Detroit Tigers LHP Joey Wentz is breakout candidate for 2023 after strong finish

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX — The Detroit Tigers targeted 100 innings for Joey Wentz.

Wentz, 25, pitched 32⅔ innings in the major leagues and 53⅓ in the minor leagues when he arrived in the Arizona Fall League. The left-hander never missed a start, throwing Oct. 2 with the Tigers and picking up Oct. 8 with the Salt River Rafters. A seamless transition was followed by an eye-catching three-start showcase against some top hitting prospects.

Wentz pitched 12 scoreless innings.

“I definitely performed the way I expected to, especially after a half-decent month in the big leagues,” Wentz said Thursday, nearly two weeks removed from his final outing in the Fall League. “It’s nothing against the levels, but if you do well in the big leagues, you want to maintain your form. I thought I did that.”

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Wentz, who totaled 98 innings, takes positive momentum into the offseason and spring training. He finished his big-league season strong with newfound command, affirmed his strengths in the Fall League and should be in the mix to earn a spot in the starting rotation on the 2023 Opening Day roster.

Looking ahead, Wentz is a definite breakout candidate.

“Internally, I’m going to try to take some of that momentum with me,” Wentz said, “but also understanding that’s in the past. It’s going to be about performing in spring, but certainly I think taking some of the stuff I learned will help me a lot.”

In the Fall League, Wentz posted a 0.00 ERA with four walks and 14 strikeouts in his three starts and 12 innings. He focused on throwing quality pitches and won back-to-back Arizona Fall League Pitcher of the Week awards.

He pitched four perfect innings with three strikeouts Oct. 8, four innings of one-hit ball with two walks and eight strikeouts Oct. 15 and four innings of one-hit ball with two walks and three strikeouts Oct. 22. Wentz worked efficiently and threw 61.8% of his 170 pitches for strikes.

His fastball sat around 93 mph.

“Overall, his demeanor is where he’s improved,” manager A.J. Hinch said Oct. 2. “He expects a lot out of himself and being able to constructively criticize himself is better leaving than when he got here. I think when he got here, he thought he had to be perfect. I think he’s realizing his stuff is good enough in the zone.”

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Not to be forgotten, Wentz had a 1.73 ERA over five starts in September and October. He received two spot starts in May — the first, his MLB debut at Comerica Park — but a shoulder injury forced him to Lakeland, Florida, for rehabilitation. He didn’t return to the Tigers until Sept. 9, but from that point forward, he shoved.

In total, Wentz registered a 3.03 ERA with 13 walks and 27 strikeouts over 32⅔ innings in seven starts at the highest level. He tossed 6⅔ scoreless innings Sept. 9 against the Kansas City Royals, his hometown team, at Kauffman Stadium in front of family and friends. He also went 5⅔ scoreless Sept. 20 against the Baltimore Orioles.

After Wentz’s final start Oct. 2, the Tigers optioned him to the minor leagues to get a new pitcher on the roster for the end of the season.

“I think he should walk away very proud that he’s in the mix for something next year,” Hinch said.

Instead of traveling to Seattle, Wentz packed his bags in the Tigers’ clubhouse and went to Arizona in search of additional innings. He looked like a big-league pitcher in his three starts, overmatching his minor-league opponents.

He relied heavily on his fastball but used all four pitches: four-seamer, cutter, changeup and curveball.

“I probably had a little more curveball usage than I did in September, which was good,” said Wentz, who threw 8.2% curveballs in September. “It’s good to throw that pitch, and it’s a pitch that I’m going to need to throw. … It was just how the game was being called, but in the back of my head, I felt comfortable with it. It was good to gain that experience of throwing it more in games.”

Wentz developed his cutter in Triple-A Toledo with Mud Hens pitching coach Doug Bochtler in the weeks leading up to his MLB debut. With his newest offering, Wentz prioritized pitching inside the strike zone to induce whiffs and avoid hard contact.

Opponents in the majors hit .154 with a 38.9% swing-and-miss rate against his cutter.

“I was able to make some pitches with it,” Wentz said. “In 3-2 counts, the kind of counts where in the past it would have been an auto fastball, it’s good to have options in those counts and feel comfortable throwing it at any time. I maintained that in the Fall League.”

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This offseason, Wentz is stationed near Kansas City in Prairie Village, Kansas. And for the first time in a long time, he can focus on fine-tuning his pitches and mechanics rather than strictly monitoring his health. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020 and pitched just 72 innings in the minor leagues in 2021.

Wentz, coming up on three years removed from the elbow procedure, plans to start throwing during the second week of November and aims to arrive in Lakeland, home of the Tigers’ spring training facility, in early January.

When camp opens in February, Wentz wants to be prepared to win a job on the Opening Day roster.

“I feel really good about where I am,” Wentz said. “It feels good to go into the offseason with a goal of pitching. I think this offseason will be more about me, especially when I start throwing my bullpens before I get to spring, it’s going to be about my pitches and executing. … I’m definitely looking forward to that. It kind of eases the mind. Hopefully, I’ll show up to spring in good fashion and ready to go.”

Dillon Dingler’s status

Catcher Dillon Dingler, the No. 38 overall pick in the 2020 draft, played four games in the Fall League before lower-body soreness forced his exit. He traveled to Lakeland — where the Tigers determined the injury wasn’t significant — and began his offseason work.

Dingler is the Tigers’ No. 10 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The 24-year-old went 4-for-8 with two RBIs, two walks and two strikeouts in his four games for the Rafters.

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Before the Fall League, Dingler spent the 2022 season in Double-A Erie. He hit .238 with 14 home runs, 45 walks and 143 strikeouts in 107 games. His 31.9% strikeout rate is concerning, and he needs to solidify his swing mechanics, but his 10.0% walk rate was the best mark of his professional career.

Beginning June 26, Dingler recorded a .250 batting average and .350 on-base percentage with nine home runs in his final 48 games of the regular season.

“Right now, I’m at a very good spot,” Dingler said July 7, after being named to the 2022 All-Star Futures Game. “I feel like doing the least is also providing me with enough power to still have good numbers. It’s always the less is more talk. You don’t have to generate the power because it will come.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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