Right fielder Steven Moya, right, leads Erie with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs, but he's also struck out a team-high 92 times. In his third minor-league season, Devon Travis, left, has hit a combined .327 (Robin Buckson / Detroit News/Associated Press)
Akron, Ohio — Step onto the field at Canal Park, on a steamy June evening, and you might expect to see camera crews filming Bull Durham II.
This is classic middle-American minor league baseball, as the Erie SeaWolves, the Tigers Double A affiliate, prepares for a 7:05 p.m. game against the Akron RubberDucks at a lovely, two-tiered brick stadium in the heart of downtown, a couple of blocks from the University of Akron.
An hour before game time, Erie’s manager, Lance Parrish, the former Tigers catching great and coach, stands on the edge of Canal Park’s outfield grass and slashes one-hop line drives at his outfielders, hoping to make, among others, Jamie Johnson and Jason Krizan crisper defenders.
He later swats ground balls to shortstop Dixon Machado (.300-plus in June and making something of a comeback at age 22) and an array of black-and-white-outfitted SeaWolves infielders. And as a kind of grand finale, a few minutes before heavy rain moves in, he stands at home plate and swings his fungo bat at the sky, hitting cloud-scraping pop-ups for his catchers to chase, even if, in one case, it means sprinting blindly and clumsily over the pitcher’s mound to make a lunging catch on the infield grass.
“Having a ball,” Parrish said a couple of minutes later in the dugout as sweat streamed from his face. “Really enjoying this. Working with the kids. Working with so many good people.”
He means “good” in the sense of hearts and character. Parrish, a man of admirable candor during his playing days and at any other point in his life, would not tell you under oath his SeaWolves are particularly gifted.
They are not, mostly because of pitching issues that should dissipate next year when the current rotation at Single A Lakeland, one of the farm treasures for the Tigers, moves to Erie and a peg closer to Comerica Park.
But there are big-stage candidates here, on both sides of the ledger. Relief pitchers in the persons of Jose Valdez and the newly promoted Angel Nesbitt have a serious shot at Detroit within the next year or so.
And so do a handful of position players, which most definitely includes a 6-foot-6, 235-pound, left-handed hitting right fielder named Steven Moya, as well as last year’s Tigers minor league player of the year, Devon Travis, a second baseman whose bat is one of the best developmental assets in the system.
'It's coming together'
On a night that will begin with a 2-hour 32-minute rain delay, and finish at 12:10 a.m. with Akron winning, 7-1, everything that is real but raw about two talented prospects is on display.
*Moya: He is out in his first at-bat, a chopper to the first baseman, and follows in the fourth by smoking a low-hop shot at second baseman Joe Wendle, who begins the slickest 4-6-3 double play you’ll see this side of a park that might charge $60 rather than $6 for a ticket.
In the seventh, Moya strikes out, as he has done 92 times this season, in a sequence that this time sees him miss a 2-1 pitch closer to his ankles than his knees, and, finally, whiff on an inside fastball that all but makes a bow tie of his arms as it beats his long, power-packed swing.
In his final turn, in the ninth, Moya pokes a soft single to left field. For a man playing his first full season minus injury in three years, this evening is a mixed bag, much like a man’s satchel of challenges and occasional triumphs as he handles the bus trips and claustrophobic clubhouses that abound in Double A’s circle.
His numbers confirm as much: .261, with 18 home runs, and, tellingly, 92 strikeouts against nine walks in 303 at-bats entering Thursday night’s game, also against Akron. Yes, Moya has work ahead on a project called the strike zone even as he heads in a few days for Minneapolis and Target Field, where the Futures Game, showcasing baseball’s top minor-league stars, will be played ahead of the All-Star Game.
*Travis: He strikes out swinging in his first at-bat, then, in the fourth, rips a liner the right fielder grabs. In the seventh, Travis, a 5-9, 185-pound right-handed batter, blasts a 400-foot double against the center-field fence. As rain returns and everyone including the umpires gets nervous — it is 12:10 a.m. — he finishes with a three-pitch strikeout to end a game that was supposed to have begun more than five hours earlier.
A few minutes later, Parrish is tucked within the visiting manager’s office, which is about the size of an office cubicle and has none of the atmosphere. He pushes a fork across a plate of postgame chicken and rice and is asked about his team’s billboard prospects, Moya and Travis, and how a night such as tonight’s game might reflect each player’s pluses and minuses.
“Look at that body,” he says of Moya, a native of Puerto Rico signed out of the Dominican Republic, where he now lives. “He’s second to none in body structure — just a chiseled 6-6. He runs well. Has a very good arm — a cannon.
“But right now, it’s a learning stage in so many ways. He can hit balls as far as anyone I’ve seen. But he’s learning the strike zone and the swing and the mechanics of the swing. It’s even more difficult for him ’cause he’s so tall. He has a tendency to swing outside the ball rather than inside it.
“When they throw him balls in the dirt, and they do because they know what he can do and they’re not interested in throwing him strikes, he can be anxious to hit.
“It’s coming together. How fast to the big leagues, I don’t know. But, for some stretches, he is lights-out.”
Travis is a different portrait altogether, for various reasons that include age and experience. Travis is 23 and played three years at Florida State before the Tigers drafted him in the 13th round in 2012. He hit .280, .350, and .352 in his first three stops, and is sitting at .284 for the SeaWolves.
“He knows how to hit,” Parrish said. “He might get anxious and chase a pitch, but he’s one of the better hitters in this organization. He has a lot of power for his size — can hit it out of any ballpark. He stays inside the ball and stays back on breaking balls.
“Honestly, the only thing with him has been more of a defensive issue,” Parrish said on a night when Travis had a rare missed ground ball. “His arm can be a little erratic. He gets to a lot of balls, but sometimes his arm backfires. But he’s working on that with our coaches.
“I’d definitely say he’s a guy who can (eventually) help the Tigers.”
Bruce Fields, the former Tigers coach and outfielder who is now Detroit’s minor-league batting instructor, was in Erie the previous week as part of his barnstorming tour tutoring young hitters.
There is no mystery about Moya. Nor is there an instant fix.
“I love the way he’s attacking the ball, because he’s driving the ball really well,” Fields said. “When he gets a hold of it, he’s doing damage. But his plate discipline and strike-zone judgment are going to have to get better. And that’s what we’re all working on.”
Moya knows the issue with him is discernment. He cannot make it to the big leagues with a strikeout-walk ratio of 92-nine, which is in step with his past seasons. Not even if he hits 25 home runs a year can teams live with on-base and averages so low it negates his power.
“That’s something I’m still working on, trying to not swing at pitches the pitcher wants me to chase,” Moya said. “I have to recognize my strike zone, be a little more selective, and at the same time be aggressive with good pitches.
“Pitchers try to get me to make contact down in the zone, trying to get me out. It’s something I’m working on.”
Travis is different from Moya not only in his hitting profile but in his personality. Moya is reserved. He is openly religious, dotting his responses with frequent mentions of God. Travis is verbal and personable to the point of ebullient. His bosses and teammates love him, right down to the impromptu “funky dance” he might unleash at a moment’s moment in a clubhouse that tends to benefit from spontaneity.
No one yet quite understands why he was drafted so late, beginning with Travis, but size and baseball’s traditional problems with players beneath 6 feet explains much of the reticence. This season has been blemished mostly by the fact he missed six weeks with an oblique-muscle strain.
“The guy can flat-out hit,” said Fields, joining with Parrish in saying the best medicine for Travis is to simply play every day on his anticipated path to Detroit or some big-league park. “The one thing I noticed last year (at Single A West Michigan and Lakeland) is I never saw him off-balance.
“Now, of course, at Double A, the pitching is a little better and you’ve got to have a better plan and understanding of the strike zone. But overall, he’s hanging in there. I think he’ll be really good.”
Travis grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., and brings to his minor-league regimen a significant splash of personal sparkle. He is naturally personable. He is downright cheery at 12:45 a.m. when he is approached by a visitor as he sits, face to his locker, digging into his own plate of chicken and rice.
“It’s the most humbling game in the world,” Travis said, minutes before he would shower and head with his team for a nearby hotel and, he hoped, a long night of sleep. “You definitely can’t get too high or too low. At-bat to at-bat, week to week, you can go from feeling like you can hit anybody and then feeling you can’t hit anything.
“At times, it’s tough to push through difficult times. But the fact I get to wake up every day and I can go to the field and call it my job, I’m just so thankful for that. It’s just an opportunity I’ve dreamed of for a lifetime. And hopefully I’ll be closer to that dream at the end of the year.”
A player's manager
As for Parrish’s role in keeping dreams alive and bodies, as well as minds, in developmental harmony, Travis says a 58-year-old manager with a heavy Tigers bloodline has had the right touch and balance.
“When I first heard I was playing for a nine-time All-Star after last year getting to play for Larry (Parrish, now managing Triple A Toledo), you find they’re similar in their ways, that they’re both players’ managers. If you have a question, even on the little things, he (Lance Parrish) know how to handle it.
“I’ll come into the locker room after a tough game, maybe a little upset, with my head down after what just happened, and I’ll see our manager walk out of his office and see what’s happening and he’ll crack a joke.
“But he teaches you values, he teaches lessons. Every day in this game isn’t going to end the way you wanted. Even after a bad day, he’s the same guy. There’s consistency there. And that helps a lot.”
Getting to know …
Position: Right fielder
Birth date: Sept. 8, 1991 (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico)
BY THE NUMBERS
* Dominican Summer League; ** Gulf Coast
Position: Second baseman
Birth date: Feb. 21, 1991 (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
BY THE NUMBERS