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Seven months ago, Kyle Funkhouser made a career-changing decision in spring training.
Once a top starting pitching prospect, Funkhouser — now a reliever — had been optioned to Triple-A Toledo on March 12, a formality that made him one of the first two players eliminated from Opening Day roster considerations.
Just like that, manager AJ Hinch turned Funkhouser into a test case for the establishment of his winning culture. Roughly 20 days before Opening Day, Hinch called Funkhouser into his office at the Detroit Tigers' spring training complex in Lakeland, Florida.
"We were pretty hard on him in March," Hinch said. "All he did was wait for his opportunity, grab it and never give it back."
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Hinch offered the first of many honest assessments of player performance, telling Funkhouser that he was overweight and unprepared to compete. To get another chance, Funkhouser needed to attack his opponents by throwing strikes.
The conversation outlined Hinch's big-picture expectations for the 2021 Tigers.
"No one in that clubhouse has come further, from my first conversation sending him down in early March to where he is today, established as a huge bridge in the bullpen," Hinch said. "I'm really proud of his work. He took it very honestly and openly."
The 27-year-old got called up from Triple-A Toledo on May 6 and never went back. He spent most of the year pitching in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen, included in the same category as closer Gregory Soto, ex-starter Michael Fulmer, bounce-back veteran Jose Cisnero and, at the end of the season, rookie Alex Lange.
Funkhouser finished his second MLB season with a 3.42 ERA, 38 walks and 63 strikeouts over 68⅓ innings in 57 games (two starts).
It all started with a mindset change.
"At the end of the day, I was like, if I'm going to be not good enough, then I'm going to be not good enough in the (strike) zone. You know what I mean?" Funkhouser said. "Like, really try to be aggressive. If I'm not good enough to pitch in the big leagues, I'd rather be not good enough getting hit around. Then you can make adjustments and try to work on it. But if you're not throwing strikes, it's hard to make adjustments when you don't even know if your stuff really plays."
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Funkhouser has faced plenty of ups and downs, beginning with his MLB debut in July 2020. He completed his 13-game stint for the Tigers with a 7.27 ERA, 11 walks and 12 strikeouts over 17⅓ innings in the pandemic-shortened campaign that canceled the minor leagues.
"Getting the opportunity last year, that was my main thing," Funkhouser said. "I got the opportunity. I got to experience it. I came into camp maybe not as ready on the baseball side as I needed to be. But also, it's a new staff. They're here to win. I wasn't ready enough to meet their expectations."
Funkhouser's problem had been conveyed to him for years: He needed to throw more strikes. From the front office to the player development department, the Tigers always viewed his upside as an impact reliever in the big leagues.
"Once you see it come full circle, that's when it clicks," Funkhouser said. "That's how it was for me. Last year, everyone said, 'You have great stuff, just trust it in the zone.' And I kind of didn't. ... Coming up this year, it was like, OK, I did that last year. That happened."
After Funkhouser was optioned in spring training, he leaned on Dan Hubbs, then the Tigers' director of pitching development and strategies. Together, they set the foundation for Funkhouser's rapid maturation into an MLB-ready reliever.
"We started talking and dove into the numbers," Funkhouser said. "Just having a four-seam (fastball) is not a plus four-seam, but me having a sinker (also known as a two-seam fastball), which grades as an above-average sinker, makes the four-seam above-average because of the way the sinker moves versus the way the four-seamer moves. It's pretty different."
To better understand his sinker and four-seamer, Funkhouser threw them consecutively during bullpen sessions. He needed to feel and see the differences, before evaluating the analytics for confirmation of his results. He also shortened his arm path to sync his release points.
"The way you throw a sinker versus the way you throw a four-seamer, you just have different cues," Funkhouser said. "On my sinker, I just think to stay on top with my hand and my fingers. When I throw my sinker, I want my hand more on top of the ball. When I throw my four-seam, you want more of that riding effect."
The right-hander used more sinkers and sliders against right-handed hitters but more four-seamers and changeups against lefties this season, throwing a combined 40.3% sinkers in 2021 compared to 32.9% in 2020, as well as 21.8% four-seamers in 2021 compared to 28.8% in 2020.
Trusting the sinker helped Funkhouser successfully pitch down in the strike zone, and he kept his opponents guessing with an 87-mph slider and elevated four-seam fastball. Opponents hit .149 off the four-seamer and struck out 28 times. The slider also benefited from his refined sinker, producing a .215 opponent batting average, 18 strikeouts and a 44.4% swing-and-miss rate.
To reach this point, Funkhouser still had to throw strikes.
"It's first-pitch strikes and the race to two strikes," Funkhouser said. "1-2 versus 2-1, you could show me the numbers ... but it's like, how do you get there? It sounds a lot simpler, like just get to 1-2 instead of 2-1. Trusting your stuff, there's a lot of things that go into that. But yeah, it really comes down to execution."
Funkhouser threw first-pitch strikes at a 59.1% clip, better than his 54.3% in 2020. Although he had a concerning 12.8% walk rate, he was much better than league average at limiting hard hits (36.6%) and barrels (4.6%).
Despite Funkhouser's newfound understanding of his arsenal, his biggest development — growth in confidence — sparked his continued pursuit of attacking the strike zone. He now believes he is good enough to pitch in the big leagues.
To make sure he doesn't stumble, Funkhouser purchased a home in Tampa. He plans to spend the winter working out in Lakeland, roughly 35 miles from Tampa, where the Tigers will reconvene in mid-February to jumpstart another spring training.
This time, Funkhouser should be a lock to make the Opening Day roster.
"He's established himself as part of this bullpen moving forward," Hinch said. "His reliability and his calmness really showed through since the beginning of the season."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Detroit Tigers' Kyle Funkhouser was pushed by internal criticism