Detroit Tigers prospect Austin Bergner: Pitching director Gabe Ribas has tricks up his sleeve

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla — Austin Bergner stands on the pitcher’s mound in the TigerTown bullpens. The 24-year-old right-hander is throwing his brand-new slider to catcher Cooper Johnson.

Positioned behind Bergner is Detroit Tigers‘ minor-league pitching director Gabe Ribas, a 42-year-old who spent the past four seasons as a pitching coordinator with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“A guy like Gabe Ribas is a very similar hire to (MLB pitching coach) Chris Fetter,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in October. “You’ll see a lot of initiatives from Chris Fetter going down to Gabe Ribas and then all through the minor-league system.”

To the left of Ribas is Tim Smith, coordinator of performance sciences. He holds an iPad that receives analytical information from a TrackMan device. And next to Smith is Dr. Georgia Giblin, the franchise’s first-ever director of performance sciences.

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“I felt like the attention was on me,” Bergner said. “Gabe was set on working on that pitch with me on that day. He could tell I was getting a little frustrated with the first grip we were working on, because I couldn’t manipulate the baseball the same way, so he just said, ‘Scratch that, let’s make it a little easier.'”

Ribas has tricks up his sleeve.

Welcome to a lesson in pitch-grip manipulation.

The Tigers selected Bergner in the ninth round of the 2019 draft from North Carolina, where he pitched three seasons for the Tar Heels. The 262nd overall pick logged a 6.33 ERA across 27 innings in his first year as a professional.

After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season, the Tigers placed Bergner in Low-A Lakeland to begin the 2021 campaign, his first full season in the minor leagues. He finished the year in High-A West Michigan and combined for a 3.35 ERA with 33 walks and 110 strikeouts over 83⅓ innings in 27 games (10 starts).

For the Whitecaps, Bergner posted a 2.90 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 59 innings.

“My goal right now is to just continue to focus on that slider,” Bergner said. “Stay where my feet are and continue to polish the slider with all my other stuff. If I do that, I’ll like the results at the end of spring training. Wherever they put me, I’m going to work my way up.”

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Bergner has four pitches: fastball, changeup, curveball and slider.

His fastball sits around 92-94 mph and touches 96 mph. His changeup, easily his best secondary offering, averages 82-84 mph but can be thrown harder in certain scenarios to change speeds and maximize movement. His curveball registers at 72-76 mph, and his new slider is anywhere between 82-86 mph.

A fresh slider is Bergner’s latest revelation, thanks to Ribas.

“What he was teaching me was something I’ve never been taught,” Bergner said. “It’s a vertical slider. And this is all what I touched on, right? Like the communication, it’s incredible.”

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Before digging into the vertical slider, it’s important to understand the concept of pronation and supination.

When the palm of a pitcher’s throwing hand faces the catcher, pronation of the wrist happens naturally during the follow-through portion of the delivery, creating a simple four-seam fastball. When the palm of the hand faces inward at the release point, supination occurs and gives the ball a breaking action.

“Guys that struggle with supination, they teach a vertical slider (grip),” Bergner said. “I’m more of a pronator. You have to throw a slider with supination, but I struggle with that. So (Ribas) was telling me to just think about throwing it to the front of the baseball, so I’m thinking just fastball and let that grip work.

“The thing that’s tricky about sliders is you have to learn how to preset your wrist so you can get it to that supination. But for me, with this vertical slider grip, I don’t have to worry about manipulating the baseball. It’s more about getting the grip, trusting it, becoming comfortable and then throwing it.”

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The first vertical slider was the best slider Bergner has ever thrown. Last season, his slider resembled the shape of a cutter and sat around 87-90 mph. “I’d be looking at the scoreboard like, ‘That’s not a slider,'” Bergner said. Now, his revamped slider has more depth and diagonal break.

Adding the revamped pitch to Bergner’s in-game arsenal could work wonders.

“It’ll definitely help me get to the next level,” Bergner said. “The biggest thing with me right now is learning to have a pitch that breaks on that side of the plate (glove side). I cover this side of the plate (arm side) with the changeup, but it’s hard to get guys out when you only cover one side of the plate with your off-speed. Now I have two pitches that can cover both sides of the plate.”

When Bergner arrived to minor-league minicamp in mid-February, the 6-foot-5 righty wasn’t sure what to expect from the Tigers’ new pitching coaches: Ribas, upper-levels pitching coordinator Steve Smith and lower-levels pitching coordinator Stephanos Stroop.

So far, Bergner is pleased.

He believes the new player development staffers, headlined by Ribas, are already making their mark on the future of Tigers pitching.

“Just his ability to communicate,” Bergner said. “I mean, he’s out there every day just setting the tone with energy. You can tell all the new staff is super excited to be here. I think that starts from the top and trickles down to the bottom with all the minor league guys.”

Contact Evan Petzold 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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