Late-bloomer Jeff McVaney enjoys breakout year

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

He has been around for a while, five seasons if you care to count 2012 when the Tigers drafted Jeff McVaney in the eighth round after he had done nice work at Texas State.

But rarely during these past summers has he made much noise. The seasons have been relatively quiet: .301 batting average at Double A Erie in 2015 followed by a .186 stint after he was shipped to Triple A Toledo would be one example of why McVaney, 26, had been living in the farm system’s doldrums.

Until the summer of 2016.

McVaney is batting .356 with a gaudy .449 on-base percentage and .958 OPS in 22 games at Toledo, where he was upgraded after a couple of meaningful months at Erie, where he batted .300 with a .903 OPS.

These are the style of numbers that can put you in Detroit, which is where McVaney could be — if, of course, this sort of behavior continues and McVaney wins a spot on the Tigers’ 40-man roster. He’s not there yet, which highlights his past stock and why a right-handed batter who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 210 pounds needed 2016 to be a breakout year.

“I’m extremely happy for the young man,” said Lloyd McClendon, the Toledo manager whose outfield has been shuffled continually this season, with either Steven Moya or Tyler Collins riding the Toledo-Detroit shuttle.

“He’s taken the bull by the horns and has been playing extremely well, both defensively and offensively. I’m impressed by everything, including his baserunning.”

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All of this would suggest McVaney is one of those classic late bloomers who might yet play his way onto a big league stage.

“Hey, when you’ve got a uniform on,” McClendon said, “you’ve got a shot.”

McVaney isn’t much on the power side, which isn’t a deficiency any team cares to see in an outfielder. He had six home runs at Erie and has yet to hit one at Toledo.

“But he’s hit the top of the wall about five times,” McClendon said. “It’s amazing. He’s more of a gap-to-gap guy, but he has over-the-fence power to all fields. He keeps hitting doubles (22 on the season) and he gets a few triples (seven). He’s come very, very close on the home runs here. It just hasn’t happened yet.”

McVaney’s core skills on offense have to do with strikeouts and walks. He has few of the former (37 in 88 games) and lots of the latter (45), which is one factor in his .422 on-base average.

Defensively, McClendon has been equally pleased.

“He tracks the ball well, has a great route to the baseball,” McClendon said. “He has an average to slightly above-average arm, and he just does everything right. If a ball’s hit to him I don’t worry about it.”

McVaney has been as hot as any July day alongside the Maumee River in his past 10 games, batting .438. He would need to be added to the 40-man list to qualify for any September promotion when big league rosters expand.

But with an outfield hammered by injuries and players who need return trips to Toledo, the potential for McVaney to crack Comerica Park is alive.

“Hey, I was 27 when I made it to the big leagues,” said McClendon, who played eight years on baseball’s grand stage.

Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president for player development, repeated Sunday a McClendon tribute: McVaney’s citizenship has done nothing to hurt his chances.

“He’s just a great guy,” Littlefield said. “He’s kind of an all-around player. Nothing really jumps out, except when you look at the states and see those walk-and-strikeout ratios, and they’re out of sight.

“But I think it kind of goes to the general point that he’s an all-around guy with a range of skills. He’s been impressive at working counts and getting on base. Just a good all-around player.”

If the plaudits sound like tributes to a potential fourth outfielder, the Tigers aren’t arguing. But fourth outfielders have their place in big league baseball. And, four years after he was drafted, McVaney might be closing in on his chance to at last flee the farm.

Twitter: @Lynn_Henning