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’15 star Gerber finally heats up on Tiger farm

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mike Gerber

Understandable, anyone who might have wondered whatever happened to Mike Gerber.

Last year’s Tigers Minor League Player of the Year hasn’t been missing as much as he’s been reconnecting in 2016. A man who batted .292 in 2015 at Single A West Michigan, with a .355 on-base percentage, and an .822 OPS, learned good times weren’t necessarily guaranteed at his next stop, Single A Lakeland, where he’s been stationed the past 11 weeks.

He batted .226 in April, zoomed all the way to .234 in May, and then, apparently tired of seeing his first half-season slip-sliding away, Gerber began attacking the ball in June: .316 with a .959 OBP. It’s more in line with projections for a 23-year-old outfielder from Creighton University who looked like one of the 2014 draft’s major thefts after the Tigers got him in the 15th round.

“Yeah, he’s picked it up a bit of late,” said Nelson Santovenia, Lakeland’s hitting coach, even before Gerber had a home run, single, and walk in Sunday’s game against Dunedin. “It’s just the reps, and working a little bit more on his two-strike approach. He was striking out a bit too much (89 in 67 games during the season’s first half), and too many times when he was looking, giving up on the outer half of the plate.

“One of the things I noticed, too, is that he was getting his foot down a little late, fouling off pitches he’s getting to right now.”

Gerber, a left-handed batter who is 6-foot, 190 pounds, says there was another culprit crafting his chilly spring.

“I think I had three home runs in that first week, and then, all of a sudden, I’m thinking I’m this great home-run hitter,” Gerber said Saturday as the Flying Tigers began boarding a bus bound for Daytona and a night game there. “And that’s not really my game. You find you’re going up there trying to hit homers and pull the ball and it doesn’t work that way.”

His numbers this month suggest a return to old habits: 20 games, three home runs, six doubles, a triple, nine walks, and a .368 on-base percentage to go with his .519 slugging clip.

Tigers minor-league report: Burrows steady for Whitecaps

Other factors tend also to be part of an often-harsh move to Single A life in the Florida State League. Climate, for example.

“I went to high school in Chicago (Naperville), and we had our fair share of cold weather, same as when I went to Creighton (Nebraska), and believe me, I’d rather play in warm weather than cold,” Gerber said. “But the heat here, and with a lot of humidity, it takes it out of you.

“But you learn how to manage it. You take early swings and early batting practice, and just make sure you don’t kill yourself for a game, because two hours after batting practice, you’ve got to be ready for a game, even if it’s 100 degrees.”

Gerber has been playing primarily right field but of late has been getting extra time in center. Santovenia calls him an “average defender” who gets good jumps for a man who isn’t necessarily a speedster.

Gerber’s partner in left field, of course, is Christin Stewart, who for much of the spring led America’s minor leagues in home runs. He sits at 17 homers in 71 games, and carries gaudy secondary numbers (.397 on-base, .524 slugging), which account for that .921 OPS.

Christin Stewart

“He was stuck on 16 (homers) for a little bit,” Santovenia said, “and for him it was another part of the process, because they really started pitching around him. It started to get into his head a bit, and then they were playing a shift on him, which had a little bit to do with it.

“But I think he’s handling it fine. He hasn’t really gone too much out of the strike zone. He’s stayed pretty patient. And he’s getting his walks (a league-leading 53 in 71 games).

“I’ve been talking with him of late and he’s going to have to be a little more aggressive in his counts,” Santovenia said. “Toward the end of the first half (season), when they were pitching around him, they’d sneak a fastball by him, maybe not where he wanted it, but on the plate. So we’re making a little adjustment there. If that kind of pitch is the best he’s going to see, he’s got to try and cover the whole plate, and offer at it, with good authority and a good swing. That’s what he did (Friday) night when he hit that latest homer.”

It’s all part of that methodical process known as maturing in the minors. Stewart, a left-handed slugger whom the Tigers drafted early in 2015 with the pick they got for losing Max Scherzer to free agency, has been learning, sometimes the hard way, same as Gerber.

“With everyone I’ve talked to throughout the big leagues,” Gerber said, “their whole time in the minors wasn’t a cakewalk. Everyone deals with some sort of struggle, whether it’s for a month, or a half-season. But what makes them (big-leaguers) so good is that they’re able to make the adjustments.

“And that’s what I’ve been trying to do this year – not freak out. I got off to a slow start. But I know I’m better than how I played the first couple of months. It’s a new half, and I’m a better hitter.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.coom

Twitter @Lynn_Henning