Lakeland, Fla. — AJ Hinch on Monday was asked if he liked reliever Alex Lange’s demeanor on the mound.
“You mean breathing fire in game one in spring training?” Hinch said, laughing. “With some intensity? Yeah, that’s a plus.”
Lange, to say the least, has announced his presence in this camp with some authority. The 25-year-old right-hander and former first-round pick of the Cubs out of LSU has transformed himself from a talented but inconsistent starter to a rip-snorting reliever since coming to the Tigers in the Nick Castellanos trade in 2019.
“I’ve tried to tone down the intensity at times, it just doesn’t work,” Lange said Tuesday. “For me, I like to go out there and compete. I’m a dog in a fight when we’re out there. I’m going to give everything I got. I’ve got my guys’ backs — that’s the way my mentality is. Just how I’m wired.”
Lange came into the spring opener on Sunday throwing 97-mph bullets and getting swings-and-misses with his nasty curveball. But after he walked two batters with two outs, you could see smoke coming out of his ears.
Pitching coach Chris Fetter had to make his first mound visit of his Tigers’ career to calm him down before he could work his way out of the inning.
“His juices were flowing,” Hinch said. “He was pretty hot. He’s got a sprinter’s mentality as a pitcher. If his breaking ball (command) continues to improve, this is the classic guy who comes in and pitches backwards, has wipeout stuff and effective velocity up in the zone — and we’ve found something pretty interesting for our ‘pen.”
Pitching backwards means, essentially, throwing secondary pitches in fastball counts and vise versa. And Lange isn’t exactly in love with the concept.
“Pitching backwards is great, but I wouldn’t say I only pitch backwards,” he said. “I need to be able to mix my curveball, change-up and fastball in any count. That’s my goal. That’s how I plan to work, just keeping guys off-balance.
“Early in counts guys aren’t looking to hit a breaking ball. The league as a whole, guys are laying off breaking balls early. So we have an opportunity to grab a strike. We have to make sure we’re landing that pitch so we’re starting 0-1 and not 0-2.”
About his curveball. It’s not your run-of-the-mill variety curveball. Sometimes it reads as a slider, though it doesn’t move horizontally. Sometimes to the hitter it reads like a four-seam fastball, until it drops off the proverbial table.
“I call it a curveball because of the spin axis,” said Lange, who is about as analytically and technologically articulate as any pitcher in the room. “It’s pretty much right on six (axis) and it has forward spin instead of slider spin, which is more around the ball. But the velocity (83-86 mph) gets it misconstrued as a slider.
“But it’s a straight down pitch for me with the spin axis.”
Got that? He can go into much greater detail if you need him to.
“The analytics on the pitch don’t look very good,” he said. “The spin is about 45-55%, which is not good. The depth is like negative 10 to negative 12 inches of vertical break, not great. But when it’s thrown hard and the spin axis is as close to six as it can be, that’s where we’re getting the swings and misses and the takes on it.
“The hitters aren’t seeing the dot (the illusion spin creates on a baseball) and they see the ball rotate just like my four-seam, just in the opposite direction. It’s hard and it’s late.”
As for the 97-mph gas, that’s a product of a mechanics overhaul he did last summer. Working with a group in Texas as well as at the Driveline Academy outside of Seattle, he essentially relearned how to use his back leg in his delivery.
“Just repatterned by lower half,” he said. “Staying on my back leg, opening my pelvis up and letting it eat. I worked on not getting so pushy and trying to jump down the mound. Just staying on the back leg and rotating down the mound. Staying back has definitely helped me, command-wise, velo-wise and arm health-wise.”
The whole package, the velocity, the wipeout curveball, the fiery intensity — it’s definitely raised his profile within the organization, evidenced by the club putting him on the 40-man roster after last season.
“It’s an interesting arm,” Hinch said. “The breaking ball is his calling card, he’s got a really good one. You look around the league at relievers’ pitch usage, he needs to us his breaking ball a lot, and he does. He has a swing-and-miss breaking ball.
“As he patterns himself as a guy who can come in, land his breaking ball anytime he wants, then have that high velocity up in the zone, I see him as an intriguing candidate for our ‘pen.”