OAKLAND, Calif. — Brenan Hanifee doesn't throw a four-seam fastball.
Hanifee, a new right-handed reliever with the Detroit Tigers, tossed 90⅓ innings for Triple-A Toledo — splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen — before his big-league promotion, but the most common pitch in baseball isn't an active ingredient in his four-pitch mix.
"I tried to throw a four-seamer in 2017," Hanifee said Thursday, hours before his MLB debut. "It was my primary fastball, and it didn't do very well. The way some things line up for me, it's not really in the cards."
Hanifee throws four pitches: sinker, cutter, slider and changeup.
The sinker and changeup are his best pitches. The 25-year-old tries to make the sinker and changeup look as similar as possible for as long as possible. Once those pitches break, the difference in velocity — sinker at 93 mph, changeup at 88 mph — creates effectiveness, as long as they're delivered similarly.
"I'm trying to get four pretty good ones," said Hanifee, a 2016 fourth-round pick who pitched in the Baltimore Orioles' organization from 2017-22. "I'm going to need them at some point, probably pretty soon. It's just a learning experience for me as I face better hitters."
His best attribute, though, is throwing strikes.
He has below-average strikeout rates but above-average walk rates in his professional career.
"Pound the zone, throw strikes and keep the ball on the ground," Hanifee said. "I try to pitch as deep into the game if I'm starting or give us as much length out of the bullpen as I can. I'm kind of old-school in that way. I don't have a ton of punch-outs, but I feel like I can get one when I need one. I pride myself on throwing strikes and giving as much length as possible."
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The Tigers, under president of baseball operations Scott Harris, signed Hanifee to a minor-league contract in December 2022. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2021, returned to competitive games in June 2022 and finished his final season with the Orioles in Double-A Bowie.
Hanifee jumped to Triple-A with the Tigers.
"Last year, I was coming off Tommy John," Hanifee said. "Those outings were about being healthy. To make the jump to Triple-A, it was different and challenging at times, but with the people around me — the resources and everything — I adjusted some things and came up with a good plan to have success."
The key adjustments were cleaning up his mechanics, improving individual pitches and creating swing-and-miss potential while maintaining his natural style as a ground-ball pitcher.
Hanifee joined the Tigers (and the 40-man roster) before Wednesday's series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, but didn't pitch. He replaced left-hander Tarik Skubal and pitched the final two innings in Thursday's 7-3 win over the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum.
His MLB debut wasn't perfect, a result of Brent Rooker's two-run home run as part of Oakland's three-run ninth inning, but there were a couple of noteworthy successes: Hanifee threw 29 of 38 pitches for strikes, mixed all four of his pitches and struck out two batters in a three-up, three-down eighth inning.
"First homer to an All-Star," Tiger manager A.J. Hinch said. "He's got power, and when he made a mistake, he made him pay. ... We'll get him back in there and continue to chip away at the nerves and some of the firsts that he's got to get out of the way. First punchout is out of the way, and first homer given up. A guy like Rooker isn't a bad guy to put on the mantel, if you keep track of those things."
First big league strikeout for Brenan Hanifee 💪 pic.twitter.com/nXJAx5lXyt
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) September 22, 2023
Hanifee logged his first strikeout against Seth Brown, a left-handed pinch-hitter, for the second out in the eighth inning. He caught him looking at a sixth-pitch 94.6 mph sinker at the top of the strike zone.
The next batter, left-handed pinch-hitter Ryan Noda, fell behind 0-2 in the count on back-to-back whiffs from Hanifee's cutter and changeup. Hanifee then struck him out looking at a fifth-pitch cutter on the inside part of the strike zone.
The ninth inning got away from him, but the eighth showcased the upside of a pitcher the Tigers have been working with since spring training. Hanifee should pitch at least three more times before the end of the season.
"He's been on the radar for a while, and he's healthy," Hinch said. "With our bullpen, we felt like the length that he could provide was important for us. ... The strike-throwing is going to be super key for him. This is the only level he hasn't been tested. The stuff is good enough. Now, he needs opportunity."
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers pitcher Brenan Hanifee makes MLB debut out of bullpen