Why Detroit Tigers are not sending down struggling pitcher Joey Wentz anytime soon

Detroit Free Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Detroit Tigers left-hander Joey Wentz exited Sunday’s game in the third inning for the second start in a row. This time, the Washington Nationals scored six runs on 10 hits.

It was the worst outing of his 16-start career in the big leagues.

“Obviously, I need to throw better,” said Wentz, acquired by the Tigers in a 2019 trade with the Atlanta Braves. “The last two (starts), both have been pretty poor. I think you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to get better. Next outing, I’ll try to go deep in the game and contribute to the team.”

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The 25-year-old owns a 7.45 ERA with 14 walks (8.0% walk rate) and 31 strikeouts (17.6% strikeout rate) across 32⅔ innings in seven starts. His ERA is 5.43 through 71⅓ innings in his career.

Wentz has allowed nine runs on 16 hits and one walk with four strikeouts over his past 4⅔ innings. Those results come from back-to-back starts against the Seattle Mariners (May 14) and Nationals (Sunday).

But the Tigers won’t demote him to Triple-A Toledo.

“Stuff, approach, mindset, strike throwing,” Hinch said. “It’s not easy trying to figure it out along the way, especially when you get beat a couple times in a row, but we’re not going to be an organization that panics and reacts to every start as if their job is on the line. We have to continue to nurture and do things better and push these guys.”

In Sunday’s 6-4 loss, Wentz took the mound for the third inning but failed to record an out. Dominic Smith hit a leadoff single, and Ildemaro Vargas upped the Nationals lead to 6-1 with a two-run home run off Wentz’s cutter that caught too much of the strike zone.

The Nationals collected their 10 hits with eight singles, primarily hard-hit ground balls, and two homers.

“They put the ball in play, found some holes, got some big hits and hit one ball out of the ballpark to chase him,” Hinch said. “Sometimes, I don’t think it’s always someone’s fault when they do something. I think the Nats had a pretty good game plan against him. He threw strikes, he was fairly efficient, and they went after him.”

Only twice has Wentz walked more than two batters in an outing, and while he isn’t generating whiffs (21.6%) or chase (22.9%), he has thrown his pitches inside the strike zone at an above-average rate. He commands a 52.8% in-zone rate and a 64.8% first-pitch strike rate.

He has surrendered a team-worst nine homers this season.

“Looking back, and you can never play the game looking back, I would go old school and make guys feel a little bit more uncomfortable if they’re going to swing at pitches over the plate,” Hinch said. “We’ve got to establish that you can’t assume the ball is going to be over the plate. That doesn’t mean throw at guys. That just means pitching. But again, that’s looking back.”

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The Tigers wanted Wentz to throw strikes coming into the season, and so far, he is doing that. The ability to throw pitches inside the strike zone allows the Tigers to continue his development at the highest level, rather than shipping him to Triple-A Toledo for a tune-up.

Plus, the Tigers don’t have other pitchers vying to unseat Wentz from his spot in the starting rotation. The rotation currently consists of Wentz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matthew Boyd, Michael Lorenzen and Alex Faedo.

“We need him based on where we’re at health-wise,” Hinch said. “We have some young guys in the minors that are continuing to get the ball every five or six days. We got a number of guys rehabbing. We left camp and a ton of depth turns quickly when you get guys banged up a little bit.”

Several pitchers are rehabbing from injuries: Spencer Turnbull (neck discomfort), Tarik Skubal (left elbow strain), Matt Manning (right foot fracture) and Beau Brieske (right ulnar nerve entrapment).

The primary starters in Toledo: Reese Olson (7.11 ERA in nine starts), Brenan Hanifee (4.89 ERA in nine starts), Ashton Goudeau (6.42 ERA in nine games, eight starts) and Zach Logue (5.40 ERA in eight games, seven starts).

Out of the Tigers’ bullpen, Tyler Alexander (6.43 ERA in 21 innings) and Mason Englert (4.73 ERA in 26⅔ innings) have previous experience as starting pitchers.

“We will make decisions when we make decisions,” Hinch said. “Not everybody can just do this forever, but our players will always feel a sense of support from the organization to where we’re going to tirelessly work to find solutions and not use the fear tactic as a way to make them pitch better.”

That’s why Wentz — rather than a relief pitcher called up from Triple-A Toledo — had a locker in the clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium when the Tigers arrived to Kansas City on Monday for a three-game series against the Royals.

He is expected to make his next start with the Tigers.

“I gotta finish my curveball down, I gotta throw better changeups, and I gotta throw better fastballs,” Wentz said. “My confidence is fine. I don’t think mentally I shake too much. I think I’ve been poor the last two (starts), but confidence is still good.”

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

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