Roll the dice: Vegas native Chasen Shreve looking like a good bet for Tigers

Detroit News

Toronto — Chasen Shreve was flummoxed.

He was spotting his four-seam fastball expertly and getting the off-the-table sink on his splitter that has come to define his career. Yet, his pitches kept getting put in play, kept finding holes.

“I wasn’t getting crushed, but it was base hit, base hit — I was getting singled to death,” said Shreve, who is carving out a versatile left-handed niche in the Tigers’ bullpen. “A couple of weeks in, I had like a 6 ERA. I remember giving up seven infield hits in one outing.”

This was early in the 2014 season. Shreve, then a 23-year-old side-armer, was pitching in the Braves system at Double-A Mississippi. Ten games into that season, he’d given up 22 hits in 17.1 innings. Opponents were hitting .319 against him.

It felt like his career was hanging in the balance.

“I went up to my pitching coach (Dennis Lewallyn) and I was like, ‘What do I have to do?’” Shreve said. “’I’m locating my fastball. My splitter is good. What do I have to do to get hitters out?’”

Lewallyn had no answer. Shreve was doing everything right.

“You just don’t miss barrels,” Lewallyn told him.

Shreve, recalling the story, told Lewallyn, “Well, I can throw harder. He said, ‘What you mean?’ I told him I have been trying to just locate my fastball, but I can throw it harder.”

This goes back to 2012, a couple of years after the Braves took Shreve, out of the College of Southern Nevada, in the 11th round in the 2010 draft. Shreve remembers Tom Glavine and other Braves pitchers coming over to minor-league camp and offering counsel to the younger players.

“The whole speech was basically, prioritize locating your fastball over throwing it hard,” Shreve said. “I took it to heart. All I wanted to do was locate the fastball. I was throwing it 86-88 mph.”

The more he focused on hitting his spots, the lower his arm angle got and the more unnatural and unathletic his pitching mechanics got.

So that day in early May 2014, Shreve rolled the dice. He abandoned his sidearm delivery. He got up on a bullpen mound, stood straight up, rocked and delivered his pitches from a more over-the-top arm angle.

“I dotted four pitches in a row and said, ‘Yeah, let’s try this,’” Shreve said. “It was maybe that night or the next, I went out and was throwing 91-94 mph. A month later I was in the big leagues.”

From May 2 to July 14, Shreve dominated Double-A hitters, holding them to a .158/.196/.236 slash-line with 61 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.

On July 19, he went from Double A to the big leagues, making his debut against the Phillies on July 19. He ended up allowing only a run in 12 innings with 15 strikeouts for the Braves.

“It was just letting it go,” he said. “Letting my body and my athletic ability to actually take over instead of just trying to locate it.”

It’s been 10 years since he debuted. The Braves were the first of six teams he’s played for. He will be 33 in July. And yet, 321 big-league games later, his fastball is still sitting at 91 mph (he expects it to inch up to 92-93 by midseason) and that splitter is still bedeviling left-handed and right-handed hitters alike.

“Generally, that splitter has been useful for him to be platoon neutral,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “His fastball command is what’s going to make him more effective to both sides.”

Shreve got reminded of that on Sunday when Red Sox rookie lefty Triston Casas blasted a center-cut, 0-1 fastball into the seats at Comerica Park.  He recovered nicely, though, punching out right-handed hitters Connor Wong and Justin Turner.

He dusted Turner on three pitches — four-seam and splitter both painted on the outside edge of the plate and then a chase splitter in the dirt. A vintage Shreve punchout.

The way he came on to his splitter was another roll of the dice — fitting for the Vegas native.

“I couldn’t throw a changeup,” he said. “It was horrible.”

His college pitching coach showed him the splitter grip.

“From the first time I gripped it, it was my best pitch,” Shreve said. “I’ve thrown it my whole career.”

He lost the feel of it back in 2016 when he was with the Yankees, which was reflected in his 5.18 ERA and career-worst .823 OPS against. Opponents hit .256 against the splitter that year. The next year, they hit .167 against it.

“I think my usage of it has become more frequent,” Shreve said. “Maybe not. I used to to try strike guys out with fastballs up and in before going back to the splitter. Now I pretty much just throw the splitter.”

Hitters are 0-for-6 against the splitter in the small sample this season. Here’s how consistent he’s been with it:

2023: 42% usage, .000 batting average, 37% whiff rate.

2022: 37% usage, .128 average, 42.5% whiff.

2021: 37% usage, .203 average, 32.5% whiff.

2020: 41% usage, .204 average, 54% whiff.

“We treat him more as a reliever, not lefty only,” Hinch said. “I don’t worry a ton about right-handed hitters being sandwiched in or what pinch-hitters might be used because he has weapons to get those hitters out.

“I’d like to use him more.”

With the way the bullpen is constructed right now, leverage relievers like Alex Lange, Jason Foley and Jose Cisnero have found themselves getting into games earlier. Shreve could end up in that mix, or he could be getting more late-inning work after the leverage relievers have been used.

“We’re going to go to guys in the middle of the game, regardless,” Hinch said. “We’re not going to save a path in the seventh, eighth and ninth. If we have to use guys in the fifth and sixth, we will. I know we haven’t won many games, but you don’t want to lose games because you didn’t use somebody earlier just because it didn’t map out right.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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