Question for 2023: How high is the ceiling for Tigers’ leverage reliever Alex Lange?

Detroit News

Detroit — You wonder about a reliever’s mindset sometimes. They all, to a man, talk about being fearless. But character is revealed more through deeds than words.

Alex Lange does the deeds.

The latest case in point was Saturday night against the Angels. The Tigers had just taken a one-run lead and starter Tyler Alexander soldiered through six innings. With the two most dangerous hitters in the Angels’ lineup due up — Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout — manager AJ Hinch entrusted the game to Lange in the seventh.

“You have to hit me — that’s the game,” Lange said. “It’s my best against your best. Who’s the best? We’re going to find out real quick. If it’s you, good for you. I’ll get you next time.”

Lange punched out both Ohtani and Trout in that seventh inning and the Tigers’ bullpen preserved the skinny one-run lead.

“My best compliment to him is that I use him against the middle of the order and with the game on the line, whether it is the sixth inning, eighth inning or the 11th inning,” Hinch said. “As a manager, that is sort of tipping your cap to your guy and telling him that you trust him.”

Just look back over the month of August and you will see an abundance of trust:

► Aug. 1 at Minnesota: Hinch used Lange in the 10th inning and he gave up a rare walk-off homer to Gio Urshela.

► Aug. 6 against Tampa: He brought in Lange to face Yu Chang with two outs and the tying run on second in the sixth. Chang had homered earlier and been a general pain in the team’s collective behind. Lange struck him out and the Tigers went on to win.

► Aug. 7 against Tampa: Hinch went back to him against the top of the Rays’ order in the top of the eighth in a scoreless game. Clean, 1-2-3 inning.

► Aug. 10 against Cleveland: Tigers down a run in the sixth, Lange punched out two in another clean inning.

► Aug. 12 at Chicago: Lange is summoned in the bottom of the fifth with a runner at second, two outs, in a scoreless game and he got Andrew Vaughn to roll over to shortstop. Hinch sent him back out for the seventh and he got nicked for two runs on three singles and a walk.

► Aug. 14 at Chicago: Hinch went right back to Lange in a close game, Tigers down a run in the sixth, and he put up a zero.

► Aug. 15 at Cleveland: Lange stepped into the fire, big-time, in the eighth inning. The Tigers had just taken a 7-4 lead in Game 2 of the doubleheader with the heart of the Guardians’ lineup coming up. Lange dispatched Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor and Andres Gimenez.

► Aug. 17 at Cleveland: The most forgettable night of the season. The Guardians scored six times in the eighth inning after Andrew Chafin struck out the first three batters. Lange was responsible for four hits and three of the runs after the third strikeout victim reached on a wild pitch.

“I need to start turning those three-run outings into one-run outings,” Lange said. “It’s always a battle. I’ve taken my licks this year, for sure. But I learn from them.”

From that disaster in Cleveland, he bounced back with the punch-outs of Ohtani and Trout Sunday. The lesson learned? Use all your pitches. Lange threw 20 pitches in that loss in Cleveland, and only two changeups — both non-competitive balls.

Against Ohtani, a left-handed hitter, Lange threw four consecutive changeups and then put him away with a 2-2 curveball. He dusted Trout with four straight curveballs.

“I never give him a break,” Hinch told reporters Saturday night. “I never give this guy an easier route. It’s always the middle of the order. It’s always the big names. When he throws strikes and gets ahead, he’s a very, very effective reliever.

“And I like how serious he takes his responsibility to come in and finish it up.”

The thing is, Lange doesn’t want a break. He doesn’t want the easier path.

“No, I love it,” he said. “I feel like I’m at my best when my back is against the wall. I’ve told AJ several times, he can use me whenever he wants. I’m ready to go. I wake up prepared to pitch. Whether it’s in the parking lot or in the ninth inning, I don’t care where it’s at or when it is. I don’t care about getting used early. I don’t care about having to go back out there, back-to-back, three in a row, whatever it is — gimme it.

“I want the work. I want to help this team win.”

Lange, acquired from the Cubs for Nick Castellanos in 2019, will be 27 on Oct. 2, yet this is his first full season in the big leagues. Makes it a little tricky to peg just where he is on the development scale.

“There’s always a next level,” Hinch said. “His challenge now is to continue to harness his stuff. Command is always going to be key. It’s one thing to have electric stuff; the other is to command it. You see the maturation of players over their years where they nibble at what they can do, get an opportunity and then take a mini-step back before taking another leap forward.”

Was this year the big leap forward, or is that still to come?

“What that leads to in the coming years? We’ll see,” Hinch said. “Relievers ride a huge rollercoaster, year in and year out. But he is part of a winning bullpen. My history, having managed a lot of different games, he’s someone you can turn to from day one of a season all the way to a playoff series.

“If he continues this ascent, he’ll get more and more responsibility.”

The next level up for Lange, of course, would be the closer role. And the Tigers already have a 27-year-old, two-time All-Star closer in Gregory Soto. But, given Hinch’s long-standing aversion to locked-tight role designations, it’s not hard to envision a timeshare between the two.

Especially given the corresponding metrics. Lange’s swing-and-miss rate of 43.4% ranks in the top 100 percentile-wise in baseball. Soto’s whiff rate is 27%. Lange’s chase rate is 35.7%, in the top 86th percentile. Soto’s is 27%.

Where Lange does his work with arguably the nastiest breaking ball in the game (.165 opponent average, 59% whiff rate). Soto brings heat in the form of a devastating sinker. Yet, this season, Soto’s average velocity on his sinker is 98 mph and Lange’s is 96.

It’s a dynamic one-two punch — Lange right-handed, Soto a lefty — for sure, regardless of who Hinch uses to get the last three outs.

“I don’t think my game is done developing,” Lange said. “I have a lot more to learn in this game. In 20 years of playing this game, I still feel like I’m brand new to it. Guys that are the best in this game and who’ve been doing it a long time, they’re never done elevating their game. When you become complacent and satisfied with where you’re at, that’s when you start your downfall.

“That’s something I plan to avoid.”

On deck: Giants

Series: Two games at Comerica Park

First pitch: Tuesday – 7:10 p.m.; Wednesday – 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Tuesday – Bally Sports Detroit, 97.1; Wednesday – Bally Sports Detroit, MLBN, 97.1.

Probables: Tuesday – LHP Carlos Rodon (11-6, 2.89) vs. RHP Drew Hutchison (1-6, 4.23); Wednesday – RHP Logan Webb (11-6, 3.08) vs. RHP Matt Manning (0-1, 2.81).

Rodon, Giants: The Tigers could’ve done without seeing him again, after battling him the last seven years when he was with the White Sox. He’s nastier than ever, leading the NL with 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, a 31.7% K-rate. Over his last four starts, he’s allowed four runs with 31 strikeouts in 24.1 innings.

Hutchison, Tigers: When he’s landing his slider like he was in his last start at Cleveland, he’s a tough at-bat for hitters. He threw 32 sliders at the Guardians in 5.1 innings and of the seven put in play, only one resulted in a hit. His four-seam fastball can be sneaky, too. The average velo is 93, but with a 2,263 rpm spin rate, it has good ride through the zone. The 101 pitches he threw were his most since 2015.

Twitter@cmccosky

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