Game 2: The growth of Ian Krol
This was Brad Ausmus talking about Ian Krol last Spring Training, as Krol built a case to crack the Tigers bullpen at age 22 with just 27 1/3 Major League innings on his resume:
“The way he pitches, it seems like he’s kind of a gunslinger. He’s going out there six guns shooting. He’s ready to go, and he does not seem like he’s intimidated by a situation or afraid of a hitter. Those are intangibles that are sometimes tough to come by in young pitchers.”
This was Ausmus talking about Krol on Wednesday, 360 days later, after his first appearance of the spring, which included a 97 mph fastball, a called third strike on a curveball, and another strike on a curveball thrown from behind in the count:
“He’s been outstanding this spring, not only with his effort. He’s the first one in the clubhouse. He’s really paying attention to every part of his career.”
In between these two quotes, Krol not only won an Opening Day roster spot, he earned a role as the Tigers’ primary lefty reliever. He ranked among the league leaders in appearances through May, landed on the 15-day disabled list in mid-June with arm fatigue, struggled upon his return in early July, was optioned to Triple-A Toledo by the end of July, rejoined the Tigers in mid-August, returned to Toledo a week and a half later, was left off the September call-ups and playoff roster, then heard from Ausmus and pitching Jeff Jones about improving his conditioning in the offseason.
It was a wild ride for Krol. It seemed like a lot for a Major Leaguer. And then you remember that Krol is five months younger than Bruce Rondon, the Tigers’ up-and-coming reliever before he underwent Tommy John surgery last year.
There’s one other thing Krol did in between the quotes: He took everything upon himself to get better.
“I worked so hard in the offseason,” Krol said. “Nobody even knows. Nobody. I grinded every second of the offseason.”
He put on 12 pounds by his estimate to prepare himself for the physical toll of everyday bullpen work. He left Chicago early and traveled to IMG’s baseball academy in Bradenton to work out.
Every day was a grind. Every day was something for me to get better at, something for me to get stronger with, to get healthy. Every day, I was focused, I was determined. It’s really rewarding when you see it all pay off.”
He could’ve blamed the early workload for his struggles last year. He could have sulked over seemingly being his chances for making the club grow longer before he could throw a pitch in a game. But as Krol talked Wednesday, there was a lot of pointing to himself. When asked about the disappointment of not being on the club in September, let alone October, he pointed inward.
“The big part was not being able to stay healthy last year,” he said. “If I stayed healthy last year, I don’t even think that would have been an issue. But like I said a million times before, I have a level head. I don’t care what happened last season. I don’t really hold any grudges towards anybody. This is a great ballclub. We have a great staff. We have great people in the organization. Nothing upset me.
“The way the season ended, I was a little down on myself, but it was all because of me. It wasn’t because of anybody else. I had to take care of my own business. I guess just being determined, wanting more and more and more every time you pitch, is just a big thing for me.”
When asked about his role, Krol said he didn’t know, but he also said he wasn’t concerned about it. Improve himself, and his situation will take care of itself.
“Nobody’s told me I’m going to be a long relief,” he said. “Nobody’s said anything about me pitching one inning at a time. Nobody’s said anything to me. It’s my first outing. We’ve got a month to go, and a lot can happen in a month. But I’m just going to go out there and do my job every time — if it’s one inning, if it’s two innings, if it’s three innings.
“Whatever it is, give me the ball. I’ll be ready to do my job. I’m not too worried about not making the roster and going to Toledo. I’m not worried if I’ve got to be a long relief guy now. None of that’s in my head. I’ve just got a level head on getting my job done.”
The only time he talked about youth Wednesday was when asked if he struggled with any pressure of being the return from the Doug Fister trade. With Robbie Ray in Arizona and Steve Lombardozzi long gone, Krol is the last man standing on the Tigers side.
Even then, the answer might not be what you think.
“Everybody keeps talking about the trade,” he said. “Listen, I know it might not have worked out as much as [fans] wanted it to, but we’re only human. It happens in different circumstances. It happens throughout baseball.
“I don’t think there was too much pressure on [me]. I mean, I’m young. I don’t think about those things. My career’s just started, so I’m just trying to make a name for myself, be able to have longevity in the Major Leagues. I just try to go out there and do what I can to keep the game under control. [Last] spring, it kind of got to me a little bit. But other than that, it really wasn’t an issue.”