Tigers hoping biometric gains can rejuvenate veteran reliever Matt Wisler

Detroit News

Dunedin, Fla. — Matt Wisler has a chance to be a key part of the Tigers’ bullpen puzzle this season. But first, he needs to finish retraining himself to pitch.

Strange thing to say about an accomplished, 30-year-old reliever in his ninth season, who last year posted a 2.25 ERA and held hitters to a .210 average with the Tampa Bay Rays.

But, as his rocky spring debut in the Tigers’ 6-4 Grapefruit League loss to the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday showed, he’s still putting the pieces together.

Of his 20 pitches, only nine were strikes. He allowed a run on two walks and a single. He also balked (traditionally, not coming to a stop with a man on base) and, before he even threw a pitch, earned a ball by not finishing his warmups in the allotted 30 seconds.

“I know as I progress through this, I’m going to get better and better,” Wisler said. “The more innings I get, the more it’s going to feel like 2020. In my last four or five outings, when I am really pushing to make the team, that will be when I’m really locked in.”

If he gets there, he’s going to be Exhibit A for the value the Tigers’ sports science and player-development departments.

In 2020, he allowed three runs in 25.1 innings for the Twins, striking out 35. In 2021 with the Rays, he posted a 2.15 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. His on-field production was good last year, too, but his underlying metrics were slipping noticeably.

So much so that the Rays released him in early September.

His velocity was down on both his four-seam fastball (from 91-92 mph to 89-90 mph) and slider (from 81-82 to 79-80). He was still getting outs, still getting weak contact, but his strikeout rate plummeted from 32% to 20%.

It was time for Wisler to go back to the lab. Fortunately for him, the Tigers’ pitching lab has been vastly modified and improved, especially with the use of biomechanics. And what the data has revealed is that throwing so many sliders the last two seasons (over 90% of his pitches) has gotten him, to use a non-technical term, out of whack.

“The last two years, my mechanics got into a really deep rut with my legs, just pushing and not rotating,” he said. “Throwing so many sliders, trying to locate sliders in the zone, sometimes you forget how to rip the ball. That’s the key. I had to relearn how to let it eat.

“The last couple of years, I felt like I couldn’t do that because I was so low in my legs I couldn’t rotate powerfully.”

He’s worked tirelessly in the lab with new assistant pitching coach Robin Lund, a biometrics expert – using tools like metaballs and water balls — trying to relearn how to rotate his hips with power. The next step is to rotate and drive straight down the mound toward the plate.

That didn’t happen Tuesday.

“(Pitcher coach Chris) Fetter told me I was moving really slow,” Wisler said. “You start to make adjustments, like I was trying to make adjustments and get linear. We found (biomechanical) data proving I was over-rotating. So, I’m trying to be more linear to the plate.

“I was trying to work on that and I was going too slow trying to feel it out instead of just driving the ball.”

His pace adversely impacted his command, his velo and the shape of his slider. His fastball velo sat at 88-89 mph and his slider was under 80.

“I was rotating toward first base and not toward the plate,” he said. “We got some data that shows I’m losing a ton of force rotating toward first base. It’s going to take me a week or two to try to get the feel down.

“You know, I could feel it. Now, I have to attack that way.”

The balk, he said, was “just stupid.” He didn’t come to a stop in his delivery from the stretch with a man on base.

“That was on me,” he said. “Fett came out and said speed up. I was like, all right. And then I didn’t stop.”

Starting 1-0 on George Springer to open the inning because of a clock violation, well that’s going to be talked about in the morning meeting Wednesday.

“It was like 40 seconds,” manager AJ Hinch said. “It took him 12 seconds to get the last (warmup) pitch off. No judgments after the first outing. But certainly, there are some things we can address.”

Speed up the pace but remember to come to a stop with men on base. Be powerful rotationally, but keep driving toward the plate. Seems like a lot going on for Wisler. But, the fact is, it’s all tied together.

“We got Game One in and now we know what to work on,” Wisler said. “We’ve got to speed up. Speed up everything and that will throw everything back in sync. It will be easier to stay on it longer because I’m getting down the mound quicker so it’s not going to have time to pull.

“It will all fall into place.”

It will be big for the Tigers if it does.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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