This reliever is a strike-throwing machine

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

A year ago, Will Vest was at the back of the Mariners’ bullpen, a Rule 5 Draft pick trying to earn his keep on a young team. He was holding down a middle-relief role until a rough June led Seattle to return him to the Tigers. He struggled to readjust at Triple-A Toledo.

“Especially when you get used to being in the big leagues, you’re going to be upset when you lose your job,” Vest said last month. “But if you sit there and dwell on it, you’re not going to get back up quickly. I went through that a little bit last year, and I think the biggest thing for me was I needed a break mentally, just to hit the reset button and get back to who I was as a pitcher.”

Two months ago, he was at the far end of the Tigers’ Spring Training clubhouse, trying to find a way to make another Major League team — this time as a non-roster invite. His chances improved when Andrew Chafin, Kyle Funkhouser and José Cisnero opened the season on the injured list, and MLB opened the season with expanded rosters. He made a 10-man bullpen but had to show something more to stick.

“When the roster went down from 28 [players] to 26, it would have been very easy to see if Will would’ve been on that line. He wasn’t,” manager A.J. Hinch said last week. “We made a move [last week] in order to bring up Joey Wentz, and he wasn’t even under consideration. He’s earned that, because performance matters at this level.”

Hinch backed that up in the ninth inning last Friday. When Gregory Soto loaded the bases with one out and a two-run lead, Hinch turned to Vest, who had never had a big league save opportunity. Vest racked up back-to-back strikeouts, both on a slider that has become a wipeout pitch for him.

“Roller coaster is probably the best way to put it,” Vest said. “But I wouldn’t trade anything. I think everything along your journey is meant for a reason. You kind of learn from it as best you can. I’ve tried to learn from my stint last year and tried to improve upon it this year.”

Opponents batted .448 off Vest’s slider last year in Seattle, according to Statcast. They’re batting .182 off it this season, with a swing-and-miss rate of 45.2 percent, even after Randy Arozarena’s home run off said slider on Tuesday. Its vertical movement is slightly less significant than last year, but the horizontal movement has made it more of a sweeping pitch.

“I think it’s just become a little bit more consistent,” Vest said. “Last year, there’d be some days I had a good feel for it and some days I didn’t.” 

Just as important, he’s locating it for strikes, just as he has with his fastball. He worked in the offseason to locate his fastball to both sides of the plate, after struggling to spot it on the outside corner to right-handed hitters last year. When he can do that, it sets up his slider and his changeup, two offspeed pitches with different movements.

Vest’s strike percentage has jumped from 47.4 percent last year to 53.3 percent, according to Statcast, well above the Major League average. Yet opponents are still making less contact on his pitches in the strike zone (79.3 percent) than the MLB average (82 percent). His overall swing-and-miss rate has jumped from 22.8 to 30.2 percent.

His fastball has also gained velocity, from 93.5 mph last year to 94.7 mph this season. Kevin Kiermaier’s single on Tuesday at Tropicana Field was just the second hit off Vest’s fastball this season. A Harold Ramirez single on Wednesday was the first hit of the year off Vest’s changeup.

“I definitely think the uptick in velo has helped out,” Vest said. “I think it’s helping my offspeed a lot more as well. I’m able to use that a little bit more than I was last year.”

Those kinds of improvements helped Funkhouser go from a fringe Major Leaguer in 2020 to a critical part of the Tigers’ bullpen last year. When shoulder issues sidelined him this spring, replacing his presence was a huge challenge. Vest is becoming a big part of that.

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