CHICAGO — The Tigers resumed their acquaintance with the White Sox on Friday with plenty of focus still on the 97 mph fastball from Alex Lange that hit José Abreu on the left elbow. But as Detroit wraps up its season this weekend, it’s Lange’s changeup that is raising eyebrows.
It’s the changeup that the rookie reliever used to strand two inherited runners in the seventh inning Thursday against the Twins: Three changeups just below the strike zone, three swings and misses from slugger Miguel Sanó. Once the Tigers pulled ahead in the eighth, the changeup was the pitch Lange turned to again to fan Jake Cave and retire Nick Gordon for a clean inning.
The pitch was the biggest reason Lange earned his first Major League win Thursday. And as the Tigers head into the offseason looking at bullpen construction among several areas, the changeup has Lange looking like an effective three-pitch reliever who could play a big part in Detroit’s 2022 relief mix.
And yet, it’s a pitch he barely used for most of the season, including his first couple of stints in Detroit.
“It’s an in-season development,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Coming out of camp, it was all about fastball-slider or the slurve. The changeup was a little bit of an afterthought. I think when we quickened up his delivery, it allowed his arm to work. He’s got a quick arm, and that helps the changeup.”
The Tigers made a faster delivery a priority for Lange after sending him back to Triple-A Toledo earlier in the summer. Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler made it work.
Lange had the changeup during his days as a starting pitcher in the Cubs’ farm system, but not like this. Like many starters who become relievers, he trimmed down his arsenal to focus on an effective combination he could consistently execute out of the bullpen.
Now, Lange is one of a few converted starters in the Tigers’ bullpen throwing three or more pitches.
“It adds a different dimension to your arsenal as a reliever,” Lange said last week. “They’re not only looking top to bottom [in the strike zone], but they’ve got to look back to front, too. Lefties are looking at something that’s moving away from them, too. Righties are looking at something that’s moving away and into them, and something that’s riding. It just totally changes their approach, because they can’t just shut down on offspeed. It gives me an ability to not be coerced into throwing heaters in heater counts.”
The difference is evident in the metrics. According to Statcast, Lange threw 20 changeups out of 315 recorded pitches over 18 appearances from April through June. He made a cameo appearance for one outing July 18 and threw nine changeups out of 23 pitches. Since returning in late August, Lange has thrown 65 changeups out of 293 pitches, with a swing-and-miss rate just over 40 percent.
The pitch also has above-average vertical break and horizontal movement, according to Statcast.
“I’ve never seen a guy pick up his changeup as fast as he did,” teammate Michael Fulmer said. “All of a sudden, he’s throwing it and making guys look silly on it. It’s a great weapon for him and it will be going forward.
“His fastball’s so electric. His curveball is one of the hardest curveballs in the league, and it’s got straight-down action. So if they see something that’s straighter down at the bottom of the zone, they’re going to swing at it thinking it’s a fastball down. And it just dives off the table.”
That’s what Sanó did on Thursday. But as big as the changeup can be for Lange against sluggers, its effectiveness against left-handed hitters can enhance Lange’s profile next year in a Tigers bullpen that could be heavy on right-handers. Lefty Derek Holland is a free agent this winter. Tyler Alexander could end up a starter, or at least a swingman, depending on the club’s offseason. Detroit also has to decide whether to retain Ian Krol. The Tigers could pursue lefty relievers on the offseason market, but Hinch has shown in his managerial career that he’ll value pitch effectiveness in his bullpen over simple lefty-righty arm mix.