Meet Tigers’ unlikely closer (and his unlikely entrance song)

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Eurodance song “What Is Love” was released in 1993 by German singer Haddaway. A recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit featuring clubgoing buddies bobbing their heads to the song became so popular that it became a 1998 movie, “A Night at the Roxbury,” starring Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan.

A quarter-century after the movie, and 30 years after the release of the song, it’s the entrance music for Tigers reliever Jason Foley.

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

And when Foley took the mound for the ninth inning Tuesday to finish out a 1-0 win and a doubleheader sweep of the Guardians, it became a closer’s walkout song for maybe the first time in the Major Leagues. It’s an unlikely closer song for an unlikely closer.

Foley was an undrafted signing in 2016 after playing with Tigers infielder Zack Short at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He missed the 2018 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, then had no ’20 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But since debuting with the Tigers in June 2021, he has steadily worked his way into a bigger role in Detroit’s bullpen.

After carving a spot last year as a sinkerballer who could flummox right-handed hitters and escape jams with ground balls, the 27-year-old right-hander is making a case to become a late-inning stakeholder in Detroit’s wide-open bullpen.

“We chose that [situation] because of the doubleheader and he was very fresh and he’s dominating the strike zone,” manager A.J. Hinch said Wednesday. “We’ll see if that continues. He’s still going to get a lot of righties out, but that does open eyes across the way. It also opens your eyes internally as to what he could possibly do.”

Foley has always been a high-velocity pitcher in the pros — he ranked in the top 12% of Major Leaguers for fastball velocity last year according to Statcast — but hasn’t had as high of a strikeout rate as some might expect. His fastball spin rate is low, and his swing-and-miss rate was actually near the bottom of the Majors last year. His sinker, which has above-average velocity and movement, has been his counter to that, ensuring more soft contact on the ground.

According to Statcast, Foley’s sinker has been among the most valuable in the Majors this season, entering Friday tied for the best run value at 5 runs saved. Among those in his company are Astros All-Star Framber Valdez and Dodgers starter Dustin May.

Finding a complement to the sinker has been a project since he broke in. His slider was his secondary pitch of choice last year, but while he had a decent swing-and-miss rate with it, he also gave up some damage. He tinkered with a sweeper-slider briefly but shelved it this year. Now, he’s using his changeup with the sinker as a solid one-two punch. Moreover, the changeup is giving him a swing-and-miss pitch.

“Especially to lefties, the changeup has been a pretty important pitch for me, just to get them off the sinker,” Foley said. “I think the more I get comfortable throwing that, the more success I’ll have to a lefty.”

Notable, then, that Foley — called into action in the ninth Tuesday after Alex Lange pitched in Game 1 — retired two left-handed hitters in his clean inning, capped by a changeup that fanned switch-hitting All-Star José Ramírez to end the game.

“Generally the sinker against the lefty is somewhat dangerous, but when it’s 97-98, that offers a little bit of a challenge,” Hinch said. “He gets to strike one, and then he can do a lot of different things. His confidence in throwing his changeup has been nice, and I think most teams are going to start to realize that maybe he’s not just a right-handed specialist.”

Left-handed hitters batted .349 (30-for-86) off Foley last year, compared with .269 from right-handed batters. Entering Friday, left-handed hitters were 1-for-7 off Foley with a walk and five strikeouts. Righties are 3-for-19 against him. The season is still early, but it appears — to play off his entrance music — lefties don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him, no more.

“That was one thing A.J., [pitching coach Chris Fetter] and [general manager] Scott [Harris] harped on in our meetings in Spring Training was to have a little more success against left-handed hitters,” Foley said. “So I think the more I can run that sinker in on them, in on the hands and then work the changeup off that away, it’s going to give me a pretty good bit of success. Just try to keep working on it every day.”

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