Cleveland — Could you even imagine Kyle Funkhouser doing this at any point last season?
Fourth inning in Game 2 against the Astros on Saturday. Tigers up 1-0. Funkhouser is in the game early because manager AJ Hinch had structured a specifically-modified, match-up based bullpen game. Funkhouser had just induced a double-play ball from slugger Yordan Alvarez and he was in full battle against Carlos Correa.
He fell behind 3-1 and then dotted the bottom of the strike zone with a 97-mph sinker for called strike two. What he did next even had Correa shaking his head. Funkhouser quick-pitched him. On a 3-2 count. Jammed a surprised Correa with a 96-mph sinker and got him to roll a ground ball to third base.
“Just very mature,” Hinch said. “And it shows how in control of the at-bats he is. He is hitting 99 (mph), commanding his secondary pitches. There’s nothing not to like about what Funk is doing.”
It’s hard to even think this is the same guy who posted a 8.25 ERA in two Triple-A seasons, who gave up 14 runs and 11 walks in 17.1 innings in Detroit last season and who was so unimpressive early this spring that he was among the early cuts.
“This is the first time I’ve been around him, but I can’t imagine him having any more confidence than he has right now,” Hinch said. “This is the best he’s pitched in the big leagues, in a small sample size. And he’s barely scratched the surface on his career. He’s in total control.”
In his last nine outings, he’s allowed four earned runs (all in one game against the Angels) in 12 innings with nine strikeouts. He has pitched his way into being part of Hinch’s options in winnable games, and his role might be taking on even greater significance with Michael Fulmer on the injured list.
“I’ve always included him in our winning rotation in the bullpen,” Hinch said. “And he’s still going to pitch important innings. But I’m not going to slot him into the eighth or ninth inning because he might be needed to get some really important outs in the middle of the game.”
Funkhouser, 27, has come too far to worry about when he pitches. He’s just grateful he keeps getting the call.
“We’re going to miss Michael,” Funkhouser said. “When he’s right, he’s dominant. … But does that change my role? I don’t know. I’m just trying to take it with as much positivity as I can and whatever happens happens.
“For me, just whenever that phone rings and they say, ‘Funk, get ready,’ that’s all I’m thinking about. I try not to get too far ahead of myself, you know? Just be where my feet are.”
He gave the Tigers 2.1 scoreless innings on Saturday, protecting a 1-0 lead. The Astros, the best hitting team in baseball, put just five balls in play against him with an average exit velocity off the bat of 83 mph. Only one ball was hit hard.
That’s been the theme, with his power sinker and slider doing most of the work, Funkhouser ranks in the top three percentile in limiting hard contact. Just 2.7% of 74 batted balls against him have been hit 95 mph or harder. The average exit velocity against him is 86.9 mph.
Opponents have a minus-13 launch angle against his sinker, which means he’s getting them to beat the ball into the ground — like to the tune of a 76.1%. ground-ball rate. He’s also producing a 43% swing-and-miss rate with his slider.
Still, his outing in Anaheim convinced him that those two pitches weren’t always going to be enough.
“The Angels jumped me,” he said. “It was like five runs (four earned) on nine pitches. I didn’t get a chance to get into my stuff. I was like, I need to work my slider in more early and more often to get them off my heater.
“I was getting too predictable.”
He’s also begun to work his change-up in more often. It’s a power change-up, 89 mph, that he mostly saved for left-handed hitters.
“I feel really confident with it actually,” he said. “I’ve thrown some really good ones lately, the last two outings. Against St. Louis I only threw two, but I threw them back-to-back. The first one was good and the second one seemed even better. It’s a good third option.
“But I’m really confident with my four-seam, sinker, slider combo right now.”
From where he was just a few months ago to where he is now, well it’s taken a village. Dan Hubbs, who oversees the club’s pitching development, worked to get Funkhouser back to a shorter arm path, which worked like a turbo-boost to his velocity. Credit general manager Al Avila, too, for recognizing the talent beneath the struggles and having the patience to let it blossom.
And credit Hinch and pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves for not discarding him after the rough spring and continuing to nurture that talent by putting him in steadily more challenging situations.
Mostly, though, credit Funkhouser, who never stopped working, never stopped believing he could succeed at this level.
“It feels incredible, honestly,” he said. “Lots of ups in Double-A and even in Triple-A, and a lot of downs. That’s how it goes. You have to learn from it. It takes some guys longer than others to figure it out and learn themselves.
“Coaches can tell you over and over, ‘You’re doing this, you need to do that.’ But until you take it upon yourself to make the adjustments and stay with it, things won’t change. Personally, to be in a position where I can help the team and pitch in some big spots is really satisfying.”