons there. The 2020 season was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fetter’s background includes scouting and coaching. He was minor-league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers, pitching coach at Ball State, a scout for the Angels, and Double-A pitching coach for the Padres.

He pitched for Michigan, earning All-Big Ten three times, and ranks first in program history in innings (332⅓), third in wins (28) and third in strikeouts (281). Michigan coach Erik Bakich said Fetter made a “Mount Everest-size impact on Michigan baseball” through playing and coaching.

He was a ninth-round pick by the Padres in 2009, and pitched four seasons in their system before retiring as a player and moving on to the next step — which led to last week’s huge step to the Tigers, where many of the rising stars are pitching prospects who aren’t far removed from college age. Henry reacted to the news by saying he had “goosebumps,” while Kauffmann said he had “chills.”

“He’s a glue guy. He’s the guy in any organization, in any team setting who knows how to build relationships with people from every different background,” Henry said. “And everybody feeds off that. He’s a positive-energy guy. Every time he walks into a room, he’s giving energy, instead of sucking it out of the room.

“He’s the perfect guy for any team.”


Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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