Ever since Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Tigers would be listening to offers on their relievers, I’ve been scouring the Detroit bullpen for arms who could help the Yankees. Rosenthal picked out three relievers by name — Joe Jiménez, Gregory Soto, and Alex Lange — and over the last week or so, I’ve attempted to analyze what the three could bring to New York. I’ve already covered Jiménez and Soto, so today I’d like to talk about the pitcher who I find to be the most intriguing of the trio, but who may also be the most difficult to acquire.
2022 Stats: 71 games, 63.1 IP, 3.69 ERA (111 ERA+), 3.29 FIP, 30.3% K%, 11.4% BB%, 0.7 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Projected to earn near league minimum in second of three years of pre-arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2027 season.
The Cubs drafted Lange out of LSU with the 30th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft and traded him to the Tigers as part of the package that returned Nick Castellanos at the 2019 trade deadline. It was quickly apparent as he progressed through the minors that sticking as a starting pitcher was not in the cards thanks to at best shaky command, but the elite raw tools at his disposal suggested a future as a high-leverage reliever.
That’s exactly what he developed into across his first two seasons in the bigs, becoming the most-used reliever by the Tigers last season and the strikeout specialist behind setup man Jiménez and closer Soto. He threw 35.2 innings of 4.04 ERA relief in his debut season before making the jump in usage and effectiveness in 2022, breaching the 30 percent strikeout rate threshold while cutting his home run rate almost in half.
I feel Lange is the perfect fit for the Yankees’ pitching culture. The analytically-minded 27-year-old has a deep understanding of what causes his pitches to behave the way that they do, and he’s always in the lab looking for ways to maximize the effectiveness of his offerings. He realized his four-seamer was not getting the results he wanted in 2021, so he lowered his release point to flatten out the pitch’s vertical approach angle. He also realized that because he didn’t have top-end spin rate on his curveball, he needed to find other avenues to improve the pitch including tinkering with different spin axes until the ideal one emerged.
What’s interesting is that Lange made drastic changes to his pitch usage from 2021 to 2022. In 2021, he was throwing the four-seamer almost half the time with the curveball as the main putaway pitch — in 2022 he almost completely ditched the four-seamer, exchanging in a sinker while throwing the curveball almost half the time and an underrated changeup (56 percent whiff rate) about 20 percent of the time. As a result, he saw his groundball rate soar from 44.2 percent in 2021 to 55.6 percent in 2022, while the xwOBA against his curveball dropped from .305 to .233.
Lange’s curveball is unquestionably his best pitch. At 57.8 percent, his hook induced the third-highest whiff rate of any curveball in baseball. It has negligible side-to-side sweep of the kind we saw spread across the Yankees’ pitching room, but this is a feature and not a bug. Lange focuses on staying as much over the top of his curveball as possible to give it the truest 12-to-6 motion he can. This allows the spin to mirror that of his four-seamer, making pitch identification a near-impossible task. It also allows the curveball to tunnel with his fastball for longer toward the plate, giving the hitter less time to react when their movements finally diverge.
It is for this reason that I find it a bit strange that he ditched the four-seamer for the sinker. The four-seamer seemed to sync much better with his curveball, and he showed an aptitude for improving the pitch in the lab. The uptick in groundballs that accompanied the sinker’s introduction is always welcome, but I feel there is a happy medium between the two pitches. Perhaps Lange could throw both at roughly the same rate the way that Michael King and Alek Manoah do and try to maximize the difference in movement profiles between the two pitches such that they function as two distinct offerings and not variations on the same fastball.
The one thing holding Lange back is his cantankerous relationship with command. He walked 11.4 percent of batters faced, which was actually up a point and a half from the season prior. He also led the league in wild pitches with 16, but that comes with the territory of throwing a nasty hammer curve. We’ve seen the way the Yankees unlocked Clay Holmes by helping him find the zone on a more consistent basis, and I’d be interested to see if they could do the same with Lange.
Teams typically do not center rebuilds around late-inning relievers regardless of how dominant they may be. However, Lange is under team control for so long that the Tigers would be justified in holding on while waiting for their window of contention to open years down the line. That being said, all those years of team control elevate Lange’s trade value this offseason, and each year that goes by subtracts from the potential return he could demand (and also gives him time to potentially regress). Any team that acquires him would have him for five seasons, so even though he’s a reliever, one can imagine it would take at least one of your top organizational prospects to pry him from Detroit. That may turn out to be too steep a price for the Yankees, but they’d be foolish not to at least check on the availability of a reliever who fits their pitching model to a T.