Michigan baseball pitching coach Chris Fetter masters the numbers and the mind

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

OMAHA, Neb. — A TrackMan device was sitting in an office in the Michigan baseball department when Chris Fetter arrived, armed with information from one of the major leagues’ most advanced teams, two years before he would finally make it to Omaha.

Fetter was close before, part of U-M’s last closest team, in 2007, when they advanced to the Super Regionals in dramatic fashion. That year, Alan Oaks blasted the most forgetful pitch of David Price’s college career to upend No. 1 Vanderbilt in the regional final in Nashville.

After a diverse decade in baseball after that, Fetter is back in Ann Arbor, now in his second season as pitching coach, and credited with guiding the Wolverines’ pitchers to the College World Series, where they’re within a win of the finals.

“He’s one of the greatest minds in college baseball right now, especially when it comes to pitching,” sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell said. “I think his background with the Dodgers really took him to the next level.”

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Fetter, 33, returned to his alma mater two summers ago, after spending six months with the Dodgers as their minor-league pitching coordinator. Before that, he was the Ball State pitching coach for one season, and a professional scout with the Angels for three seasons.

Chris Fetter

Fetter is U-M's all-time innings pitched leader (332⅓). He was drafted in the ninth round by the Padres and after four unfruitful years in the minor leagues, stayed on board with the organization as a player-coach with the Double-A San Antonio, which was his unofficial beginning to coaching.

“To get a chance to come back home, it’s my alma mater, they trust me to come in with their pitchers,  I felt like this was a no-brainer,” Fetter said. “If it wasn’t Michigan, it wasn’t going to be any other program but Michigan. It was the only place I would have left the Dodgers for.”

Fetter thought he was well-versed on the analytical side of the game – until he joined the Dodgers. With L.A., he learned how to evaluate numbers with the most advanced technology, and has made that a focal point of the Wolverines’ pitching development.

Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter is the program's all-time leader in innings pitched.

At the time Fetter returned, U-M was in the final stages of readying the TrackMan, which measures things like spin rate and launch angle, after the legal red tape on how the information would be disseminated was unwrapped.

“With their arsenals, we just tried to build each individual player and just kind of iron those things out,” Fetter said. “Just help them understand who they are to a greater level.

“If I know what pitches I have that separate me from the average, then I should go out to the mound and be the most confident version of myself.”

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But a year after adapting analytics to the U-M staff, he spent time with pitching philosopher Alan Jaeger last offseason. What Fetter brought back can be summed up in the smile of Ben Keizer, who closed out U-M’s Super Regional-clinching win against No. 1 UCLA in a close situation.

After getting the Bruins out in order in the eighth, Keizer gave up a one-out single and then hit a batter. With runners on second and third base and two outs, he did not crumble under the pressure of the Wolverines’ first trip to the College World Series in 30 years on the line.

“A lot of our guys on staff talked about, ‘We gotta get better at the mental game,’ but what do you mean?” Fetter said. “You can tell a guy all the time, ‘Hey, you just gotta slow the game down,’ but we’re never really practicing how you gotta do that, you’re just barking at them.

“If we can control our thoughts and stay in the moment, it will benefit the team.”

Keizer is perhaps the team’s biggest beneficiary to the mental skills training Fetter has enacted, mainly in the form of meditation.

“Hands down,” Fetter said. “If you would have seen him last year, he’s a guy that wants to win – he wants to win for U-M so badly, it can almost be a negative he wants it so bad, that it impairs him.”

Now, Keizer will likely be counted on to get important outs going forward, as an experienced lefty on a shortened pitching staff, and has the confidence of pitching in the tightest of situations.

What began as a 10-minute pre-practice meditation session is now carried out by players on an individual basis, and was especially relied on by lefty Tommy Henry during his shutout win over Florida State on Monday night.

“It’s a direct correlation to having Coach Fetter working with me day-by-day,” Henry said. “I cannot stress enough how much I’ve learned from that guy. I sound like a broken record right now, but seriously, I mean every bit of it.

“I’ve learned so much and I think that’s helped with the consistency of that pitch and just the confidence that he feeds into everyone on the pitching staff and that trust-ability, being able to trust your stuff in any count and that’s all contributed.”

It were those principles of both the analytical and mental side of the game which Henry leaned on, something that Fetter didn’t know himself into this past offseason as he evolves in a young coaching career that could rise quickly.

Fetter has been presented with opportunities to jump to the major league level, but he is happier than ever at U-M, with his wife, Jessica, and the family welcoming a baby boy recently. And with his versatility in experience, he is one of head coach Erik Bakich’s most important people on staff in building a consistently strong staff.

“I would love to stay here for as long as they’ll have me,” Fetter said. “This is where I want to be. It’s a pretty special deal when you can walk around campus with a group and tell them all about your experiences there, know everything your players have been through – you’ve been in your shoes – and you understand the time commitment to the school and what it takes to play at a school at Michigan.”

And now, after coming so close as a player, Fetter finally knows what it’s like to get to Omaha.

Contact Anthony Fenech at afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.