KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Left-handed reliever Tyler Holton walked into the Detroit Tigers‘ clubhouse in spring training as an unknown face in a crowded room of pitchers seeking jobs on the Opening Day roster.
The Tigers claimed Holton off waivers in mid-February from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and while the 26-year-old didn’t break camp, it didn’t take long for the Tigers to promote him from Triple-A Toledo.
Since April 15, Holton has been an underrated success in the big leagues.
“I feel like every outing I’m trying to prove myself, no matter the role,” Holton said. “I feel like I’ve been in different situations each time. The mindset is, if I’m able to put up zeros when we’re winning, we can win the game, but if we’re down and I put up zeros, it’s going to give our team a chance to win.”
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Holton has a 2.22 ERA with four walks and 17 strikeouts across 24⅓ innings in 13 appearances for the Tigers. He throws six pitches: four-seam fastball, changeup, cutter, slider, sinker and curveball.
“He can change pace, change speeds, generally throws strikes,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “There’s a lot of things he can do that pitches to a lot of different game plans. I’m not afraid of right-handed hitters with him, which is important with the three-batter rule, and he’s pretty effective against lefties. The fact that I can use him really in any spot in the batting order is pretty key.”
Holton has limited hard contact (84.6 mph exit velocity), induced chase (32.4% chase rate) and generated ground balls (45.8% ground-ball rate), all at an above-average clip compared to other big-league pitchers. His 4.3% walk rate ranks in the 91st percentile, as well.
Opponents have a 63.6% contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone (MLB average is 58.2%), but those balls in play haven’t been hit hard. His success comes from pitching both inside of the zone and outside of the zone.
He learned the art of pitching in college.
He doesn’t fear contact.
“Quality strikes are execution,” Holton said. “Throwing strikes in general means throwing inside the strike zone, but there are many different ways to get strikes. If I throw a lot of pitches outside of the zone, but I’m getting strikes, to me, those are quality strikes.
“If you’re making the ball move, and it’s not in the zone, but you’re still getting swings, that’s quality strikes to limit damage. At the same time, you have to be throwing strikes. If you’re not in the zone, and they’re not swinging, they’re balls. You got to learn how to pitch.”
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Another key to Holton’s success is his fastball.
The heater has a minus-4 run value, second to his slider with a minus-3 run value, as the best pitch in his six-pitch arsenal. The velocity of his fastball has increased from 90.5 mph in 2022 to 91.3 mph in 2023.
Holton can’t pinpoint the exact reason for the uptick in his fastball velocity because he didn’t change his mechanics, but he feels like he did a better job preparing his body in the offseason.
The hard work is paying off.
“I’m getting used a lot more often than I ever have, so that could play a part in it,” Holton said. “Some relievers say they feel better when they’re throwing more often. This is the first time my body has ever gone through that. My body has been going through a lot more this year, but it’s been good.”
The other Tyler
The emergence of Holton, combined with the long-relief role of Rule 5 draft pick Mason Englert, has undoubtedly cut into the playing time of another left-handed reliever: Tyler Alexander.
Alexander threw just 12 pitches across one total inning in three appearances from April 29 through May 9, before an uptick in his usage. In the next 11 games, from May 10 through May 23, he tossed 78 pitches across 4⅔ innings in three appearances.
“Execution is very key for Alexander, and it’s wavered in his last couple outings,” Hinch said this past weekend in Washington, D.C, “but he’s also got a track record of throwing strikes and holding his role down very well. We’ll continue to make decisions.”
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Alexander, 28, has been with the Tigers since the 2019 season. This year, he has a 6.43 ERA with two walks and 21 strikeouts across 21 innings over 14 outings. His 2.2% walk rate and 23.3% strikeout rate are the best marks of his career.
The .523 slugging percentage against him is the worst mark of his career.
“We always seem to have a length guy available, and you’re always wanting to leave a length guy for the following day in case something happens,” Hinch said. “When I use Englert, that falls to Holton and Alexander. When both of those guys could be down, Tyler (Alexander) is front and center.”
In Tuesday’s 4-1 loss, Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Kansas City Royals starter Mike Mayers appeared to exchange words after Torkelson’s second strikeout. Torkelson, who stared down Mayers, seemingly wanted him to challenge him with a fastball.
Torkelson struck out on three consecutive sliders.
“When you strike out, you’re never happy,” Torkelson said, “and of course, it’s not my fault I struck out, it’s his. You’re going to not like him for a couple minutes, but that’s pretty much it.”
Mayers, a 31-year-old making the seventh start of his 200-game career, allowed one run on six hits and one walk with eight strikeouts over 4⅔ innings, throwing 54 of 84 pitches for strikes.
His fastball and slider perplexed the Tigers.
“He didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” Torkelson said. “I got one mistake, and I missed it. It was with two strikes with the slider. He just didn’t throw his fastball over the heart (of the plate) and didn’t miss without the slider.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.