How Detroit Tigers’ Jason Foley is taking game to next level as high-leverage reliever

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers reliever Jason Foley emerged from the bullpen at Comerica Park for the ninth inning, looking to protect a 1-0 lead — and Eduardo Rodriguez’s brilliant eight-inning performance — in Game 2 of Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Cleveland Guardians.

The song for his jog to the mound?

“What Is Love” by Haddaway.

What is love? Oh baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.

The 1993 song seems like the last thing anyone would listen to before a big situation.

“I’m not really stuck to one walkout song,” Foley said. “It’s just something fun. I don’t want something that’s going to hype me up too much. I just want a fun, feel-good song, and I landed on that one.”

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On Tuesday, Foley had all the hype he needed in the form of a developing changeup, accompanied by his revered turbo sinker, in the biggest moment of his career. The 27-year-old retired Will Brennan, Myles Straw and Jose Ramirez in order to collect his first MLB save.

The biggest matchup came against Ramirez with two outs.

“I was feeling pretty good, especially after getting those first two ground balls,” Foley said. “I was trying to throw him some quality pitches away and not give him a chance to put one out of the park. I kept going away with sinkers and changeups.”

Ramirez, a switch-hitter, positioned himself as a left-handed hitter.

In the 2022 season, left-handers hit .349 with seven walks and 10 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances against Foley, while right-handers hit .269 with four walks and 33 strikeouts in 161 plate appearances.

In spring training, president of baseball operations Scott Harris, manager A.J. Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter were blunt with Foley in their assessment of his abilities. To take the next step, to become a feared back-end reliever, he needed to get outs against lefties.

“Strike-throwing has helped, and then the changeup evolving has been nice to see,” Hinch said. “It’s stuff over concern with the handedness. I think his stuff is good enough. Generally, the sinker against the lefty is somewhat dangerous, but when it’s 97-98 (mph), that offers a little bit of a challenge.”

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To take down lefties, Foley focused on the development of his changeup in spring training. He can throw the sinker on the inside part of the strike zone, then work the changeup on the outside part of the zone.

In 2022, Foley threw 66 changeups averaging 89.5 mph.

In 2023, Foley has thrown 14 changeups averaging 91.7 mph.

“The changeup, maybe not a grip change, but more so just trying to throw it hard and not really place it,” Foley said. “In the past, I felt like I struggled with trying to place it too much, and it ended up leaking out arm-side. Throwing it with conviction and velocity helps me command it better.”

Foley is always tinkering with his secondary pitches, always searching for an edge, but he has shown extreme confidence in his 97 mph sinker to both right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters. He has a 1.13 ERA with three walks and eight strikeouts across eight innings.

“I think teams are going to start to realize that he’s not just a right-handed specialist,” Hinch said.

The Guardians certainly learned their lesson in Tuesday’s ninth inning.

Ramirez, a four-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger, took a down-and-away first-pitch changeup for a called strike, then whiffed at a fifth-pitch changeup in the same location for a swinging strikeout to end the game. After the strikeout, catcher Jake Rogers tossed Foley the baseball from his first save.

“It was definitely a cool moment,” Foley said.

The next step in his development, along with continuing to perfect his changeup, is the evaluation of his slider into a consistent swing-and-miss pitch. Refining the breaking ball, primarily used against right-handed hitters, would increase his strikeout numbers and put him in position to be a full-time closer.

“If you become a three-pitch mix out of the bullpen, you got a real chance to impact the game with the three-batter rule,” Hinch said. “He’s still going to get a lot of righties out, but that does open your eyes across the way, and it also opens your eyes internally, as to what he could possibly be.”

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The Tigers have played 16 games this season, and in all 16 games, Riley Greene has served as the starting center fielder. For Game 17, though, Greene moved to the designated hitter spot in the lineup.

“He’s the one guy we haven’t given any innings off,” Hinch said.

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Matt Vierling, who has primarily played right field, shifted to center field for Wednesday’s series finale against Guardians. He played more than 430 innings in center field for the Philadelphia Phillies last season.

“He’s done it at the highest level in the World Series,” Hinch said. “Speed is always key for him. He’s a leader in his own right. He can control both gaps. He’s pretty talented out there. His arm is good, his routes are good, his speed is good. I figured if you can play there in the World Series, you can play there in April.”

Super speed

The Tigers completed Tuesday’s doubleheader in 4 hours and 13 minutes.

It was the shortest nine-inning doubleheader since July 29, 1984, when the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets took 4 hours and 10 minutes to complete two games at Shea Stadium.

“I think all of us were a little naive as to how much dead time there was around the game,” Hinch said, “and I think, any of us, we know the pace of game is way more important than the time of game. It’s been a lot more dramatic than most of us expected. We probably wasted so much time in between innings or in between pitches that accumulated to an uptick in the pace and the time.”

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

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