Tommy Henry had a tough task in front of him, even for someone without the flu. He was the starting pitcher in the rubber game of the 2019 Michigan baseball team’s Super Regional series against UCLA, a team that hadn’t lost a weekend series all season.
Henry threw a seven-inning gem to eliminate the Bruins and secure the Wolverines a spot in the College World Series and followed it up with a complete game shutout over Florida State to move Michigan within a game of the championship series.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, of course, praised Henry for his role in these two wins. But Bakich attributed much of the Wolverines’ success to then-pitching coach Chris Fetter.
“I remember Chris being a masterful tactician and putting a game plan together,” Bakich said.
Henry was drafted 74th overall in the MLB draft that summer, separated from rotation-mate Karl Kauffmann by just three picks. Last Friday, Fetter followed his proteges into the big leagues, signing on as pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers. He leaves large shoes that will take several months and dozens of interviews to fill.
If Fetter’s success at Michigan and Bakich’s glowing review are any indication, the Tigers’ young group of pitchers will benefit significantly from a chance to work with him.
“He is one of the brightest pitching coaches in the world,” Bakich said, “and he has the unique ability to understand very advanced metrics and data and communicate them in a very simple way to the players.”
Bakich hired Fetter for those reasons at the end of the 2017 season. Fetter being a Michigan alumnus was a bonus, he said.
Since then, Fetter has combined his knowledge of the kinesiology of pitching with tactical and strategic brilliance to create healthy, successful pitchers and wins on the field.
Rather than hold pitchers to staff-wide standards of mechanics, Fetter figured out which delivery worked for each pitcher and went from there.
“We’ve looked more internally at what the players can physically do with the mobility and stability of the joints of their body,” Bakich said. “And then we take that information and help them create a delivery that is the most efficient, and the most repeatable.”
In his role as strategist, Fetter helped pitchers create game plans that exploited the weaknesses of opposing lineups. As a tactician, he called every pitch and helped Bakich make well-informed pitching changes.
“A lot of pitching coaches will call the game based on what they think should be thrown in that particular count or situation,” Bakich said. “And Chris was really good at calling the game based on what our pitchers can physically do, and what pitches they can execute, with pitches he knows they have the highest strike percentage with, to the highest strike percentage location. And he was really really good at combining all of that information with the opposing hitters’ strengths and weaknesses to help put our pitchers in a position to be successful.”
Bakich isn’t sure exactly what Fetter’s role on the Tigers will be — if he will have sovereignty over pitch-calling there, for example — but Fetter’s friendship with Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is a good sign that the two will communicate and cooperate. Such cooperation between Fetter and Bakich served the Wolverines very well.
“In college baseball, you shouldn’t have one coach operating on an island,” Bakich said. And with Fetter at his side, Bakich didn’t. Now the challenge is replicating that rapport with whoever comes next.
Bakich is considering around 20 candidates already to replace Fetter, and he said the list will probably grow to 50.
“(Fetter) was a huge pickup for our program,” Bakich said. “In order to do that again, it’s gonna be a slow process.”
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