The Tigers recent road trip to the West Coast provided a glimpse of what a playoff contender’s bullpen looks like. And it’s pretty impressive. The Oakland A’s have elbowed their way into the postseason picture not with a dominating rotation, but rather a hard-throwing, door-slamming bullpen.
The Tigers got a steady dose of Lou Trivino, Jeurys Familia, and Blake Treinen in the season series and the trio was impressive. The recent addition of Fernando Rodney makes the A’s pen even deeper. There is a distinct advantage that exists for a team that can trot multiple arms out of the bullpen that can throw high-90’s heat. It’s that bullpen that will give the A’s a shot this season.
The Tigers are in transition these days, but one look at the A’s pen is enough to make you dream of one day having the type of lock-down arms that reside in Oakland.
It’s no secret to Tigers fans that the bullpen has been a soft spot for the organization in recent years. Even the dominating Tigers teams of the last decade have struggled to close out games. The 2013 Tigers club was a great example. Perhaps the best Tigers team in decades was poised to take a 2-0 lead in the 2013 ALCS over the Boston Red Sox. Then Joaquin Benoit and David Ortiz happened. Ortiz hit a grand slam in the 8th inning of game 2 that turned the series on its head, and the sting has still not faded for Tigers fans.
Moving forward, the Tigers bullpen has some pieces to work with. Joe Jimenez appears to the be the closer of the near future. His velocity reaches the upper 90’s with a devastating slider. He is a given. But a new name is emerging as potentially another building block for the future. Victor Alcántara.
With a mid-90’s fastball that possesses good sink and a bag of tricks that also includes an above-average change-up and a slider, Alcántara has is serving notice that he intends to take advantage of his opportunity with an organization that is providing plenty of chances.
How did he get here?
Alcántara joined the Tigers in a November 2016 trade that sent outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels. It was a trade that garnered little attention based on the fact that he walked almost five batters per nine innings as an Angels farmhand and his ERA was almost 4.50. Moreover, Alcántara’s WHIP was an uninspiring 1.4.
Alcántara pitched at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo in his first season in the Tigers organization in 2017 and his inability to consistently throw strikes continued to badger him. His stuff was fine, his control was not. While the right-hander averaged about eight strikeouts per nine innings, he also averaged over five walks.
Then something funny happened at Toledo this season. Alcántara found his command. Walking under two batters per nine innings, his ability to throw strikes took him to a new level. When Michael Fulmer went on the disabled list in July, the Tigers recalled Alcántara from the minor leagues. This time he is ready to prove he belongs.
“The fear was always him not throwing it over (the plate),” Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s got that herky-jerky, wild wind-up and delivery, but he’s kind of mastered it. He’s got a great arm, he just needed to learn to throw strikes. With young pitchers like him, they just have to go out and pitch and learn how to get hitters out.”
It doesn’t hurt that Alcántara has been given the ball late in games. In the nine appearances he has made since his most recent call-up, five of them have come in the seventh inning or later. The fact that the Tigers are out of contention has made that an easier choice for Gardenhire, but Alcántara has responded. In 14.2 innings with the Tigers this year, his WHIP is under 1.00 and his ERA is 0.61. Just as critical is the control. Alcántara has walked only two batters this year, a marked improvement from his control issues of years past.
It’s all about opportunity these days for the Tigers and Alcántara is making sure he doesn’t let this chance walk on by.