Growing pains: Tigers’ Englert enduring hard lessons in new role, new level

Detroit News

Philadelphia — If you get to the ballpark early enough, you will likely see Tigers rookie reliever Mason Englert doing one of two things, and often he does both.

He will either be sitting in the middle of the outfield, legs folded, meditating. Or, he will be in the bullpen with assistant pitching coach Robin Lund working through some complicated-looking mechanical drills.

Last week, Lund had him wrapped in workout bands, using them like pulleys, while Englert went through his pitching motion.

“We’re just trying to sync up my upper-body rotation,” Englert said. “Trying to stay close, gain more close distance at the right time, keeping my shoulders more over my hips. Just a few movement adjustments to make me feel better.”

You need a Ph.D. in exercise science, like Lund has, to fully understand the technicalities of this. But, one of the goals of these exercises, and others that Lund is putting Englert through, is to rejuvenate his fastball.

“It’s getting used to the workload coming out of the bullpen — it’s been a little up and down,” Englert said. “I’m just trying to revert back to some information we had when my velo was a little better and see how it changed.”

Englert endured a rough outing against the Phillies Monday night, tagged for three runs and four hits in the seventh after getting four outs, in the fifth and sixth. His fastball had a velocity range of 89-91 mph, averaging 90.7 mph.

The average spin rate was 2,163 rpm.

For context: In April, Englert’s fastball was sitting between 92-93 mph and hitting 94, with a spin rate of 2,300 rpm.

It may seem like an inconsequential drop, but the hitters’ results are saying it’s significant. They are hitting it at a .308 clip with a .769 slugging percentage. The lower velo on the fastball is having a trickle-down effect on his changeup, too. When his fastball is at 90 and his changeup at 83, the hitters can cover both pitches.

They are hitting .415 with a .707 slug against his changeup.

“I’m just trying to figure it out,” Englert said. “It’s a one or two mph difference, but that’s good to have. It’s crazy when you are 90 vs. 92 (mph) how different it is in terms of swings-and-misses or when you get away with soft contact.”

Englert is 23. The Tigers took him out of the Texas Rangers’ organization in the Rule 5 draft. He’d been a starting pitcher up through their system, reaching Double A for three starts last season. So, 35 games into his big-league career, he’s having to adjust both to the level and the new role.

Mentally, he’s handled it extremely well. His body, though, is still adjusting.

“I’m used to pitching one day a week, throwing a bullpen one or two days before,” he said. “When I was starting, I had my routine down to a science. I knew how my arm was going to react. Now, I have to learn to be confident even if my arm doesn’t feel like it should.”

In a perfect world, the Tigers would send Englert back to Triple A and let him work things out — even let him rest his arm, if that’s what he needs. But, as a Rule 5 pick, he’d have to be offered back to the Rangers and then clear waivers if they didn’t want him back.

The Tigers would lose him.

“He’s figuring out how his body works,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s figuring out how to collect himself in the middle of the competition and focus the right amount between the biomechanics and the actual pitch. That’s probably his biggest challenge.”

Hinch came to the mound in the seventh inning Monday. There was nobody warming in the bullpen. He came out to set the defense, but also to give Englert a minute to regather. The Tigers had just cut the Phillies’ lead to 5-3. There were two on and nobody out and JT Realmuto was at the plate. Big spot.

Realmuto hit a 1-0 changeup — the second straight changeup Englert threw — into the gap for a two-run double.

“You’re trying to compete when you get on the mound,” Hinch said. “The last thing you want to do is be robotic and try to mimic any sort of work you’ve been doing. It’s not a time to work on things. It’s a time to execute and compete.

“That might be a challenge at this level. I see him putting in a lot of work to perfect his natural ability to throw strikes.”

Velocity, as Hinch has said a thousand times, is not the end-all, be-all for any pitcher. Execution and locating pitches in the right spots is paramount. But, extra velocity never hurts.

“The bottom line is, velocity helps create a wider margin for error,” Hinch said. “That’s really what it’s about. I’m not sure velo impacts hitters nearly as much in today’s game as it has previously. There is a huge percentage of guys throwing mid- to high-90s now. We see it all the time. Hitters can adapt.

“Would I like to see a couple of our guys, Mason included, add a tick or two (of velocity)? Sure. But, if we add a tick or two and still throw the ball in the middle of the plate, I’m not sure the results change.”

Free strikes

It wasn’t enough that Phillies starter Aaron Nola was completely dominating the Tigers Monday, with 12 strikeouts and allowing just one hit (Nick Maton’s three-run homer) in seven innings. He also got two punch-outs without having to throw the third strike.

Home plate umpire Junior Valentine called third-strike pitch-clock violations on both Eric Haase (in the second inning) and Andy Ibanez (in the sixth).

In both cases, Nola stayed off the rubber until the pitch clock wound down under 10 seconds. Both hitters straddled the batter’s box and, because Nola wasn’t set, they didn’t get set. Once the clock got inside eight seconds, it was a violation on the hitter.

“The hitter has to be set at eight seconds, no matter what,” Hinch said. “Nola was holding and staying off the rubber until he wanted to pitch. He can collect himself and pitch at five seconds, four seconds, whatever he wants. We were sort of mixed in the box.

“The pitcher doesn’t have to be engaged at eight seconds. The hitter does. We’re on our third month of this (the pitch-timer rules). It was a mistake by us.”

Anybody but Maton

Given their history together, Maton was probably the last guy in the Tigers’ lineup Nola wanted to lose his no-hitter to. Maton, of course, was part of the youth infusion that helped ignite the Phillies’ run to the World Series last season.

And, as has been well-documented, Maton’s non-stop energy and playful personality can be as exhausting as it is fun.

Which made Nola’s reaction to giving up the homer priceless.

“That was kind of a dagger, right? Especially because Maton hit it,” he told reporters after the game.

Then he was asked if he expects to hear about it from Maton:

“For the rest of my life,” he said.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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