What Tigers’ young arms do that has veteran excited: ‘We’re literally turning the chapter’

Detroit Free Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Detroit Tigers reliever Derek Holland is about to complete his 13th MLB season. The 34-year-old pitched in the 2010 and 2011 World Series for the Texas Rangers and has bounced between five teams since the 2017 season.

If it wasn’t for Miguel Cabrera, Holland would lead the 2021 Tigers in MLB service time.

Holland has a 5.40 ERA with 19 walks and 48 strikeouts over 45 innings in 35 games (one start) this season. Since the All-Star break, the left-hander commands a 2.57 ERA with seven walks and 27 strikeouts across 28 innings.

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He spoke with the Free Press about a variety of topics, including how much longer he wants to pitch, the impact of manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter, the development of the young arms, Miguel Cabrera’s greatness and even Michigan football amid Jim Harbaugh’s seventh campaign.

(Some questions and answers are edited for length or clarity.)

Have you enjoyed your first season with the Tigers?

“It’s definitely been one of the most fun seasons I’ve had in my career. I look back at a lot of teams I’ve played with, and I’ve been blessed with great teammates my whole career. It’s always been really good dudes pulling for each other and trying to make each other better. I always get ridiculed because my ERA is so high, but people don’t understand sometimes I have to be the guy that wears it. I have to take the beating because maybe we don’t have arms or whatever the case may be. I don’t care about the ERA part of it.

“I know at the end of the day, if I go out there and I’m doing my job, and I’m competing and giving these guys a chance to win or saving the bullpen or helping the starters, I’m doing something that’s helping this ball club in some way or another. I’m a guy that’s in the clubhouse to keep things loose, being able to keep everybody in a positive manner so that when we show up to the field, everybody’s excited to be here. You got to try to keep everybody on the right side of things. It goes a long way.”

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Being the pitcher to “wear it” in a loss can’t be easy, right?

“That’s part of it. It makes you a better person. It makes you a better pitcher. It shows a lot about who you are as a person by caring for your teammates. Today might be that day that we might not have pitchers. We got to save them for another day, and you got to take the beating.

“It’s always about caring about the guys that you’re playing with. I’m going to war with these guys, and I want to be in that bunker with them, whether it’s win or lose. If we go down, we go down as a team. If we go up, we go up as a team. It’s the same thing.”

How has the identity of the Tigers shifted from April to September?

“Honestly, we’ve dealt with a lot. I’ve heard what it was like before. They weren’t winning, and that was the thing. I think AJ has done a good job of putting the pressure on the guys. He’s gotten rid of some guys. He’s made it known that not everybody is safe. Just because you got paid doesn’t mean you’re safe. That’s one thing I liked.

“Growing up, when I was going through my time with Texas, just because I got a contract didn’t mean I was guaranteed a spot. That’s the mentality I’ve had every single (season). You’ve earned a spot on the team, but it can easily be taken away from you. You got to put the work in, you got to put the time in. What the fans need to understand, too, is with this team, there’s some great things ahead.”

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You were in his shoes back in the day, so what has it been like for you watch Casey Mize’s development this year?

“He’s come a long ways. What a lot of people don’t understand is you don’t always get to go out there as long as you want to. Sometimes, it’s more of a health issue. They’re trying to take care of you. Come next year, he’s full-go. There is no holding back. Right now, we need to (limit his innings). Yes, it would be nice if we could sneak ourselves into the playoffs, but it might not be something we’re going to get to do. We have to maintain everything with them (Mize and Tarik Skubal) and get their innings right, so that when they come back next year, there are no caution flags or any of that stuff.

“I had to do that when I got called up (in April 2009). My route was different. I was in the bullpen, and then probably June or July, I became a starter. I was a starter throughout the minor leagues, and it did catch me off guard when I got up. At the same time, I think it was a good way to break in a young guy. Let’s give you a little bit of a feel for it. Let’s break you in the right way. That way, once it comes time that you get to start, now the training wheels are off. He’ll see it down the road. I was young, too. I thought the same thing, like, ‘Why can’t I freaking go out there? Why can’t I go longer?’ They’re looking out for you in the long term. I hate saying this (season) doesn’t mean anything now, but we’re kind of out of (the playoffs). You don’t want to have any injuries. You want to maintain everything you have.”

Besides the restrictions, what have you noticed from Mize, Skubal and Matt Manning?

“That’s going to look good. The future is very bright with those three. The cool thing I wish more fans would get to see is those guys are always together. I’m not trying to go back into my career when I first started, but that was one of things that me and Matt Harrison did. We were always together. We were picking each other’s brains, getting ideas and watching how everything unfolds. Those three guys are going to be together for a while, so that’s awesome to see that they’re already clicking.

“One guy will pitch, and the next guy will come in and tell him, ‘Hey, check this out.’ They’ll watch video together. I’m just as much a fan of the game as the fans are. When you see stuff like that, it definitely should bring joy knowing that we’re literally turning the chapter. I don’t like to look ahead because we still got to finish this year, but come next year, there’s going to be some great things happening here in Detroit.”

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How much value does Chris Fetter bring as this team’s pitching coach?

“He brings a lot of knowledge. He’s teaching them how to pitch, how to understand certain things when they’re out there in their bullpens. The big thing that’s happening nowadays in the game is worrying about the spin (rates). I love what he does with that, but at the same time, it’s more about getting outs.

“Fett brings so much knowledge to the game that helps these young guys, and he’s easy to relate to. I get it, he’s a year older than me, but I’m still learning stuff from him. He’s helped me find some things about myself. Being my first full season as a reliever, I’ve learned a lot from him. Worrying about first pitch strikes, getting ahead of hitters, when to use certain pitches in certain situations — he’s laid it all out there for these guys. He brings a lot to the table, and I can see why AJ brought him here.”

You mentioned being a full-time reliever, how have you adjusted to that role this season?

“I knew this was coming. Honestly, I thought it was going to happen sooner. I thought for sure I would have been a full-time reliever maybe last year with Pittsburgh, or even before that with the Giants and Cubs. I ended up turning the page once I got to the Cubs. I became more of a reliever when I got there, and then I had a couple starts. Same with Pittsburgh. I had a few starts, went to the ‘pen and came back. I know that I can still do both. There’s no doubt about it. But being able to focus more on just the reliever side has helped out a lot. I think it’s going to help me extend my goal of hopefully getting three more years. That’s my goal. I would like to have two or three more years. At the end of the day, I can only control what’s in front of me.”

Why do you think two or three more years is all you have left?

“Results. It’s more of the results. There’s going to come a time where things aren’t going my way. I know I’ve had a strong second half, but it’s not necessarily about that. I got to continue to have that consistency and show that I belong here and can be here with these guys. That’s the main thing.”

Is retirement difficult to think about?

“You’re supposed to set the bar. I set the bar where I wanted to, so my goal is two to three years. I would like to get at least to the 15 (year) mark (in MLB). If I can go past that, I want to share the same thing that my mentors taught me. I had Eddie Guardado and Darren Oliver, which were two of the greatest guys ever to help me get to where I am today. I want to be able to have that same comparison, knowing these guys taught me the way, follow their path, and I’m able to replicate exactly what they did.

“I’m not ready to retire. I don’t know what next year is going to present. I have to focus on now, but at the same time, you can still have the mindset of this is what I would like to do on top of that. I’m trying to help the young guys. I want to see everybody be successful. I’ve even talked to guys on other teams and let them know, ‘Hey, you got great shit. You got to believe in yourself and trust it.’ One of the hardest things to do in this game is trusting your stuff. It’s getting to the point where I want to continue to help guys. When they ask me questions, I want to make sure I have whatever I can to answer for them.”

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Considering your transition to the bullpen, what do you think about what Michael Fulmer has done switching from the starting rotation to high-leverage situations as a reliever?

“I’ve had great talks with him. He was the starter. He was the guy. It’s hard to get past that. I had that when I was in Texas, and once I was gone from Texas and went somewhere else, it got to the point where I had to think: Is the reliever thing really going to hurt me, or is it going to help me? He also gets to find out more about himself as a reliever, too. It’s good to see these situations be presented. Fulmer has a great mindset and a great head on his shoulders. He definitely cares about the team. He’s going to do what’s going to help this team. He also found out a lot about himself.

”He could be a top closer down the road. I mean, he’s got great stuff. He’s an electric guy and has been shown how much easier it is to get ready. If he gets asked to start next year, I know he could easily transition back into it. His work ethic is really good, as well. He does a good job of getting himself ready for reach day at the field. Other guys to get see a guy that was the guy. He was the starter. He was the Rookie of the Year. He made the All-Star Game as a starter. He’s going to be able to do that as a reliever, too.”

How did AJ Hinch get his players to buy into the winning culture?

“AJ brought it right away, Day 1. He put it out there on the wall. Granted, I’ve never been here before, so I didn’t know what it was like and what they had (on the wall) before. He had a picture of the trophy on there, and he said, ‘If this is not what you want, then don’t be here.’ That was the first thing. That, to me, is something that I think stands out. If you aren’t wanting to win, then get the (expletive) out. I know I said the F-word, but it’s true. He brings that mentality here. He cares about his players. He talks to everybody. He interacts with everybody. He’s one of the guys. It’s been an honor playing for him. He’s one of the greatest managers I’ve been around, just the way he handles that clubhouse with the players and his communication. It’s top notch. I could go on and on all day about him. He lets you know where you stand. He’s not afraid to tell you things that maybe you don’t want to hear. He’s not going to beat around the bush. He wants you understand that he cares about you, wants you to be successful and is right there with you every single day.”

After facing Miguel Cabrera for so long, what’s it like to be his teammate?

“Playing against him was always tough. He’s always been a battle. We’ve jawed at each other a few times. Nothing bad, just having that competition. Playing with him, the dude brings a lot. He’s a very smart, knowledgeable hitter. I hope all the young guys are picking his brain on that stuff. He’s definitely a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The dude is legendary.

“To play here at this ballpark (Comerica Park), I mean, I’m sure he would have 600 home runs if he was somewhere else. He comes here every day with the same attitude of wanting to win. He’s a great clubhouse guy.”

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As Cabrera has gotten older and lost some of his on-field success, does his presence still have an impact?

“Everybody’s going to go through bad times, everybody’s going to go through good times. It’s funny when (people are) talking all the crap about him when he’s struggling, but when he starts doing good, they’re not saying anything. As I like to put it, they’re swinging from his nuts. Nobody is perfect every single time. I don’t care who you are. Nobody is perfect. The body is different, and he has made the adjustments that he’s needed to make to make himself successful. That’s why he is who he is. He’s Miggy for a reason. He’s a great hitter, a great player, an unbelievable clubhouse guy. The guy is well respected throughout this entire league.

”A lot of people would love to be in his shoes, doing what he does and hitting the way he does. The guy can put the ball wherever he wants. It’s funny to watch. When they shift him, he beats the shift. They do something different with the shift, he goes the other way. Most guys try to work on that home-run ball, whereas he’s a guy that goes the other way and pulls the ball. He’s the complete package, and a lot of these guys are seeing that. They’re feeding off of that.”

Do you have any thoughts about what the offseason and next season might look like for you?

“I’ve had a very, very strong second half, which is huge. I’ve told AJ before, we had a nice conversation one day before (batting practice), I would love to come back here. I would give anything to come back and be around this culture some more and be around these guys. It’s a great group.

“I don’t know what it entails, but I’m hoping next year I’m still playing this game. And then I can focus on that year and then hopefully worry about the next year, and then worry about the next year after that. Right now, I want to finish strong here and take care of everything that should happen with Detroit and go forward.”

Any comment on Michigan’s football season?

“I’m excited for what the program is doing. (Cade) McNamara looks great out there. It’s very sad to see Ronnie Bell (get injured). I’m sure he doesn’t really know who I am, but thoughts and prayers to him after the leg injury. I love that the guys have stepped up. (Blake) Corum has done an outstanding job running the ball.

“They’re going to be a strong team. I just want to see things continue to progress. Obviously got to beat the little brother (Michigan State) and then beat (expletive) Ohio State.”

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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