Despite a tough end, count Funkhouser among the Tigers’ bullpen solutions for ’22

Detroit News

Chicago — If you judge Kyle Funkhouser’s season on two ill-timed home runs in his last two outings, you have sadly missed one of the most encouraging career transformations on a team that was full of them this year.

“He has been an incredible part of our bullpen,” manager AJ Hinch said before Sunday’s season finale. “Last night (game-winning home run to Yoan Moncada) and in Minnesota (go-ahead homer to Byron Buxton) are two rough ones at the end for him, but they are not symbolic of how reliable he was this season.

“His overall numbers are still going to be solid and he established himself as part of our bullpen moving forward.”

Such a statement, such an occurrence, seemed unimaginable in March after Funkhouser was one of the first cuts in spring training. Before he left camp, Hinch called him into his office and pulled no punches. He told him he was overweight, that he was nowhere near in proper pitching shape, nowhere near ready to compete for a spot on the big-league roster.

But here we are, more than six months later and Funkhouser gave the Tigers 68.1 innings in 57 games, posting a 7-4 record with a 3.42 ERA, pitching in high-leverage innings for the bulk of the year.

“No one in the clubhouse has come further from what my first conversation was sending him down in early March to where he is today as a huge bridge in the bullpen,” Hinch said. “I’m really proud of his work. He took it very honestly and openly.

“We were pretty hard on him in March and all he did was wait for his opportunity, grab it and never give it back.”

In part to prevent a recurrence of last winter, where he couldn’t get enough work in up in cold, snowy Chicago, he’s purchased a house in Tampa and will be able to train at the Tigers’ facility in Lakeland all offseason.

“I don’t want a repeat of last spring training,” he said.

As for pitching adjustments, he may want to tweak his pitch usage a bit. He had great success pairing his hard, 87-mph slider with a power sinker (95-96 mph). Opponents hit .215 off the slider with a 44% swing-and-miss rate.

But his four-seam fastball up in the zone proved more effective than he might’ve imagined. He only threw it 22% of the time, but he got a .149 opponent average and .169 slug with 28 punch-outs with it.

The four-seam, especially if he got more comfortable with his change-up, could open up the bottom of the zone even more for his sinker and slider.

Hinch took some of the blame for Funkhouser’s late fade, saying he might’ve overused him earlier in the year, which is why he seemed out of gas at the end. He used him for more than one inning 19 times.

“His reliability and calmness really showed through since the beginning of the year,” Hinch said. “The multiple-innings component of our bullpen is certainly huge. But I have to be careful with these guys next year so they have more in the tank when we get down to the end of the year.”

Day off for good behavior

Hinch rewarded his four veteran, everyday soldiers with a day off Sunday. A hat-tip, he said, for services rendered the last six months.

Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Grossman and Jeimer Candelario all got a head start on the offseason.

“Those four guys that are on the bench are guys that grinded the entire season,” Hinch said. “They played the most for us. The last day of the year is really one of the few times I can do this. … I understand I am sitting four of our regulars, but honestly, these guys have grinded and done everything we’ve asked the entire season.

“They earned this last day off.”

No jury would convict Hinch for the gesture. Especially since the game has zero meaning for either team or any other team in the playoff race.

“It also gives some other guys some opportunity,” Hinch said.

Eric Haase, the Tigers’ primary catcher who has also moonlighted in left field this season, has taken practice reps at first base since spring training. Initially, Hinch was going to reward him with a start there.

Later he changed the lineup, starting Haase in left and Harold Castro at first.

Isaac Paredes, who has swung the bat as well as anybody this past week, got the start at third and the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

“For Isaac, I want to give him as many at-bats as we can before we get out of here,” Hinch said.

Paredes, despite an up-and-down year, could well be in a battle with Harold Castro and Willi Castro for a fulltime utility role next season.

Zack Short (shortstop), Willi Castro (second base) and Daz Cameron (right field) were also in the starting lineup.

Around the horn

One downside to Candelario sitting out, he went into Sunday in a three-way tie for the major league doubles title. He, Boston’s J.D. Martinez and Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield all started the day with 42 doubles.

… Cabrera, barring any pinch-hits Sunday, will enter the 2022 season needing 13 hits to reach 3,000 for his career, and three doubles to reach 600. When he reaches those thresholds, he will join Albert Pujols and Hank Aaron as the only players in major league history to produce at least 500 home runs, 3,000 hits and 600 doubles.

… Grossman, who became the seventh player in franchise history to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in a season, also drew 98 walks in 671 plate appearances. The 14.6% walk rate is the highest by a Tiger since Cabrera’s 14.7% in 2015.

… Tigers No. 1 prospect Spencer Torkelson hit his 30th home run of the season on Sunday, counting his time at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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