Why there’s still belief in aging Detroit Tigers prospect ‘fighting for his life’ in baseball

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Entering the 2014 season, Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell needed a new ace.

He had one name in mind for the coveted role as Friday starter:

Kyle Funkhouser.

“We have the players fill out three individual goals and three team goals,” McDonnell told the Free Press on March 2. “One of his individual goals was to be the Friday night starter. And I thought, ‘Well, good.’ You want kids to work for something.”

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The void opened in the rotation when Chad Green — now a reliever for the New York Yankees — was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 2013. Funkhouser, coming off a solid freshman campaign, stepped into the role.

That was Funkhouser at age 20.

Funkhouser, now a Tigers pitcher who turns 27 Tuesday, learned of his newest role Friday. The Tigers optioned him to Triple-A Toledo, relegating to the team’s mini-camp squad in Lakeland, rather than remaining with the major leaguers.

“He is in the area right in between Triple-A and the big leagues,” manager AJ Hinch said last month. “He got a little taste, and it’s just been too many walks. … Very obvious when you see that kind of arm, that kind of stuff, the strike zone control is going to be critical to him making that leap.”

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Funkhouser is a season removed from making his MLB debut in 2020, posting a 7.27 ERA, 12 strikeouts and 11 walks in 13 games out of the bullpen for the Tigers. It took Funkhouser — a fourth-round pick in 2016 as a college senior — four years to make the majors.

His current goal is to make the Tigers’ roster at some point in 2021. He will start the season in Toledo unless there are injuries to relievers before Opening Day. Funkhouser allowed three runs in two innings, with four walks and one strikeout, before getting cut from big-league camp.

“One of my biggest takeaways is that it’s never too early or never too late to make it up and, I guess, start or make a career,” Funkhouser said after his first spring outing. “I have a long ways to go. … When things are going well, it’s easy to eat that stuff up. But when things aren’t going well, it can take a toll on a guy.”

Daunting questions

Some of McDonnell’s Louisville players were afraid they would set themselves up to fail. Instead of writing “Friday night starter” as a goal, they simply aimed to be one of three “weekend starters” on the college staff.

But a few players, including Funkhouser, wanted to be the guy coming into the 2014 season.

“We were pretty optimistic,” McDonnell said. “High profile coming out of high school. He threw a complete game his freshman year. Even though it was a midweek game, you just don’t see that. You don’t see pitchers being that efficient. We might get one complete game a year (because of) pitch counts. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s something to build on.’

“And then when he had that goal to be the Friday night starter, I thought, ‘Well, he has shown the ability.'”

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In 2014, Funkhouser finished with a 13-3 record, 1.94 ERA and 122 strikeouts. It was an All-American-caliber season, earning him a role on USA Baseball’s roster in the summer and skyrocketing his value.

Then, the questions came pouring in.

Funkhouser still remembers them vividly.

“When are you going to declare for the draft,” folks would often ask. “When will you be selected?” “Which team will take a chance on your right arm?” The Los Angeles Dodgers grabbed him with the No. 35 overall pick in the 2015 draft, but he returned to Louisville for his senior year.

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After the Tigers took him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, following a 3.86 ERA as a senior, a new set of questions surrounded Funkhouser. He debuted professionally in Short-A Season Connecticut but climbed to High-A Lakeland by 2017 and Triple-A Toledo by 2018.

“I got drafted and signed, and then it was like, ‘Oh, well, when is he going to get to his level? When is he going to get to that level?’ ” Funkhouser said, recalling his past experiences. “Baseball is hugely mental, and if you let some of those things get inside your head, it makes it really hard.

“It’s hard enough to just focus on the game itself and mechanics. If you let outside factors get in there, it makes it twice as hard, if not more. You have to put your head down, trust the process, train hard and train the right way.”

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The formula for success

The main aspect of the game standing between Funkhouser and the major leagues: The strike zone.

If he can throw strikes consistently, it won’t be long before he returns to the majors.

Funkhouser doesn’t think his eyesore of a 7.27 ERA in 2020 paints the entire picture. He got beat up for five runs in his MLB debut July 27 against the Kansas City Royals, and he gave up three runs in his last outing Sept. 9 against the Milwaukee Brewers.

As for the 11 games in between, from July 30 through Sept. 6, Funkhouser recorded a 3.52 ERA, 11 strikeouts and seven walks in 15⅓ innings.

“The biggest thing I learned was that I belong,” Funkhouser said. “My stuff plays. I tried to take advantage of each opportunity and get better each time and feel more comfortable. … I thought I pitched better than the numbers showed.”

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Still, Funkhouser’s inability to throw strikes is concerning.

Even in Triple-A Toledo in 2019, Funkhouser walked 54 of his 317 batters faced in 63⅓ innings, giving him a 17% walk rate. At High-A Lakeland (one game), Double-A Erie (four games) and Triple-A Toledo (18 games) combined, he had 5.7 walks per nine innings — tied for the worst mark in his career.

As for the other year with 5.7 walks per nine innings?

That was 2020 with the Tigers.

“He needs to be in the strike zone,” Hinch said. “The walks are not going to translate to getting major league hitters out. He knows that. It’s nothing that he hasn’t been told before. I’d rather see less stuff and more strikes, and then we can work around where in the strike zone he’s going to get us outs.”

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McDonnell isn’t ready to count him out, even though he hasn’t been as dominant as he was at times at Louisville.

“He is fighting for his life every year,” McDonnell said. “There’s so much competition that I’d like to think Kyle Funkhouser’s path through college has prepared him for what he’s dealing with right now. I would hope he can handle the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. It’s just a part of the game.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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