For many prospects, the cancelled 2020 minor league season was a lost year of development that could have major negative career implications. Minor league contraction may force some aggressive promotions, while the levels of access to quality training have varied wildly from player to player with MLB’s developmental pipeline shut down for much of the year. However, for some pitching prospects, they may ultimately benefit from the season off. Alex Lange could be one of them.
We ranked Alex Lange as the #27 prospect in the Tigers farm system entering the 2020 season, but we’ve moved him up to 24th this preseason, despite Detroit adding another strong draft class. Given the limited information available throughout the pandemic, this shift in the rankings can essentially be explained by the fact that Lange’s velocity showed a bump last March in spring camp, and again in instructs in the fall. Command issues remain, but the improved velocity out of the pen gives him the raw stuff to potentially succeed in a setup role.
Alex Lange’s prospect stock peaked during his stellar freshman season at LSU, during which he posted a perfect 12-0 record with a 1.97 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 114 innings. After serving three seasons as LSU’s ace and posting the second most strikeouts by any pitcher in LSU history (406), he was drafted with the 30th overall pick (1st round) in the 2017 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs. In his first full season in the Cubs farm system, Lange posted a solid 3.47 FIP but a meager 20.4% strikeout rate in 23 starts at High-A.
Alex Lange’s 2019 minor league campaign was anything but encouraging prior to the trade deadline deal that sent him and fellow right-hander Paul Richan from the Cubs to the Tigers in exchange for outfielder Nick Castellanos. Between two stops at High-A and Double-A, Lange posted a 5.86 ERA as a starting pitcher. And while his strikeout numbers were decent at High-A (keep in mind they were also paired with a 1.76 WHIP), they evaporated at Double-A, as his strikeout rate fell from 22.4% to 16.7%.
These struggles led the Tigers organization to immediately convert Lange into a reliever upon his entrance into the organization. The short-term results were encouraging: Lange posted a 24.6% strikeout rate and 2.79 FIP in a small nine appearance (15.2 innings) sample size at Double-A Erie. He followed this up by posting a 3.72 ERA and 33.3% strikeout rate in eight appearances (9.2 innings) in the Arizona Fall League.
One other tidbit of note that speaks to how the Tigers view his chances: the Tigers added Alex Lange to the 40-man roster in late November to protect him from the Rule-5 Draft.
Alex Lange’s repertoire has featured five pitches at times: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a changeup that has been little in evidence recently, and two breaking pitches. The breaking balls are the key strength in Lange’s repertoire, and particularly since he’s moved to relief the focus has been on his fastball-slider combination.
When last we saw Lange in regular action late in the 2019 season, he was topping out around 93-94 mph in relief, but his history as a starter with the Chicago Cubs in the first half of the year had indicated fastball velocity down in the 89-91 mph range at times. Fortunately, Lange appears to be thriving as a reliever, and is flashing a pretty good looking heater in our last few glimpses of him in action.
We saw a preview of this last spring as Lange was pretty comfortably 93-95 in a brief look before the COVID shutdown. Reports from instructs in the fall indicated that Lange was holding that range and topping out even a tick or two higher, and that was backed up by the radar readings in Lakeland on Sunday in his first outing. Lange sat between 96-97 MPH on Sunday and topped out at 97.7 MPH, an encouraging sign for his future.
FanGraphs, considers Lange’s slider to be his one true plus (60 FV) offering. The pitch sits between 84-85 MPH with good depth, and is Lange’s go-to out pitch. Additionally, Lange throws a low-80’s curveball that has proven to be an effective off-speed offering against left-handed foes. He also throws a changeup with some depth that has drawn above average grades (55 FV) from FanGraphs in the past.
On Sunday, 19 of Lange’s 28 pitches were off-speed offerings, and you can expect more where that came from as Lange continues in a bullpen role. On Sunday the curve and changeup made an appearance, but as his role has been simplified, the Tigers have him emphasizing fourseamers up in the zone with plenty of sliders down. Commanding those is his ticket to the show.
The issue with Alex Lange’s future viability lies in his control. His delivery is pretty high effort, and while the excess tilt and head movement of his college days have been cleaned up somewhat in pro ball, he’s still stiff-legged with a quick, late arm and gets a bit out of control at times. Lange appears a little stronger and he does have better posture and balance from a simplified delivery these days, but it remains to be seen if he can spot his fastball effectively enough to handle a much higher caliber of hitter.
Lange commonly fell behind in counts during his time as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, to the tune of a 11.4% walk rate during his 2019 High-A stint and a nearly identical 11.3% walk rate during his time as a starter in Double-A. There weren’t many signs of better precision in his first tour in a relief role, but the margins aren’t as fine for a one inning reliever who can potentially lean on two plus pitches.
Right on cue, Lange walked two batters and needed 28 pitches to finish an inning in his 2021 Spring Training debut on Sunday. Nothing to be concerned with on March 1, obviously, but improving his fastball command remains the whole key to a fast track to the major leagues. He’s trending in the right direction in his new role and we’re happy with that right now.
Projected 2021 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Last January, we gave Alex Lange decent odds to break through to the Tigers’ major league roster late in the season, but the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season delayed debut timelines across the league. Given Lange’s velocity bump, the lost 2020 season, and the fairly underwhelming competition for Detroit’s final two bullpen spots, there is a small chance that Lange may skip Triple-A completely. To do so, however, he would have to win one of the 1-2 bullpen spots up for grabs in Spring Training, and the Tigers have numerous veteran arms they’re likely to test out first.
For now, expect Lange to spend most of his season in Toledo as the revamped player development staff look to improve his command and put him on track for a debut later this summer.