Scott Harris smiled and answered the question with a joke. “I don’t know if you guys noticed,” Harris said, “but we pay attention to waivers.”
The Detroit Tigers, as expected, were paying attention to the waiver wire in mid-February when the Arizona Diamondbacks removed left-hander Tyler Holton from their 40-man roster. The Tigers claimed Holton off waivers, and the rest is history.
“We’re always trying to find ways to get better,” continued Harris, who recently completed his first full season as the franchise’s president of baseball operations. “The combination of the pure stuff, the strike throwing and the deception that he had in Arizona is what really intrigued us initially, and he got a lot better here.”
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Tigers pitcher Tyler Holton throws against the Braves during the fifth inning of the first game of the doubleheader at Comerica Park on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Holton, whom the Tigers promoted from Triple-A Toledo in mid-April to replace struggling reliever Garrett Hill, posted a 2.11 ERA with 18 walks and 74 strikeouts over 85⅓ innings in 59 games out of the Tigers’ bullpen in the 2023 season.
He threw 93 innings (in 63 games) over his time with the Mud Hens and Tigers.
He had a 7.04 ERA in Toledo.
“I was looking at the Triple-A innings, and I was like, ‘Dang, I had a 7 ERA,'” Holton said. “I was doing horrible, but I have the same mindset that I did back then, to put up zeros. Go out there, grind, put up zeros and help our team win the game. That mindset never changes. But yeah, I definitely surprised myself.”
The Tigers claimed Holton for multiple reasons, but his ability to command the entire strike zone with five pitches — which turned into six pitches following the addition of a slider — allowed him to attack all types of hitters in different ways.
His 5.6% walk rate ranked seventh among 44 left-handed pitchers (and 24th among 172 total pitchers) with at least 80 innings. His 2.11 ERA ranked No. 1 among those 172 pitchers, ahead of Blake Snell (2.25) and Clayton Kershaw (2.25).
For Holton, the primary attribute that separates him from other relief pitchers stems from a mantra he learned in college, from 2016-18, at Florida State: “Any pitch, any time, any count, throwing three pitches for strikes.”
The slogan, abbreviated to AAA 3-4K, was preached by former Florida State pitching coach Mike Bell. Since then, Holton has added three more pitches to his repertoire.
“He is the true definition of a pitcher,” said Bell, now Pitt’s head coach. “His ability to attack the strike zone has allowed him to have success. A lot of people looked at him like he’s not a big-league pitcher. No, he’s a professional pitcher, and he’s a damn good one.”
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FILE – In this June 12, 2016, file photo, Florida State pitcher Tyler Holton (14) throws for Florida State in an NCAA super regional baseball game against Florida, in Gainesville, Fla. Holton is a major reason why the Seminoles are in the Super Regional for the third staight year. (AP Photo/Ronald Irby, File)
In 2023, Holton threw six different pitches: 27.9% four-seam fastballs, 22.5% changeups, 19.3% cutters, 14.3% sliders, 12.3% sinkers and 3.6% curveballs. His four-seam fastball averaged 91.5 mph but limited opponents to a .178 batting average.
With the Tigers, Holton added a slider, learned to sequence his pitches and used his body to create deception. He had the foundation built, and then the Tigers optimized him.
“What we were learning at school was that you need to have confidence to throw three pitches for strikes,” Holton said. “It’s no longer three pitches for me, but whatever pitch it is, I need to be able to throw it at any time in any count.”
Another thing Holton learned from Bell: “You don’t have to throw a strike to get a strike.” That meant Holton didn’t need to live within the confines of the strike zone and could get strikes in many ways, including an out-of-zone chase, a foul ball or an in-zone called strike.
Doug Drabek, a former National League Cy Young winner and the pitching coach for Triple-A Reno in the Diamondbacks’ organization, watched Holton learn by trial and error under his instruction with Reno in 2022 and Double-A Amarillo in 2021.
The walks weren’t an issue, but he kept giving up hits.
Holton learned a sinker and a cutter from Drabek during their two seasons together in the Diamondbacks’ organization. He implemented both pitches because he needed to protect his low-velocity fastball.
“It was all there, but he needed to learn, at times, how to waste a pitch for the next pitch to be an out pitch,” Drabek said. “The control was there, but he was giving up too many hits.”
Holton allowed 11.5 hits per nine innings in 2021 and 7.9 hits per nine innings in 2022, compared to a much-improved 5.9 hits per nine innings with the Tigers in 2023.
Something changed during his time with the Tigers.
“You don’t have to throw a strike to get a strike,” Holton said. “Sometimes, you have to learn the hard way. It’s reading hitters’ tendencies. It changes batter to batter, day to day.”
Learning the slider
A key change occurred in spring training. That’s when the Tigers — pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coaches Robin Lund and Juan Nieves — helped Holton develop an above-average slider for the first time in his career.
The southpaw tinkered with a slider in the offseason, and even considered tweaking his cutter, because he needed a swing-and-miss pitch against left-handed hitters.
“It was definitely a progression,” Holton said. “I wanted to go away from it and forget about it. I thought about going back to my curveball and then trying to make my cutter bigger. But I didn’t really have that much success against lefties with that philosophy last year, so we kept trying to change the grip.”
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Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Tyler Holton throws a pitch during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, March 8, 2023.
Holton tried four or five different slider grips.
He regained confidence in the lengthy process during a session with Triple-A Toledo bullpen catcher Nate Alter in early April. Holton remembers throwing six sliders in the dirt before one of them hit the glove with the optimal movement.
Upon joining the Tigers in mid-April, Lund explained the concept of “seam-shifted wake” and tweaked Holton’s grip again. (The Tigers hired Lund, a former kinesiology professor, in November 2022.)
“I hadn’t heard of (seam-shifted wake) until this season,” Holton said. “Finally, I had one bullpen where I had a lot of confidence and was able to execute it four or five times. The coaches were like, ‘All right, we’ll give it another week before you use it in games.’ I threw it in the game one time because I had a leverage count where I could expand. That’s when I knew I could do this.”
Opponents hit just .135 with two extra-base hits off Holton’s slider in the 2023 season. He threw 164 of his 171 sliders to left-handed hitters and 254 of his 269 changeups to right-handed hitters.
The slider generated a 37.8% whiff rate.
Implementing a dominant slider into Holton’s repertoire is an example of the Tigers’ new strategy to find wins in the margins by improving undervalued depth players.
“The slider that he is throwing now has a lot more sweep than it had before,” Harris said.
The Harris way
Harris has claimed 17 players off waivers — but none since late August — since the Tigers hired him in September 2022 to lead the baseball operations department.
David Rodriguez brings the excitement of Major League Baseball to readers. With a deep appreciation for America’s pastime, he covers the latest MLB news, scores, and player achievements, keeping fans up to date with their favorite teams and players.