Henning: Tigers need Wilmer Flores to settle after some rocky April starts

Detroit News

On those back fields at the TigerTown complex, where Tigers kids are sent for their earliest grooming heading into a particular season, there was a mystery beginning to bubble last month during farm-kid games at Lakeland, Florida.

Wilmer Flores was getting tattooed. His pitches, that is.

It might have been brushed off as just another early-spring series of knockouts even the best pitchers confront during March’s crazy days when starters are experimenting with a pitch, or, even more, when they’re working specifically on polishing a specific choice.

But, for Flores, the issues persisted. They followed him all the way to Double-A Erie where, in three early April starts, Flores, 23, and a supposed right-handed prodigy, had a 14.04 ERA and 2.64 WHIP, all wrought from some ghastly secondary numbers that seemed out of place with a young pitcher who a year ago was a marvel: 14 hits and 13 runs in 8.1 innings, eight walks. The only hint of normalcy were the 10 batters Flores struck out.

Sunday, Flores more resembled last season’s pitcher.

He had a four-inning, scoreless start in Erie’s 6-5 victory at Richmond. He was nicked for two hits, both singles. He struck out only one batter, but walked none. He threw a tight 39 pitches, 28 for strikes.

Most telling was his fastball, which had dropped alarmingly in velocity during his three early April starts, tumbling to the 89-91 range from last year’s 94, 95, and higher, speeds.

It was back in the 92-93 vicinity Sunday, topping out at 94.

Sunday’s game means only that Flores has moved from the emergency-ward to an examination room.

This isn’t the pitcher a team anticipated arriving at Erie for some early mastery that might, conceivably, push him soon to Triple-A Toledo — or even to Detroit. It should be noted Flores has been running neck-and-neck with Ty Madden, another right-handed artist, as the top pitching prospect in the Tigers farm chain.

The Tigers have been avoiding most conversation about Flores.

The only communique, spurred by questions about his early troubles, came in a Sunday morning text from Ryan Garko, who is the Tigers’ vice president of development.

“We do post game-reviews of every pitcher in our system after every start,” Garko said in a text message. “Wilmer and the pitching staff have a great plan moving forward to continue to get better each outing.”

Although a request for an update was made after Sunday’s game, there had been no response ahead of publication time.

So, the quest continues for Flores, with a very young pitcher certain to be granted more than ample to rediscover last year’s luster.

And, it was something to behold, that stuff he was throwing in 2022.

Consider the way Flores began last season at high-Single A West Michigan:

In his first six games, spanning 77 batters, he struck out 35 and walked all of two.

He was shipped to Erie in mid-May and had a sweet stretch of good-to-blow-away starts, which, by season’s end, left him with a Double-A ERA of 3.64 and a WHIP of 1.05.

In his 83.2 innings of work with the SeaWolves, he allowed but 67 hits. He struck out 95.

He also ranked as a dazzling “find” — an undrafted pitcher whose path from Venezuela to Arizona Western College, in Yuma, Arizona, created just enough under-exposure for the Tigers to nab him with an inexpensive, free-agent contract.

But, at least until Sunday restored some faith, it was beginning to look as if a giddy sports-movie script had flipped for a man 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.

A year ago, his fastball, which exploded, was paired with a dastardly slider. His great challenge, typical of young power-pitchers, was to make his change-up a handy and sophisticated third option.

That was going to be his 2023 mission, mostly: Refine the fastball and slider, of course, but by all means make sure the change-up could cut it as a reliable, frequent option.

Then, Flores checked into Lakeland and kid hitters on the back lots began teeing off.

When April’s issues mounted, particularly with the fastball’s zip going AWOL, questions naturally followed:

Was this a case, perhaps, of inattentive offseason preparation?

Had he spent the winter reading 2022’s press clippings? Had he been fixating, especially, on those prospect rankings, which the Tigers certainly didn’t dispute? Flores looked to just about everybody as if he had an outside chance at making it to Detroit in 2023.

It must be remembered that pitching can indeed be mercurial. Pitchers go through slumps. They get out of whack. They experience dead-arm periods, as they’re known, although these tend to be a later-season afflictions than anything typically seen in early spring.

Flores may only have reaffirmed during a bumpy first few weeks that pitching is difficult. It does not take kindly to expectations, nor to projections.

It progresses at its own pace, unique to each person and athlete.

It makes the words Garko texted Sunday seem less perfunctory and more brass-tacks:

“Wilmer and the pitching staff have a great plan moving forward to continue to get better each outing.”

Everyone will be paying close attention to that next start. And to all subsequent starts. That’s because Flores has identified himself as an exceptional talent — a product of his 2022 brilliance.

Folks notice these things. They notice April, also. They wonder, only, if the arc bends as they had anticipated it would — upward.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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