Once the quiet kid in the corner, Buck Farmer is now the oracle of Tigers bullpen

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It can’t be right. Buck Farmer is entering his eighth big-league season with the Tigers? It seems like just yesterday he was jumping four levels of the farm system and making his big-league debut for the last Tigers playoff team in 2014.

“It is kind of mind-boggling to think how fast it’s gone,” he said.

Farmer will turn 30 years old on Saturday.

“I’m 30 going on 70, it feels like,” he said, laughing.

In his time with the Tigers he’s been a starter and a closer, and he’s served all roles in-between. He was the guy who rode the I-75 shuttle back and forth from Toledo to Detroit, over and over. He was the guy who got the 2 a.m. emergency call-up, the guy who had to take an early flight to Chicago, race to White Sox park, arrive just a couple of hours before first pitch, only to be told his services wouldn’t be needed after all – and would he mind flying coach back to Detroit that night.

“I guess I was kind of the jack of all trades, master of none,” he said.

Don’t let his self-effacing humor fool you. He’s mastered more than a few. He’s the dean of the bullpen these days. And from the sound of it, he’s going to fit nicely into new manager AJ Hinch’s system.

“I think Buck is a guy who can mentally handle the unknown,” Hinch said Thursday. “Some pitchers like the routine, they prefer more of a defined role. Farmer, since he’s done it all can handle it all. His best role is when he’s used a lot and when he’s used in various roles.

“He doesn’t need a ton of warning and that’s music to my ears.”

Farmer has been used primarily as a late-inning set-up reliever the last two years, and he’s been reliable, trusted. He likely will be used in high-leverage situations again this season, though maybe not exclusively in the later innings.

“You are talking about a guy you can call on at any time to rescue you out of trouble,” Hinch said. “He can be a bridge guy. He can be a late-inning guy with his mindset. I think he’s going to do a little bit of everything.

“So I’m not going to define him as a set-up guy. That’s unfair to his skill set. You will see him in a versatile role, albeit an important role when we are winning games.”

Old dog, new tricks

Another blessing Farmer provides Hinch is his majestic red beard and flowing mullet tail.

“Some guys I can’t recognize in masks,” Hinch said, laughing. “I can always recognize Buck.”

Farmer hasn’t cut a hair on his beard since last August, but with the intensifying Florida heat and the travails of fathering a couple of young kids, well, it’s time.

“It doesn’t really bother my little girl,” he said. “But my son is 3 months old and when I hold him on my shoulder to (bottle) feed him he ends up getting a little milk and a little beard hair and then he latches on to it and tugs on it. I know it’s time to trim it back.”

While he may trim back on his beard, his aim this camp is to add on to his pitch mix. Although he has used three pitches most of his career — four-seam fastball, change-up and a slider-curve hybrid — he felt he was underusing his breaking ball and, in the process, over-exposing his change-up.

“I’ve worked on becoming more confident throwing my slider-curve,” he said. “I’ve talked to (pitching coach Chris) Fetter about it a good bit, just about using it more and not being seen as a two-pitch pitcher with a slider in his back pocket.”

The book on Farmer was look for the fastball but sit on the change-up. That was especially true of left-handed hitters, who hit 100 points better against him than right-handed hitters (.289 vs. .189) and had an OPS that was 200 points higher than righties (.762 vs. .562).

“I can’t fall into that (two-pitch mix),” Farmer said. “It caught up with me a bit last year, even though it was a shortened season. If the change-up is not working that day, all I have is a fastball. Being able to throw the slider, back-door, back-foot or even just on 0-0 (count) to right-handers and left-handers would be huge.”

Farmer threw exactly 50 sliders last year and hitters were 2 for 14 with seven strikeouts against it. In 2019, he threw the pitch 25% of the time and he limited hitters to a .185 average with 20 strikeouts.

But, as Farmer said, it ended up being a surprise pitch, for the most part. What sticks in his mind, of course, are two sliders that got knocked out of the park — two of the three home runs he allowed all season came off sliders.

“It was sequencing,” he said. “Max Kepler (of the Twins) hit a homer. I threw him a breaking ball on 1-2 — a breaking ball coming in on a lefty who was trying to pull the ball. Also against Milwaukee, a left-handed pinch-hitter (Jace Peterson). I had thrown him fastballs and change-ups, everything but the kitchen sink and I tried to sneak a breaking ball back-door. It was a good pitch, just into a left-hander, into his barrel.”

Farmer’s thinking is, if he establishes the breaking ball more, uses it in all kinds of counts, then it’s not a pitch that hitters can eliminate. He can use it as a weapon.

“It’s using the pitch in correct situations, as opposed to using it as a bail-out,” he said.

Changing up the change-up

The change-up has long been Farmer’s money pitch, but last year, hitters whacked it around pretty good (.346) and the swing-and-miss rate was under 30%. The analytics showed that in terms of movement, shape and velocity, the pitch acted no differently in 2020 than it did in 2019 when opponents hit .205 off it.

“It just goes to show you, if a guy goes up sitting on one pitch, it’s pretty tough to get it by him,” Farmer said. “That’s where I feel like I got into a bad spot, becoming a two-pitch pitcher.”

Working with Fetter, too, Farmer might add a wrinkle to the change-up. Because he doesn’t throw a two-seam fastball, hitters sometimes can read the spin on the change-up, which he also throws with two fingers.

“I’m not necessarily going to change the movement profile,” he said. “It’s more complementing it with a four-seam change-up that has the same spin rotation as the four-seam fastball. It’s like having two change-ups instead of trying to redo one.”

So the old dog is still learning new tricks. But at the same time, Farmer finds himself in the rather peculiar position of being somewhat of an oracle for the younger pitchers in camp. Sometimes he can’t even believe it.

It wasn’t that long ago, as a fresh-faced 23-year-old old, that he walked into a Tigers clubhouse that included Cy Young winners Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and David Price, not to mention Anibal Sanchez and Joe Nathan.

Intimidating much? For his first few years in the big leagues, Farmer mostly sat quietly at his locker.

“Now I guess I am called upon to spread wisdom, if you can call it that,” he said. “I just tell them, it’s the same game. Yeah, the names are bigger, more famous, but it’s the same game. Somebody told me once that the person in the box is just a jersey with a name on it. I’ve taken that to heart and that’s what I tell guys.

“Go be a bulldog. Continue to do what got you here. The game doesn’t change. You still have to throw strikes and you still have to get outs. The stage is bigger, but the game is the same.”

And, bless his gentle, Georgian soul, so is Buck Farmer.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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