Inside the pitches that make Detroit Tigers prospect Tanner Kohlhepp ‘meteoric’

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Notre Dame pitching coach Chuck Ristano thought back to the first time he played catch with Tanner Kohlhepp.

Well, it wasn’t really a game of catch.

Because Ristano couldn’t keep track of the baseball.

“It was the first time I ever played catch with one of our pitchers and whiffed,” said Ristano, in his 12th season at Notre Dame. “I couldn’t catch the ball. It was the most uncomfortable catch play I’ve ever experienced.”

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The Detroit Tigers drafted Kohlhepp in the fifth round (No. 135 overall) in 2021, then signed him for a $400,000 bonus. The 22-year-old power arm came up as a shortstop, and on the mound, the right-hander pitches like a shortstop. Everything about Kohlhepp — his vexing journey to the pros, his peculiar mechanics and his nasty pitches — makes the Tigers excited about his future.

Starter? Reliever?

Nobody knows.

But the Tigers’ brass thinks he could advance quickly through the minor leagues.

“I believe I can (start), Kohlhepp said. “I don’t see why not. I mean, I’m a four-pitch guy. If they want me to be a reliever, I have no problem with that. I just want to do whatever is going to get me to Detroit as quick as possible. If that’s relieving, if that’s starting, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to get up there and help them win.”

What separates Kohlhepp, who worked as a high-leverage, multi-inning reliever for Notre Dame, is his funky arm slot, coupled with his horsepower. His 90 mph cutter, the pitch Ristano couldn’t catch, is his best secondary offering.

Kohlhepp learned the intoxicating pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic and implemented it upon joining the Fighting Irish.

“As he garnered confidence with it, it just became a monster weapon,” Ristano said. “He would just eat guys up with that pitch, but it was more effective to lefties than it was to righties last year. … It almost tends to rise. When he throws it with two strikes, it’s not like he’s bouncing the pitch. He’s basically throwing it by somebody.

“If I was going to grade out a big-league-level pitch, that’s probably the one that stands out the most.”

‘Most meteoric rise of anybody I’ve ever coached’

Before Kohlhepp became a Tiger, he already had a connection to a key member of Detroit’s coaching staff. From Eau Claire High in Wisconsin, Kohlhepp was recruited by former Ball State and Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter — who is now the Tigers’ pitching guru under manager AJ Hinch.

Kohlhepp attended three colleges in three years, going from Tennessee in 2019 to Iowa Western Junior College in 2020 to Notre Dame in 2021.

“The first place, I learned what it was about, and what I need to do to be successful,” Kohlhepp said. “I went to junior college, and I learned how to pitch and go deep into ballgames. And then at Notre Dame, I put it all together.”

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A low-mileage pitcher, Kohlhepp tossed just 87 innings in his college career.

He was jettisoned by Tennessee after throwing four innings out of the bullpen with lackluster control. He fired 21⅔ innings in junior college before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.

With Notre Dame, Kohlhepp’s stock skyrocketed.

“It was the most meteoric rise in the way of stuff and performance of anybody I’ve ever coached,” Ristano said. “But that’s his personality. He’s very, very mature and intelligent. I think maybe some of his struggles that happened earlier in his career shaped and molded his drive, performance, resilience.”

Kohlhepp accepted his role as a high-leverage reliever and paced Notre Dame in appearances, also finishing second in wins, innings and strikeouts. He posted a 7-2 record with a 3.08 ERA, 22 walks and 65 strikeouts across 61⅓ innings in 23 games (one start).

A second team All-ACC selection, he showed his versatility by dominating left-handed hitters — thanks to the cutter — and right-handed hitters. The splits: Lefties hit .175 against him; righties .212.

Of course, there’s room for improvement.

“The biggest thing would be more consistency of strikes with my offspeed pitches,” Kohlhepp said. “I need to throw my breaking ball more for strikes. I need to throw it more to lefties, too. So, it’s just getting that more into the zone. Same thing with my cutter. I’ve thrown it for one year. It has a tendency to back up at times, so I want to continue to make that consistent.

“When I go out on the mound, I want my teammates and everybody to know that like, we know what we’re going to get out of this guy.”

Ristano thinks Kohlhepp can be an effective starter, but he isn’t ruling out an elite bullpen role.

“I think he’s probably closest to making an impact on the big team as a reliever,” Ristano said. “I understand that baseball is going the way of the reliever, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did either, but I think he’s probably closer to impacting a big-league roster as a reliever.”

‘Unique is good in baseball’

Kohlhepp throws his four pitches — fastball, cutter, slider and changeup — with an athletic and whippy delivery.

“He’s got command of four pitches,” Ristano said. “And they’re all at least average.”

His fastball is a high-spin pitch with heavy arm-side run, sitting around 96 mph and reaching 99. Kohlhepp knows how to move his fastball around the zone, and when he runs into in-game issues with strikes, a few arm-side fastballs calibrate him.

Because of his lower-than-usual arm slot, it’s difficult for him to elevate his fastball; he doesn’t produce much induced vertical break. Simply put, he pitches “east and west” as opposed to “north and south.”

“Infielders like to throw from a lower slot, so that’s where I’ve naturally always thrown, and I didn’t want to mess with that,” Kohlhepp said. “I didn’t want to be stock over-the-top. I just tried to stay natural. And it worked for me. It makes me unique, and unique is good in baseball.”

Kohlhepp throws his slider with a curveball grip, but again, the low arm slot makes it nearly impossible for him to throw a true curveball. That’s why the pitch moves like a slider but is softer and loopier than the typical slider from a power pitcher.

He throws this pitch around 80-82 mph.

“Where I found success with my breaking ball, which was this past year, I didn’t try to make it anything that it’s not,” Kohlhepp said. “In the past, I tried to make it an over-the-top pitch. But instead, I just stayed within my natural arm slot. That helped it so much. It’s more a unique pitch.”

So, is it a curveball or a slider?

“I call it a breaking ball,” Kohlhepp said. “I don’t want to force it to be a slider. I don’t want to force it to be a true curveball. It’s just a breaking ball.”

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Kohlhepp also throws a mid-80s changeup.

His low arm slot helps him make the ball “drop and run” with ease.

“When he was beating guys up with the firm stuff, I was reticent to call the changeup because I didn’t want to speed anybody’s bat up,” Ristano said. “Once we threw that (changeup) more and more, it really became weaponized. It’s a pitch he’s had for a very long time that he has confidence in.

“It was a major factor for us in the second half of the season, when guys started to game plan against the fastball/cutter mix.”

The Tigers haven’t seen any of this in a pro game yet.

They have no idea what his role will be.

“Success for me is just doing my job,” Kohlhepp said. “It’s doing whatever is asked of me, whether that’s starting, relieving, whatever. As long as I’m doing what is asked of me, and I do it in the best way possible, that’s when I can go to sleep at night and know I did my best.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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