Fiery Tigers prospect Ficociello learning to harness emotions

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Dominic Ficociello

Scottsdale, Ariz. – The turning point for Tigers' corner infield prospect Dominic Ficociello came toward the end of the 2014 season with Low-A West Michigan.

Ficociello, 23, plays with a competitive fire that belies his Southern California roots. But it's a fire that burns two ways. It has fueled his ascent in the Tigers' system – it took him less than two years to get to Double-A Erie.

It has also at times flamed into full-blown, bat-breaking, helmet-smashing temper tantrums which earned him a reputation as a hot head.

He has fought hard to harness his passion, to get keep it working for him and not against him.

"This last season was the best I've done with it," Ficociello said. "I take every at-bat serious, personal. This past year was the first time I was able to hold back my emotions when I had a rough day. I won't even say it was hard. Just, something clicked."

His epiphany came in 2014. Ficociello, a true switch-hitter who can play first and third and will get some reps in the outfield this spring, was hitting close to .300 at West Michigan late in the season when he had maybe the worst meltdown of his career.

"Just a rough day," he said. "We were losing. I'd already smashed a helmet and had to go up to the locker room to get another one. On my last at-bat I made an out – it was the last inning, I was like 0-for-4, 0-for-5 and I was losing it.

"I didn't think there was a chance we'd ever come back. We were down four or five runs. So I just started packing up my stuff, getting ready to go back up into the locker room. I was just so pissed off."

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Enter the venerable Gene Roof. For 30 years he's been coaching somewhere in the Tigers organization. Presently, he is the roving outfield and base running coach and he witnessed Ficociello's meltdown.

"Roofy saw me and he jumped on me," Ficociello said. "And thank God he did. He said, 'So you're just packing it up? You are giving up on your team?' Not really, but I was just so consumed in my own at-bats."

It wasn't the first talented, ultra-competitive player Roof has had to talk off the ledge.

"He's such a competitor and he wants to be so good," Roof said. "It's just the way he was in the dugout and on the field. I said, 'Dude, you are hitting about .295. How do you think this guy over here who's hitting .200 feels? You are having a helluva year. You can't let it show because you are one of our leaders here. This ain't the way to play.'

"I said, 'Hell, you can hit .280 and be a winner and you can hit .330 and be a loser.'"

The message hit Ficociello like a cold slap in the face.

"I was like, 'God, I am an idiot for acting this way,'" he said. "There was no reason for it. We were in first place. I was still hitting well. It was just one day. I apologized to Roofy, to our head coach. I don't know why I was doing it. I had never taken it that far before.

"After that, I can't do it anymore."

The fire still burns. The last thing the Tigers want is to extinguish it completely. And Ficociello will still occasionally bust up a bat or howl at the walls in the tunnel underneath the stadium.

"There's nothing wrong with being a competitor," Roof said. "I don't want him coming back to the dugout with a smile on his face. I want him to be upset, but not to the point where he can't control it."

Ficociello rarely takes his bad at-bats onto the field these days. And, as he said, he no longer wants to give pitchers the satisfaction of thinking they'd beat him.

"I think I have it figured out, but I am always going to be a fiery guy and I am going to bring energy," he said. "That's just the way it is. Some guys may not like it. They may think I'm too flashy or like I'm goofing off – and that's never the case.

"I take this game seriously but I can't play this game uptight and serious. I have to play it loose and have fun. I love this sport and I want to play it like it's fun."

Dominic Ficociello: “My game is spraying the ball and making solid contact.”

Ficociello hit .275 with 37 extra base hits and 53 RBI for West Michigan in 2014. He hit .297 at High-A Lakeland and .284 at Double-A Erie last year, with a combined 38 extra base hits and 60 RBI.

He is a slightly better hitter left-handed but equally comfortable from either side of the plate. In 2014, he hit .277 right-handed and .325 left-handed. Last season, he hit .267 right-handed and .299 left-handed.

"The first time I saw him he was playing second base and I thought at the time he reminded me of (Royals) Ben Zobrist," said Tigers minor league hitting coordinator Bruce Fields. "I think he is more of a line-drive guy with gap power. Will he hit 25 homers? I don't know. But I am not going to sell him short. I see him hitting somewhere between 10 and 15, maybe more but he's a guy who will always do something to where you will want to keep him in the lineup."

He got off to a slow start here in the Arizona Fall League, but he's heated up. He's hitting .256 with two doubles, two triples and seven RBI.

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"My game is spraying the ball and making solid contact," Ficociello said. "When I get in trouble is when I try to hit the ball too hard. Just gap to gap. When runners are in scoring position, I don't care if it's a single, double or home run – just get the guy in. I have to stick to that.

"As I get bigger and stronger, the home runs will come more frequently."

Most likely, Ficociello will begin the 2016 season at Erie, but that determination won't come until the middle of spring training.

"I know the organization would like for him to hit with more power, but I think that will come," said Nelson Santovenia, who was Ficociello's hitting coach at Lakeland and West Michigan. "I think he's going to get stronger and start driving the ball more and pulling it more. He has good, quick hands and I love his swing. He's got what it takes to get to the big leagues. He just needs to continue with the process."

Twitter @cmccosky