Why Joey Wentz’s curveball could be a ‘weapon’ and launch his rise with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — In the Arizona Fall League, Detroit Tigers left-hander Joey Wentz increased his curveball usage. He wasn’t prioritizing the breaking ball, but the games dictated his pitch mix, and he sounded thankful for the low-pressure opportunity to throw it in games.

“I felt comfortable with it,” he said in November.

Four months later, Wentz is prioritizing his curveball in spring training. If the 25-year-old is going to be the best version of himself — and emerge as a consistently reliable starting pitcher in the big leagues — he needs that pitch.

“If I can land spin, it’ll help my fastball,” Wentz said Tuesday, after tossing two innings in his first game. “I think it’s a good pitch in and of itself, and you just got to land it. In the past, for me, that’s been hard to do, but I’ve been working on it and feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job.”

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In 2022, Wentz threw 55.2% four-seam fastballs, 21.8% cutters, 13.5% changeups and 9.4% curveballs. Opponents failed to create damage against his cutter, which generated a 38.9% swing-and-miss rate.

His fastball averaged 92.4 mph.

“He’s got a couple things to work on, namely landing his secondary pitches in the zone,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “If you look at the numbers, they just don’t do damage against him, and that will make his fastball even better.”

He posted a 3.03 ERA with 13 walks and 27 strikeouts in 32⅔ innings across seven starts last season. His best work came at the end of the season, a 1.73 ERA over five starts, in his return from a shoulder injury. Adjusting where he stands on the mound improved the command of all his pitches.

Wentz added 12 scoreless innings in the Fall League.

He then spent his offseason perfecting his curveball while training near Kansas City in Prairie Village, Kansas, though he didn’t tweak his grip or mechanics. Before spring training, pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Robin Lund emphasized the potential for his breaking ball.

“I’m throwing it more in catch (play) and throwing it more in bullpens,” Wentz said. “It’s been more at the front of my mind. … I knew it needed to be a better pitch for me as a starter. I think it can be a weapon.”

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On Tuesday, Wentz faced the Toronto Blue Jays and completed two innings on 36 pitches. He threw 36% four-seamers, 31% cutters, 28% curveballs and 6% changeups, a significantly different mix compared to last season. The curveball looked sharper.

His 10 curveballs generated one swing-and-miss and three called strikes. Both of his strikeouts came from the curve in the second inning, as Danny Jansen struck out on a foul tip and Cam Eden struck out looking. The pitches were located inside the strike zone.

“I’m trying to use that more this year,” Wentz said. “I thought I had good results with it, and I thought I threw some good ones in there. There will be a focus on landing it for strikes. But yeah, it felt good.”

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Hinch and president of baseball operations Scott Harris met with Wentz at the beginning of camp to discuss his status entering the 2023 campaign. He could begin the regular season as either a reliever in Detroit or a starter in Triple-A Toledo.

The Tigers already have five starting pitchers in Eduardo Rodriguez, Matthew Boyd, Michael Lorenzen, Spencer Turnbull and Matt Manning. Only if one of them suffers an injury will Wentz enter the rotation.

“We’re open to any role,” Hinch said. “I think his future is as a starter, and so does the organization, but short term, I think anything can happen. He does some things that are really good.”

For now, Wentz isn’t thinking too much about what happens next.

“If I do well, I think I’m fully capable of contributing,” he said. “I try not to get lost in figuring out where I fit or where I don’t fit.”

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

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