Detroit Tigers’ Kyle Funkhouser joins pitchers under load management. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

Right-handed reliever Kyle Funkhouser won’t quite have the role as Casey Mize or Tarik Skubal, the 24-year-olds with innings limits this season — but the Detroit Tigers are still being cautious with one of their most promising bullpen arms.

Manager AJ Hinch wants Mize, Skubal, Funkhouser and other pitchers without an abundance of big-league experience to pitch through September, but he doesn’t want to risk injuries by overtaxing them in the jump from a 60-game schedule in 2020 to 162 games in 2021.

There’s not an exact science to the process.

“You never know what each guy can handle or what they can’t handle,” Hinch said Thursday. “You got to use your judgment in how you’re using them. First and foremost, I want to win as many games as we can, but I want to do it with guys that are pitching the full season for the first time in their career.”

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For that reason, Funkhouser has joined Mize and Skubal in the load management conversation. The 28-year-old is in his first full MLB season and — because of his bullpen role — has to be prepared to pitch almost daily. He took the mound nine times for 12⅔ innings in May, 11 times for 14 innings in June and 11 times for 14⅓ innings in July.

Last year, Funkhouser threw 17⅓ innings in the majors.

“Obviously I want to get out there and play,” Funkhouser said Thursday. “Sometimes when you feel good, it’s still good to get a day here and there because it could catch up to you in August and September. Just getting a little bit of a breather here. … They know what they’re doing. Casey for three innings, it’s like, he feels good, but in the long run, it’s going to help. That’s kind of what I’m going through a little bit right here.”

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Funkhouser came up as a starting pitcher, tossing a career-high 120⅓ innings as a junior for Louisville in 2014. He then threw 112⅓ innings during his 2015 senior season.

Since then, Funkhouser hasn’t surpassed 100 innings as a season. By 2020, the Tigers converted him to a reliever.

“It’s kind of two different positions,” Funkhouser said. “As a starter, every fifth day you’re emptying the tank and have a few days to reset. In a bullpen job, it’s kind of mild-to-moderate on a daily basis. Maybe you’re working out every day or two out of three days.”

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Funkhouser has a 3.27 ERA, 19 walks and 38 strikeouts in 32 games (two starts) this season, pitching 41⅓ innings. Despite getting cut from Opening Day roster considerations in spring training, he got called up May 6 and developed into a high-leverage option for the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

“I like starting a lot, obviously have done it forever,” Funkhouser said. “But one thing I really like about the bullpen is being engaged every day. Not that the starters aren’t engaged and into the game, but knowing that you’re not playing no matter what happens is a little different. In the bullpen, even if I threw two (innings) yesterday, you’re the emergency guy. You got to be ready.”

In Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox, Funkhouser stood on the bump at Comerica Park with two outs in the fifth inning. He took over for starter Wily Peralta and inherited runners on first and second base. He struck out Alex Verdugo with a slider to escape the jam.

He didn’t return for the sixth, just throwing seven pitches for one out.

Funkhouser said his body feels healthy. He doesn’t necessarily need a governor, but the Tigers are protecting themselves for the future. And Hinch certainly believes Funkhouser is going to play a key role in 2022 and beyond.

“An example like the other day, when I only brought him in for an out,” Hinch said. “I gave him an extra day off (Wednesday). He may or may not pitch (Thursday). It’s a moving target trying to maximize all the guys available today, but also pay attention to the entire season. It’s tricky and certainly important for the players and important for us moving forward. But yeah, he’s part of that.”

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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