With a new trick up his sleeve, Tigers’ Tyler Alexander keeps putting up zeros

Detroit News

Detroit — Don’t play ping-pong against Tyler Alexander. Not for money or for anything you’d hate to lose.

He drew Michael Fulmer in the team’s clubhouse ping-pong tournament on Monday. Fulmer is pretty darn good, too. But it’s hard to stay on point against Alexander. His non-stop narration can’t help but distract you.

“Nice friendly game, just volleys back and forth,” he said as he and Fulmer were engaged in a long, polite rally. “Until somebody decides to WIN IT!”

He punctuated that last sentence by blasting one right by an unsuspecting Fulmer.

Change of pace is his specialty, after all.

If you haven’t noticed, since coming off the injured list on June 13, the lefty Alexander has pitched lights-out. He was in the rotation before his elbow started barking, but he came back to the long relief role he’s been so effective at the last couple of seasons and has been invaluable.

After pitching 3.1 scoreless innings and collecting the win in Game 2 against the Guardians on Monday night, he’s allowed just one run in 13.1 innings with seven strikeouts and two walks. Opponents in that stretch are hitting .174 with a .208 on-base percentage and slugging a meager .196.

“If we had a player of the game award, we would give it to Tyler,” manager AJ Hinch said. “The efficiency, the outs, the zeros. Really good by him.”

Alexander, since coming back from the injured list, has added a new pitch. He calls it “that curveball thing.” It’s like a homemade pitch. He tried to develop a slower cutter. But when it had the same basic spin and shape as Rich Hill’s curveball, he tinkered with the grip and voila, the curveball thing was born.

“It’s like a slider, but I use kind of a curveball grip,” Alexander said. “I’ve been throwing it for a couple of weeks instead of my normal slider.”

Statcast read three “sliders” that Alexander threw against the Guardians and two of them were called strikes. In his previous outing, two scoreless innings against the Royals, he effectively mixed in six of them.

“I used it for the first time in Boston and it was really good,” he said. “I was shocked that it was good.”

Asked why he felt the need to tinker with his slider, Alexander, in typical straight-from-the-hip style, said, “Because I thought my slider was crap. I’ve always thought my slider was crap.”

He started messing around with it while he was in Florida rehabbing from his elbow sprain. It’s a change-of-pace pitch for him (78-79 mph) but unlike his changeup, it has more slurvy, horizontal movement.

“The grip is kind of weird,” he said. “It’s like a two-seam grip but I release it off this finger (ring finger). The goal was to make it look like a slow cutter but it’s turned into more of a curve. I modeled it after Rich Hill’s curveball. It doesn’t really look like my cutter at all, but it moves a lot.”

Part of what makes Alexander effective, apart from his strike-throwing and precise command of all of five of his pitches, is his ability to vary his repertoire. You never know what he’s going to attack you with.

Yes, everything seems to start with his cutter. He uses it 27% of the time and limits hitters to a .222 batting average. Depending on the opponent, situation and his feel for the pitches in a game, he will mix sinkers, four-seam fastballs, changeups and sliders (the curveball thing) in an ever-changing manner that seems almost indiscriminate — which it most assuredly is not.

“It’s a little bit based on scouting reports,” Alexander said. “But some of these teams, the Royals, Cleveland, teams in our division, I face them a lot and I am going to have to face them a lot more. It’s good to have days where I don’t throw my normal stuff.”

Case in point: On Monday, the Guardians saw 15 cutters, six sinkers, five changeups, four four-seamers and three sliders.

Against the Royals on Friday, he threw seven four-seamers, six sliders, five sinkers and just two cutters and two changeups.

Box of chocolates.

“Just so efficient,” said Eric Haase, who caught him Monday. “This team (Cleveland) makes a ton of contact and for him to execute pitches like that, just missing barrels left and right with only one or two punch-outs (none actually) — just a bunch of weak ground balls and pop-ups, that’s huge.

“When he is on, that’s exactly what he does.”

On the season, just to stamp Haase’s point, the average exit velocity on balls put in play against Alexander is a meek 85.3%, in the bottom 6 percentile in baseball.

Because the Tigers’ starting rotation remains beset by injuries — rookie Alex Faedo, up as the 27th man Monday, left his start with hip soreness — the temptation to stretch Alexander out, build his pitch count back up and put him back in the rotation won’t go away.

Hinch, though, seems pretty steadfast against it for now.

“Right now we’re fine,” he said. “If Tyler was in the rotation, we don’t have him right there (on Monday). Garrett Hill is here now. We still have Michael Pineda, Beau (Brieske) and Tarik (Skubal). (Drew) Hutchison will start Tuesday.

“We’re just trying to piece it together between now and the All-Star break as best we can. That’s all we’re thinking about, how we’re going to map it out for the next couple of weeks. But I sure do like having Tyler as that bridge when we need him the most.”

Alexander, for his part, is OK with that.

“As long as I’m here, as long as I’m healthy and as long as I’m pitching well here, I don’t care,” he said.

Check, check and check.

Around the horn

Hinch said he was hopeful Faedo could still rejoin the team in Kansas City on Monday and start one of the games of the doubleheader as the 27th man. Faedo left his start Monday with hip soreness. “Doctors are still review the film (from the MRI), but everything is pointing in the right direction,” Hinch said. “There’s not a ton of structural damage in his hip. Just some inflammation. He has some things he needs to work on, but he’s not scratched from being the 27th man next week.”

… To make room on the 40-man roster for starting pitcher Drew Hutchison, the Tigers designated left-handed reliever Sam Howard for assignment.

… Outfielder Austin Meadows (Achilles soreness) did a battery of agility and running tests before the game Tuesday. If he came through that without any setbacks, he will join Triple-A Toledo in Omaha for a four- or five-game rehab assignment.

Guardians at Tigers

First pitch: 1:10 Wednesday, Comerica Park

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Scouting report

RHP Shane Bieber (3-4, 3.16), Guardians: He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in nine straight starts and the Guardians are 10-5 when he takes the mound this season. The Tigers put one of those losses on him, though he struck out 10 in seven innings. It was the sixth straight time he punched out at least 10 Tigers, only Nolan Ryan has a streak than long against Detroit.

RHP Michael Pineda (1-3, 3,62), Tigers: This will be his second start since coming off the injured list with a broken finger. He grinded through five innings against the Royals even though he still didn’t have a good feel for his slider. Left-handed hitters are doing most of the damage against him, hitting 80 points higher than righties (.296-.216), slugging 106 points better (.537-.431) and have an OPS 208 points higher (.870-662).

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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