One of the recurring themes of this year’s Detroit Tigers are the young players stepping up. Five of the team’s ten leaders in WAR are rookies. While Akil Baddoo, Derek Hill, Jake Rogers, Eric Haase, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal’s success has been recognized locally, relief pitcher Kyle Funkhouser has fallen under the radar.
Funkhouser has been one of the Detroit Tigers’ most reliable bullpen arms all season and has made great strides since debuting in the 2020s shortened season. Despite pitching a small sample size of 17 innings last year, there are a lot of numbers to suggest a small change in approach in 2021 has led to a big increase in production.
Kyle Funkhouser’s mechanics
What Kyle Funkhouser does better than anything is eliminate his opponent’s power. This season he’s allowed 0.5 HR/9 while holding batters to a 10% HR/FB and .320 XSLG. He attacks hitters low in the zone with two different 96 mph fastballs, a slider, and a changeup.
His primary fastball is his sinker, which he keeps down and away from hitters. With him locating the four-seam up and in, these pitches tunnel well. The sinker has 40% more drop than the four-seam and 97% more arm-side run. The subtle difference in movement is hard to decipher from a hitter’s perspective.
This has led to an impressive 60% groundball rate on the year for Funkhouser.
When he needs a strikeout, Funkhouser often relies on his slider. To lefties, he uses a changeup that mimics the sinker. The 89-mph changeup also has 37% more drop than the sinker with similar arm-side run. The arm side run of his sinker/changeup tunnels well with the ride of his 4-seam and cut of his slider.
Funkhouser has had good stuff since his college days in Louisville, but it didn’t come together for him right away at the big-league level. In 2019 he struggled in AAA with an 8.53 ERA and a 7.67 BB/9. But a 4.89 FIP and a .396 BABIP suggested maybe Funkhouser had some bad luck in Toledo.
The Tigers seemed to have thought so and brought him up for the shortened 2020 season.
Funkhouser has since overhauled his approach to better suit his style of pitches. He’s now throwing his sinker 43% of the time, compared to 33% in 2020, and lowered his four-seam usage from 29% in 2020 to 19% in 2021.
This increased usage of the sinker has allowed Funkhouser to work lower in the zone than last year and has brought his sweet spot % from 40% down to 21%. Compare his heat chart from 2020 to 2021 and the difference is subtle, but the results are vastly improved. So far this year he has a 3.04 ERA, over 50.1 IP, with a 6 – 1 record.
Funkhouser’s biggest problem in 2021 has been walks. His 4.6 BB/9 is concerning for a high leverage reliever. It’s an improvement from 5.7 BB/9 in 2020 but leaves a lot to be desired. This has been a problem for Funkhouser since his days in the minors, but he seems to be headed in the right direction with it.
Funkhouser is full of potential and a bright spot in an improving Detroit Tigers bullpen. Manager AJ Hinch knows Funkhouser has the potential to be at the back of the Tigers pen for years to come and has subsequently put him on load management alongside Skubal and Mize.
Hinch is smart not to overwork his team’s young arms. 2021 has been a successful season for the team, but by no means is it the end goal. If the Detroit Tigers want their young pitchers to thrive keeping them healthy is quintessential.