By: Will Burchfield
Warwick Saupold admits he’s heard the question a lot.
But it’s too intriguing not to ask.
How did a kid from Australia set his sights on the American pastime?
“My parents grew up around a baseball background. My mom grew up with the national team coach, Jon Deeble, so she’s always been around baseball,” Saupold told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.
His parents enrolled him in tee-ball as a youngster, but he soon lost interest.
“To be honest I kind of got bored of it, so I went and played some Aussie Rules (Football) and some soccer and stuff like that, tried other things. Finally made my way back to peewee baseball and I found that more challenging. From there, I fell in love with game,” Saupold said.
That made him somewhat of an outcast among his friends, of course. On Sundays, when they’d head for the cricket field, Saupold would make his way to the diamond.
“I’m off to play baseball and they’re like, ‘What are you doing that for, that’s not even Australian.’ So I copped a little bit of grief,” Saupold said with a laugh, “but I’m glad I went in that direction. It’s paying off.”
It took a while for his investment to yield dividends, for his baseball journey to lead him to the big leagues. Saupold didn’t have much of a road map. So few of his compatriots had ever played in the majors. Still very few have. As a kid, his idol was Dominican slugger Albert Pujols.
“Then when I started pitching I kind of looked up to Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Those are the guys I looked up to because I didn’t really know the Australian guys in the big leagues until I started kind of playing seriously,” he said.
There weren’t many. When Saupold signed his first professional contract with his hometown Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League in 2010, just five of his compatriots found themselves on an active MLB roster. One of them was Brad Thomas, a middle-to-long reliever for the Tigers — just as Saupold is now.
Thomas retired in 2011. A year later, Saupold, then 22 years old and coming off an All-Star season in the ABL, signed a minor-league contract with the Tigers. He was assigned to the Class-A West Michigan White Caps and began climbing the organizational ladder.
Saupold started the 2013 season with the Double-A Erie Sea Wolves, where he became a full-time starting pitcher. In 2015, he set a Sea Wolves franchise record with 275 career strikeouts. He was promoted to Triple-A Toledo later that year.
In 2016, at age 26, he finally broke through to the majors. He made his big-league debut on May 14 against Baltimore. About two weeks later, Saupold was on the mound in Angel Stadium when a familiar face strolled to the plate: Pujols.
Saupold plunked him.
“I actually brushed his jersey by accident, so that was a little bit of an interesting thing to hit my idol growing up,” he said.
A groin injury later derailed Saupold’s season; he’d make just one more appearance for the Tigers. But having gotten a taste of the show, Saupold wanted seconds.
He worked hard in the offseason, pitching first for the ABL’s Heat (his former team) and then for Australia in the World Baseball Classic. He was assigned to Toledo out of spring training.
His first call-up to the Tigers, a brief two-game stint in April, didn’t go as planned. Back in Toledo, he and MudHens pitching coach Jeff Pico worked diligently in the film room. They noticed – rather, Pico noticed – that Saupold’s weight distribution on the mound was a bit off kilter and that his leg lift wasn’t as high.
“That allowed my arm to catch up and get going and get the ball down in the zone. I thank Pico for catching that because we do sit down and watch film a fair bit, and I didn’t see it and he did. So I appreciate it,” Saupold said.
The changes quickly paid off in Toledo, with Saupold thriving as a starter. He earned a second call-up to the Tigers in late May. In 10 1/3 innings over five appearances, he has yet to allow an earned run.
His last two outings have proved crucial. He relieved a struggling Matt Boyd on Wednesday against the Royals and took over for an injured Justin Verlander on Sunday versus the White Sox. In both cases, Saupold held the opposing offense down as the Tigers rallied to victory.
“He was huge again,” said Aumus on Sunday, after Saupold came on in the third and delivered four scoreless innings. “That’s the second time in a row. He did it in Kansas City, he did it here, giving us multiple innings, getting us deep into the game and keeping it close. He’s been outstanding in that role.”
Is that the role Saupold envisions for himself?
“I’m happy to help the team any way,” he said. “I started all year in Toledo and was throwing the ball well, whatever they want me to do I’m happy to do. If it’s start a game or throw later in a game, I’m happy, as long as I can keep going out there and putting up zeroes.”
Back home, Saupold’s family and friends – perhaps the same friends who once chirped him for playing baseball – have reveled in his success. His mom, in particular, can’t get enough. Despite the 12-hour time difference from Perth to Detroit, she makes sure she catches every game.
“My mom is diehard. She’ll get up at 2 a.m. if she has to. That’s just her. Even if I’m not pitching she gets up, because she knows there’s a slight chance I might pitch.”
With Verlander on the mound on Sunday, it was unlikely the Tigers would have to call on their long reliever. But Saupold’s mom wasn’t willing to take the chance. Sure enough, here came her son, jogging out of the bullpen in the third inning.
“She’s actually in Bali at the moment on a holiday, but she said she watched the game,” said Saupold.
She wasn’t the only one.
“Obviously I was exhausted after yesterday’s game. I came home and had a nap, looked at my phone and my phone’s gone mental,” Saupold laughed. “It’s great to have the support back home.”
At the moment, Saupold is one of three Australians in the majors. He said he keeps “close contact” with the other two, Liam Hendriks of the A’s and Peter Moylan of the Royals. It’s soft contact he’s looking for on the mound, and lately Saupold has found it.
The Tigers, meanwhile, look lucky to have found him.