4 Detroit Tigers dramas to watch: Casey Mize’s innings, Michael Fulmer’s role

Detroit Free Press

After a four-game winning streak, the Detroit Tigers no longer carry the weight of the worst record in baseball. That mark belongs to the Minnesota Twins, projected by many in spring training to win the American League Central.

But Tigers (13-25) have the second-worst record after 38 games. The offense is inconsistent, the starting rotation is superb, and the bullpen is woeful. These two scenarios happen too often: When the offense clicks, the pitching struggles, and when the pitching is dominant, the offense can’t hit.

It’s tough to understand this team’s identity, even as the season nears 25% completion.

Here are four things to follow, as the Tigers enter the second quarter of the season:

Workload changes

Eventually, Casey Mize‘s role is going to change. This was the plan from the beginning of spring training, and manager AJ Hinch said the current timeline is “about where we hoped and expected it to be,” especially with the young pitchers.

He’s talking about the 24-year-old rookies: Mize and Tarik Skubal. The Tigers plan to decrease Mize’s workload in early June.

“I don’t want our guys to think too much about that,” Hinch said. “I want them to just go out and pitch. If you get too fixated on a big number right now or where they’re at, you lose track of a really important innings developmentally for these guys at this level and competitively at this level.”

STRONG START: Casey Mize’s last start key for him — and relationship with AJ Hinch

LEARNING LESSONS: Tarik Skubal knows he must be better in this one area

Through seven starts, Mize controls a 4.19 ERA in 38⅔ innings. He has 16 walks to 27 strikeouts and has completed six innings in three straight starts.

The Tigers don’t want to shut him down, so they must monitor his innings. Skubal already transitioned to the bullpen for a 10-day stint in late April.

“We’ll do the same thing and take Casey out of the rotation, or at least out of the five, six and seven inning outings at some point in early June to give him a break,” Hinch said. “Don’t tell him that.”

The Tigers are still thinking about keeping Mize as a starter, rather than moving him to the bullpen like they did with Skubal.

“His routine is so regained and he’s so good at it, we may leave him in the rotation and just have him go one time through and have him throw two or three innings from the get-go,” Hinch said.

[ How Casey Mize is ‘finally putting in the effort on the mental side’ ]

Closer of the future?

Michael Fulmer jogged out of the bullpen with one out in the ninth inning Thursday at Comerica Park to the tune of “Stick That In Your Country Song” by Eric Church. Hinch previously described him as a “closet adrenaline junkie,” and Fulmer has asked to be “thrown in the fire” if he was going to stay in the bullpen.

His fastball is around 95 mph, and his slider is making opponents look foolish. After his fastball averaged 93 mph last year in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, he has the makeup and mindset of a late-inning reliever.

But what about closer?

“He’s obviously responded very well and came in and got some big outs,” Hinch said. “I think you’re going to see the combination of guys in the back end, but I certainly feel good about him.”

Left-hander Gregory Soto is basically the closer, although Hinch hasn’t actually named a closer. He doesn’t like the idea of labels, especially not with a rebuilding team. But Soto’s command gets too wild at times, and the walks become problematic in the ninth inning.

When Soto pitched Thursday, it was the third game in a row Hinch called on him.

Soto gave up two runs, but Fulmer got the final two outs in five pitches for a 4-3 win over the Kansas City Royals. It was his second save. Right-hander Spencer Turnbull said, “I love him in the game like that. I think he’s got the mentality and mindset for it, to just come in and close the door.”

Fulmer, 28, notched his first career save in a 6-5 win May 5 over the Boston Red Sox in extra innings. Soto pitched around two walks and a double in the bottom of the ninth inning, but stumbled in the 10th by giving up two runs.

With runners on first and second, Fulmer escaped to end the game.

On May 8, Hinch went to Fulmer with the score tied, the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning against the Twins. He used six pitches to get two outs and end the threat, then tossed an additional two scoreless innings in the win.

“I like having guys down there that we can rely on,” Hinch said. “(Jose) Cisnero bounced back (Thursday). Soto has been really good. … That’s a lot of weapons down there, and Fulmer being down there really does give me a lot of options.”

WINDSOR: How have Tigers become a mess during rebuild? Al Avila bears most of the blame

ANALYSIS: Why the Tigers should blow past their 48-win pace

The Jimenez dilemma

One pitcher Hinch didn’t mention is Joe Jimenez, and with good reason.

His numbers this season: Three games, 1⅔ innings, two hits, eight earned runs, nine walks and four strikeouts, for a 43.20 ERA.

He entered in the eighth inning Tuesday with a 7-0 lead but allowed three runs on two hits and two walks. The Royals’ Jorge Soler crushed a three-run blast.

“It’s hard to keep him positive right now because he’s put a lot of pressure on himself,” Hinch said. “When he got back up here, he was eager to prove that he belongs. I think deep down in his heart, he knows he’s a big-league pitcher. And I also think he knows that he’s got to command the strike zone better for him to get the opportunities up here.”

AFTER 2020: Joe Jimenez was an All-Star. Where it went wrong and how he can fix it

Hinch hopes Jimenez can bounce back so he can insert the former All-Star into games again. Because the poor results don’t warrant opportunities, it’s unclear when Jimenez will pitch next.

Considering Jimenez was once the closer of the future, what the Tigers are seeing from the 26-year-old is concerning. But the organization seems prepared to give him more opportunities to turn around his season — and his career.

“I’m not going to run away from him,” Hinch said. “We need him to be good to provide anything from depth to bigger and better opportunities as the bullpen gets put together.”

FROM SPRING: Joe Jimenez has a plan to return as closer: ‘Whatever they want me to do’

Skubal’s changeup

For Skubal to take the next step, Hinch, pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves asked him to ditch his splitter. The lefty discovered the splitter this offseason at Driveline Baseball, which allowed him to forget about the old changeup he used.

Well, the changeup is back.

“It’s just a pitch I throw more consistently in the strike zone, and it works better off my fastball,” Skubal said. “They sat me down and asked me about it. Very open conversation. We’re like, ‘Yeah, this is kind of where we want to go.’ I just took it and went back to what I was doing.”

This season, Skubal has a 5.73 ERA in 33 innings across eight games (six starts) and delivered 17 walks and 31 strikeouts. He paces the majors with 11 home runs allowed and six losses. His record through 16 career games: 1-10.

Because of Skubal’s splitter, the velocity of his four-seam fastball dipped. Once he went back to a changeup May 7 against the Twins, he had an easier time reaching back to hit 98.6 mph on the radar gun. (His fastball averaged 94.5 mph; his changeup got four of his 13 swings and misses.)

“I understand players are always trying to tweak things and find different ways to be better,” Hinch said. “In this instance, I think he’s better suited with less split, more change because he’s primarily a fastball pitcher. He took it into the game and had a little bit of success. Probably helps our message.”

FEATURE: The ‘inner focus’ that connects Tarik Skubal’s psyche to potential

IT’S OK: As Tarik Skubal struggles, AJ Hinch insist pitcher can handle major leagues

During Friday’s start in a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs, Skubal’s fastball fluctuated between 92.3 mph and 97 mph, averaging 94.5 mph.

But will Skubal ever return to using his splitter?

“I haven’t really thought about it too much, honestly,” he said.

The organization’s goal is to solidify Skubal as a reliable pitcher before the end of the season, setting him up for success in 2022 and beyond.

“He’s not going to be the same pitcher today that he’s going to be in five years,” Hinch said. “But there’s also some core things that he needs to do, whether he’s a young pitcher, middle aged or an older guy. When it becomes a distraction and you’re not finding success, your paralysis by analysis can be too much.

“Tarik isn’t really in that category, but he needs to solidify himself before we apply the game plan. Once he can get a consistent delivery and be a little bit more efficient with his pitches, then you can get a little bit more sophisticated with the game planning.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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