Kyle Funkhouser’s move to the bullpen feels like a last resort for the Detroit Tigers pitcher in 2020
The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Kyle Funkhouser as a compensatory first-round pick in 2015, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement and Funkhouser would return to Louisville for his senior season. A year later, the Tigers felt they got a steal when they were able to snatch him in a fourth round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
Funkhouser took the template trip through the minors early in his career. After getting drafted, he pitched rookie ball exclusively for Connecticut. In 2017, he started in Low-A West Michigan and got a late-season promotion to High-A Lakeland where he dazzled in 5 starts; pitching to a 1.72 ERA and striking out 34 batters in 31.1 innings.
The second half was not so fruitful. He would start 2018 in Double-A Erie and showed consistent performance there. He would get promoted to Toledo but only made a couple starts that year before a freak foot injury yielded a shutdown. Early in 2019, he would go on the injured list again with a right shoulder impingement, which would put him back down to Lakeland on rehabilitation.
The Illinois native would work his way back up to Toledo in 2019 and with multiple injuries to Detroit’s starting rotation, he looked like a serious call-up candidate mid-season. Funkhouser would struggle, though, and his performance has come to a screeching halt in Toledo, Ohio.
After averaging somewhere between 1.7-4.5 walks per nine innings through every level in his minor league career, the wheels came off when he wore the Mud Hens uniform. He allowed 64 walks in 72 innings for Toledo–good for 8.8 walks per nine innings. Fascinatingly, however, he maintained his strikeout rate even with the walks; averaging exactly a strikeout per inning in Triple-A.
Pitchers struggled across the board in Triple-A in 2019, but not for the reasons Funkhouser struggled. MLB had decided to go into the season that the Triple-A affiliates would use the MLB baseball to create uniformity for players and to help give clarity to teams who are trying to evaluate their prospects. The results were as expected: a massive jump in home runs and overall offensive production for hitters, as JJ Cooper of Baseball America researched thoroughly here. Interestingly, Kyle Funkhouser only gave up 3 home runs over the 72 innings he had thrown in Triple-A.
The Tigers announced this spring that Funkhouser would be working exclusively out of the bullpen but that their intent was to keep him stretched out as a possible long-relief option. Having relievers that can pitch multiple innings can incredibly valuable; especially early in the season where teams are being more conservative with their pitchers. Considering the Tigers do not have this type of role filled at the big league level, it is worth giving Funkhouser a shot at the opportunity, especially considering the crowded rotations that are starting to push him and others out.
Initially, I did not endorse the idea of keeping Funkhouser stretched out as a long-reliever. On paper, Funkhouser has the reliever mentality and I felt his fastball would really play up if he only had to pitch an inning at a time. The more I look at the numbers, though, the more I understand Detroit’s decision.
There is reason to believe the issue with his walks an odd outlier given the totality of his minor league career. If it was, this season could play out completely different. Look for him to begin in Toledo to get adjusted to the life of being a relief arm; but in entering his age-26 season, Detroit will assuredly give him a chance in the majors to find out what they really have for the future.