On Saturday, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox played a doubleheader in Chicago. Detroit promoted right-handed pitcher Buck Farmer to the majors as its 26th man, and the plan was to start him for the nightcap.
Everything went as expected. The White Sox beat the Tigers, 3-0, in Game 1. Farmer took the hill to start Game 2, and the first pitch of the afternoon was delivered at 4:49 pm local time.
What was not expected, though, was Farmer’s brilliant performance. He threw 6 1⁄3 innings, allowed just three hits and struck out 11 while walking two. In his spot start, Farmer struck out more batters than any Tigers pitcher had done in any single outing all season. It was a Major League career-high in strikeouts for Farmer, albeit not a professional high (he fanned 12 playing Class-A ball in 2014). After the game, the Tigers optioned Farmer back to Triple-A Toledo.
It surely sounds like a fluke that a career minor leaguer with less than 80 innings of big league experience has a game like this, but Farmer’s 2017 start was unlike any other. He generated 21 swings-and-misses in his 103 pitches, tied for the fourth-most among any major league pitcher this season, with the likes of Max Scherzer and Chris Sale.
While it could be too soon to tell, is it possible Farmer is doing something different?
The top GIF is from Farmer’s first career Major League start in 2014; the second is from yesterday’s start. To me, there’s no real noticeable differences in his windup. It’s a jerky movement — but, hey, whatever works, right?
Since Farmer has not made any significant windup changes, his dominant start on Saturday must have been due to something else: his pitches.
Farmer has an interesting repertoire on the mound. He throws a fastball, a slider, and two changeups. One of his changeups is a traditional type, which is significantly slower than his fastball and moves downward. His other changeup is more like a two-seam fastball — it hovers in the low-90s, but it has more downward action than a traditional two-seamer. This can be a headache for pitch tracking systems when determining what pitch he is throwing, and many consider it to be a two-seam fastball or a sinker. Farmer himself calls it a changeup, so we will go with that.
Here is a look at both pitches from Saturday. First, the hard changeup.
Now, the softer one.
Farmer seemingly had both pitches working. All of his 21 whiffs came on either of those, according to Baseball Savant. But, if Farmer has had those two pitches since his rookie year (it was discussed that he had them during his debut outing), then why has he not looked so good until yesterday?
It’s really hard to know. We’re judging Farmer off one start, but if his pitches aren’t different and his windup isn’t different, then there’s a high probability that this one outing was a lucky one, however dominant he may have been. There is one more thing that we can look at this year, though: his minor league stats.
We can’t tell if Farmer has changed based upon one big league appearance. But, we can dig into his minor league game logs to see if anything has truly changed.
This season, Farmer has made nine starts at Triple-A Toledo. He’s thrown 54 2⁄3 innings to a 4.12 ERA and a 54-to-10 K/BB ratio. These numbers are solid, but they are not the same overpowering stats that we saw him post at the major league level just Saturday.
It is worth mentioning, though, that his 3.11 FIP at Toledo is the lowest of his Triple-A career, but it’s not significantly lower than the 3.27 mark he posted at the same level just two years ago. Since the K/BB has remained the same, we can conclude that Farmer hasn’t changed. If he truly was doing something different, we could expect to see something vastly different in his strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his best minor league start of the year, Farmer struck out just eight.
What happened yesterday?
With all this to digest, we still must figure out what exactly happened yesterday. One does not get 21 whiffs by accident, but a lot of factors could go in one’s direction to help them rack them up. Farmer seemingly had all the luck.
First, the game had an odd start time, and the shadows were different than what the players were used to. The Tigers themselves struck out 14 times, including eight against Derek Holland, which was his season high as well. The strikeouts were going in both directions, so Farmer’s accomplishment no longer seems as far-fetched.
Plus, it’s likely that Farmer had all his pitches working on the same day. That’s rare for a pitcher, but it can lead to some outlandish performances by relatively unknown players. Dallas Braden and Philip Humber are both owners of perfect games, for what it’s worth. So, Farmer probably just had it going well for him yesterday.
To conclude, Buck Farmer most likely isn’t a new or improved pitcher. He was just the beneficiary of some good luck, allowing him to turn in one of the most impressive pitching outings of this season. Sorry, Tigers fans — your rotation upgrade will have to be someone else.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.