Why Detroit Tigers' new pitching coach bridges gap between new- and old-school
It started with a text message.
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch flew from Texas to Michigan on Oct. 28, the morning after the World Series' conclusion marked the end of his year-long MLB suspension. Upon his arrival, he strolled into Comerica Park for two days of meetings and interviews with general manager Al Avila.
At the end of his first night in town, Hinch checked his phone.
There was a text message from Chris Fetter, Michigan baseball's pitching coach: "Welcome to Michigan. Excited if this is a possibility for you to Detroit."
Hinch became the Tigers' manager on Oct. 30.
One week later, Hinch landed a "very big piece to the puzzle" by adding Fetter as his pitching coach. Once Hinch was hired, he made Fetter his top target, explaining to Avila that he needed the 34-year-old pitching expert by his side.
"For us to be good, and for us to get where we want to get to and where Al has directed the organization, we got to get the pitching right," Hinch said Friday. "We got a lot better today."
Together, Hinch and Fetter will attempt to return the franchise to the top of baseball's hierarchy. The process began with Fetter's agreement to develop the Tigers' young arms.
When the Tigers tabbed Hinch — a World Series champion — to take leadership of the clubhouse, their intentions became clear: Move quickly to get the team into the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
And Fetter's assessment is correct.
The pieces are there. The foundation of a strong coaching staff is underway. The money to make splashes in free agency, with only Miguel Cabrera's $30 million guaranteed for 2021, seems ready to be used.
But the rebuild — and its "building stage," as Avila coined in his interview with Hinch — won't reach its maximum potential without a consistently dominant starting rotation.
With the Tigers' rotation posting a 6.37 ERA in the shortened 2020 season, there's a long way to go. The plan is for Fetter to mix his analytical and player development knowledge to speed up the task.
"I'm invested in it," Hinch, a former big-league catcher, said. "I love talking pitching, and that's why the connection between Chris and me is super strong. That common belief that it starts with the man on the mound and the game plan hours before the man gets on the mound."
Although Fetter often focuses on analytical developments, he doesn't consider himself a new-school coach. Yet he isn't willing to describe himself as an old-school coach, either. Rather, he said he is trying to always change for the better.
Fetter doesn't believe in labels, but he admits he had a head start on what many people consider "old school." As a first-year coach in 2013 for Double-A San Antonio (in the San Diego Padres organization), he learned how to communicate and build relationships with players. Pitching coach Jimmy Jones and manager Rich Dauer, two coaches Fetter feels forever indebted to, took him under their wing.
When Fetter went to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016 as their minor-league pitching coordinator, he discovered in-depth analytics. He will use a healthy combination of both aspects — trusting pitchers in high-pressure moments and making choices because of the numbers — with the Tigers.
"I never want to be labeled the new-school guy or the progressive guy or be in the same boat here in 30 years as the old-school guy," Fetter said. "Everyone's consistently evolving."
Fetter combined the two approaches successfully as Michigan's pitching coach from 2018-20. He worked wonders for the Wolverines, as they advanced to the 2019 College World Series championship series and produced multiple numerous MLB draft picks.
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Under Fetter's leadership, right-hander Jeff Criswell — a 35th-round pick by the Tigers out of high school in 2017 — elevated his game and was taken No. 58 overall (second round) by the Oakland Athletics in June.
He was U-M's highest draft pick since 2000.
And Fetter's acknowledgment of analytics and relationship-building had quite a bit to do with that.
"We all learn a different way, so it's trying to meet them on their wavelength," Fetter said, "trying to come up with every single solution. Again, it's very individualized."
Tigers add three more coaches
Along with Fetter's hire, the Tigers added Juan Nieves as the assistant pitching coach. He has served as Triple-A Toledo's pitching coach for the last two seasons, so he knows the farm system.
Nieves will spend his time with the relievers, but Hinch said he plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between Fetter and former pitching coach Rick Anderson.
"Cornering him up with Juan Nieves is an incredible tandem because of the experience and the type of person that Juan is," Hinch said. "He has been a pitching coach before. That tandem is really the target we had the first week on the job."
Also, Hinch is retaining third base coach Ramon Santiago and quality control coach Josh Paul. They are the only members from former manager Ron Gardenhire's staff returning to the Tigers; Hinch will hire his own bench coach, hitting coach and others.
"But we do owe a lot of gratitude to the staff before us that laid the foundation for all of these hires," Hinch said, "whether it's Chris Fetter, Juan Nieves, obviously Ramon and Josh coming back, and the new staff moving forward."