The Blue Jays were bewildered.
Alexander allowed one run over seven innings, setting the Tigers up for a 4-1 win in extra innings. The top four batters in Toronto’s lineup — Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez — combined for one hit and four strikeouts in 12 at-bats.
That was just one of many times Alexander stepped up for the Tigers when they needed him. He earned a spot in the starting rotation July 17 due to injuries and exceeded expectations the rest of the way.
“I don’t think surprised is the right word,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Oct. 1. “I think I’ve been happy with it because he’s been asked to do a variety of things. He’s been able to do it. In his mind, he’s always been a starter. I think that’s helped him get his edge.
“He’s always conditioned himself to be able to throw a lot of pitches, but when you look up there and he’s throwing 100 innings in a variety of roles, that’s pretty impressive and certainly a guy who needs a little bit more attention on his contribution this season.”
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The Tigers relied on Alexander as a starter more than ever in his three-year MLB career, spanning 68 games and 25 starts. This season, the left-hander posted a 3.81 ERA with 28 walks and 87 strikeouts in 106⅓ innings over 41 games (15 starts).
As a starter, Alexander had a 3.38 ERA, 18 walks and 52 strikeouts in 66⅔ innings. He recorded a 4.54 ERA in 26 games as a reliever.
“Now I know I can be a successful starter,” Alexander said Oct. 3, after throwing six innings of one-run ball in the Tigers’ season finale against the Chicago White Sox. “I know that I can be successful out of the bullpen, as well. I think I’ve proven that I can be a starter. As far as the future, I guess that’ll be up to AJ on what we decide to do.”
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Alexander made eight starts in 2019 and two starts in 2020, producing an 8.10 ERA in those 10 opportunities. Those numbers suggested he didn’t deserve a spot in the starting rotation coming out of spring training, despite a 3.46 ERA in the exhibitions (almost exclusively in relief). He fit the initial plans as a versatile and multi-inning reliever, so that’s what the Tigers asked him to do.
But the plans changed.
“The first couple starts I had in ’19 didn’t go so well, and I’ve been in the bullpen since then,” Alexander said. “I’m excited that I got the opportunity this year to be a starter, and I’m happy that I threw well enough to hopefully be a starter again next year.”
Injuries to starting pitchers Spencer Turnbull (Tommy John surgery) and Matthew Boyd (flexor tendon surgery) shook up the rotation, so they leaned on Alexander and 32-year-old veteran Wily Peralta to fill in. Likewise, innings limitations for rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal taxed the bullpen heavily on their days to start, meaning extended outings from the other starters were key.
Needing length from Alexander, the 27-year-old obliged. He capped his season with back-to-back six-inning performances, giving up one run in each contest against the Minnesota Twins (Sept. 28) and the White Sox (Oct. 3) at Guaranteed Rate Field.
In those games, Alexander registered a 1.50 ERA, .190 opponent batting average, three walks and 10 strikeouts. He logged a 2.56 ERA, 11 walks and 26 strikeouts in seven games (six starts) in September.
He also showcased his adaptability by starting against the same teams in short order. For example, Alexander made back-to-back starts against Cleveland on Aug. 7 and Aug. 13. He then made back-to-back starts against the Blue Jays on Aug. 20 and Aug. 28, followed by consecutive starts against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 10 and Sept. 16. He wrapped up the season facing the White Sox in two of his final three starts.
“He’s fearless,” Hinch said Oct. 3. “You need a little bit of that as a starter. When you’re going to face some guys multiple ways, you have to get creative. You can’t shy away from the strike zone. If you dance around the strike zone as a starter, you end up in a lot of trouble at this level.”
Alexander has been with the Tigers for three years, but the second-round pick (No. 65 overall) out of TCU in 2015 has often gone unnoticed. This year, he threw 65.6% first-pitch strikes, along with firing 50.8% of his pitches in the strike zone. Those results helped offset what he lacks in fastball velocity, averaging just 90 mph.
As for 2022? Alexander might not end up in the starting rotation out of spring training, simply because of his versatility in a bullpen role. But if the Tigers need him to start games, he won’t shy away from the task.
After all, Alexander just proved he’s capable of doing so.
“He needed the opportunity,” Hinch said. “He hasn’t been given the opportunity to get 10, 12, 15 starts in his career. He’s always been that spot-start guy. He’s very reliable, no matter what. You feel as a manager you can do whatever you want with him, and he’s going to take it and run with it. Hats off to him for getting over 100 innings, and they were quality innings. That matters.”