For a team whose bullpen was often the source of woe in their last great era, the Detroit Tigers have developed quite a few high end relievers recently. The latest is right-hander Jason Foley. With Joe Jimeñez and Gregory Soto traded, Alex Lange was the top choice in the bullpen to start the year, and for two months Lange dominated with his curveball. However Lange’s struggles in June have Foley and his overpowering sinker finally getting their due as he’s taken his performance to a new level this season.
The basic hitting paradigm is don’t chase and drive the ball in the air. The 27-year-old Foley has the antidote to both goals. You can’t wait on him and hope to get ahead in the count. He doesn’t walk many hitters, forces them to swing the bat early in counts, and yet hitters cannot do damage against him because it’s so hard to lift his sinker. Last September, Foley allowed two home runs about a week apart. Otherwise, he hasn’t allowed another home run since June of 2021.
It’s hard to beat a guy like that late in a game. The adrenaline is flowing, but you can’t be aggressive. Hacking at Foley’s 97 mph bowling ball is futile. The Tigers positioning is good, the catchers know where to locate pitches to get ground balls into the defense, and the club can run out a pretty good infield defense on either side of Báez.
The only clear plan to beat him is to spray a single or two around, generate traffic, and try to get him to make a mistake with a slider or changeup. Hopes for a walk or a bloop and a blast are almost non-existent right now. Hitters know they’re getting the sinker because Foley throws it 70 percent of the time. There’s no need to be cute. He’s just going to fire these death sinkers all around the zone and you’re more likely to shatter your bat than drive the baseball out of the infield.
Foley doesn’t rack up that many strikeouts, sitting at 21.6 percent this season, though up almost five percent from his 2022 mark, but his walk rate is only five percent. That ratio is plenty good enough when you can sustain some of the lowest fly ball rates in the game. Foley’s 21.8 percent fly ball rate allowed is 12th best among all major league relievers. By all measures, Foley is up there with Baltimore’s Yennier Cano and Toronto’s Tim Mayza among the top sinkerball heavy relievers in the game today.
Jason Foley 2021-2022
So, for a year and a half now, Foley has been a good reliever, and he’s taken it to a new level through three months of the 2023 season. He’s currently 11th in fWAR among relievers after ranking 64th in 2022. The improvement has been the strikeout rate this year, while maintaining his typically elite walk rate and giving up exactly zero home runs.
It’s a pretty simple approach overall. Foley has a little deception in his delivery, his extension to the plate is above average, and his sinker has more depth and run than most. Add in good velocity and comfort using it up and in rather than just pounding the bottom of the zone, and you’ve got a really effective fastball despite the lack of whiffs. Otherwise his tool kit consists of a pretty good changeup that he’ll even sneak in right-on-right occasionally, and a mediocre slider than is really just a change of pace pitch with a terrible whiff rate of just 14.8 percent. He’s not fooling anyone here. He’s just moving that sinker all around and that is enough as long as you integrate location and defensive positioning well.
Foley is also one of the best and earliest examples of the good area scouting for pitching in out of the way places, a relative strength of Al Avila’s scouting department. Before Wilmer Flores, Beau Brieske, or Brendan White, Foley was signed as an undrafted free agent after pitching for Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Not a hotbed of major league talent previously, Foley was teammates with Zack Short there, and they were reunited when the Tigers acquired Short from the Cubs in 2020. Cody Stavenhagen wrote a pretty good piece about their friendship and journey to the big leagues for The Athletic recently.
In fact, Short was optioned from Detroit to Toledo the same day Foley was called up for his major league debut on June 6, 2021 against the Chicago White Sox. A.J. Hinch gave Short the bad news, then asked if he wanted to stick around a day to see Foley’s debut. They make for a cool story from a small northeastern university with no significant history as a baseball program.
Would the Tigers trade Foley?
This is obviously the crucial question about nearly all Tigers pitchers right now. Are they going to buy, sell, or have a pretty quiet trading season in July? Certainly some of this depends on what happens during the next few weeks. Should the Tigers go on a run, the equation changes, but right now this looks like a team that will make a few small deals and otherwise stand pat to see what happens if they get healthy and hot in the second half in a weak division.
With Jason Foley, you’d think the Tigers would value him pretty highly. For a contender in a small home ballpark, Foley could be uniquely valuable, and it doesn’t depend on a whole lot of finesse. He’s had a UCL reconstruction before, back in 2018 , but he’s been durable for several years now. If you worry about breaking balls being too hard on the arm, Foley is probably a better bet to stay healthy than Alex Lange throwing a high 80’s slurve, for example. Foley is closing in on his 28th birthday and not a free agent until 2028. So there isn’t really a rush if Scott Harris can’t get a prospect he really likes for him.
Obviously the Tigers need offensive help, and the one strength they have to deal from is their pitching staff. But if you can’t get a top 100 level prospect for him, or a hitter the front office just loves who hasn’t quite hit that level yet, trading Foley doesn’t make a lot of sense. They got Justyn-Henry Malloy for a year of Joe Jimeñez last offseason. They’ve got to do better for four years of Foley with two options remaining.
The Tigers obviously need a legitimate top prospect or young MLB caliber position player to add to the mix. Acquiring the best hitter possible in that category is the priority over the next year and the key theme of the trading season as well as the upcoming offseason. It’s highly unlikely that the Tigers are going to draw that player for relief help, unless it’s in some kind of package deal where the club sends a starter with one of their relievers as the kicker.
The likeliest scenario is that the Tigers trade some of their bullpen arms, but probably not the top tier ones. They’ve shown the ability to develop some talent in the bullpen each year under Chris Fetter, and they retain plenty of good arms who could turn into good relievers with some refinement. Relievers being as unpredictable as they are, with all the injury risk of any pitcher, it makes sense to try to move a few guys in smaller deals. It’s just hard to foresee a major trade that sends Lange or Foley out of Detroit. It’s tough to acquire major league ready hitting talent for pitching at the deadline. The teams looking for pitching can’t afford to give up their bats, unless they’re prospects not ready to contribute yet.
The way he’s pitching, the Tigers better make a team pay through the nose to poach Foley in the coming weeks. Don’t expect that to happen. As they get healthy on the pitching side, they will likely choose to make a few small trades and move a few arms, but I wouldn’t anticipate a major trade until perhaps in the offseason.