Buck Farmer’s hair, from the chia beard in the front to the party mullet in the back, is the image of a rebellious reliever from yesteryear, like he could’ve brawled with a slugger back in the day. So maybe it was fitting that Farmer was called into the manager’s office after one day of Spring Training.
No, it turned out, A.J. Hinch hadn’t called him in to scold him or lay out a new facial hair policy. The new Tigers manager wanted to talk about Farmer’s role in a bullpen that is shaping up to have a new look well beyond hairstyles.
Farmer, the former starter who looks like a closer and spent last season as a setup man, is about to become the scruffy-chinned face of Hinch’s emphasis on bullpen versatility.
“I think Farmer is a guy [who], since he’s done it all, can handle it all,” Hinch said Thursday morning. “We talked this morning about that, that his best role is when he’s used a lot. It’s when he’s used in various roles. He doesn’t need a ton of warning on when he’s going to pitch. And that’s music to my ears when you talk about a guy you can call down there at any time and rescue you out of trouble, can be a bridge, can pitch late in game with his mindset.
“I think he’s gonna do a little bit of everything, so I’m not gonna define him as a setup guy. I think that’s unfair to his skill set. And I think you’ll see him in a more versatile role, albeit an important role when we’re winning games.”
It’s a role, or lack of it, that fits Farmer’s profile. Under all that hair is the face of a pitcher who has played just about every role over seven seasons. He’s the longest-tenured Tiger not named Miguel Cabrera, having made his Major League debut in Detroit as a starter in the summer of 2014, barely a year after being drafted out of Georgia Tech. He bounced between starting and relieving, between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo, for three more seasons before finally sticking in the Tigers’ bullpen under manager Ron Gardenhire.
Farmer has pitched in 162 games since 2018, tied for ninth most in the Majors. Only Oakland’s Yusmeiro Petit and San Diego’s Craig Stammen have pitched in more games for one team in that span.
Those appearances have included every inning from the first to the 13th. Farmer has been a spot starter, an opener, a long man, a middle reliever, a setup guy and has finished out games — though he has yet to record a save.
Farmer has done it all for the Tigers over the years, and his new manager is now asking him to do a little bit of everything at once.
“I’ve kind of become accustomed to it, especially early on in my career,” Farmer said. “Because even in 2019 early on, that’s kind of where I was at, kind of the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type thing.
“But yeah, actually, I like A.J.’s mindset. I think it’s going to keep a lot of guys locked in, on their toes, and we’ll see a lot of guys maybe in roles that we haven’t seen them before.”
Hinch has reason to believe that flexibility fits Farmer best. Pitching the eighth inning in 19 of his 23 appearances last year, Farmer saw his damage tick up slightly and his strikeout rate drop more dramatically. After ranking in the top quarter of Major League pitchers in fastball velocity and whiff rate, and the top third in fastball spin rate, Farmer regressed in all three in 2020.
Farmer’s 15.7 percent strikeout rate was his lowest since 2015. His 41.4 percent hard-hit rate and 90.2 mph average exit velocity, according to Statcast, were both career highs. His fastball lost velocity (from 95 mph to 93.2) and spin rate last year, though the damage off the fastball dropped.
There were also improvements. Farmer’s 2.1 walk rate per nine innings was the best of his career. Right-handed batters went 7-for-37 with one home run and nine strikeouts against him.
The problem, Farmer believes, wasn’t his role but his pitching. Both had become predictable. The latter wasn’t for the better.
“Especially with left-handers, the book on me was just: Look for the fastball, sit on the changeup,” Farmer said. “Because honestly, that’s all I used with a left-hander in the box. I can’t fall into that. It’s caught up with me. And if the changeup’s not working that day, really all I have is the fastball at that point.”
Farmer and new pitching coach Chris Fetter agreed that he needed to throw his slider in more varied counts. He gave up two home runs off it last year, both to left-handed batters, but those were the only two hits off it.
The slider accounted for just 14.7 percent of Farmer’s pitches last year, but half of his 14 strikeouts.
“It was kind of a give-and-take type thing where I wanted to throw it more, but then again, guys weren’t as surprised by it,” Farmer said.
That could change. So, too, could the beard, if only for his children’s sake.
“Our little girl, it really doesn’t bother her. But our son, he’s only 3 months old,” Farmer said. “So when I’m feeding him, it’s like he’s getting a little bit of milk, a little bit of beard hair. He’s gotten to where he’ll latch onto it and tug on it, so that’s when I know it’s time to kind of knock it back a little bit.”