He might qualify as the Man Most Overlooked On Detroit’s 2016 Farm.
He’s a right-handed starter, 22, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, and owner of a fastball that belies his fairly so-so strikeout numbers.
“He averaged 96 last night (Thursday) and a couple of times hit 98,” said West Michigan manager Andrew Graham, whose Single A Whitecaps had whipped Dayton, 9-2, with Baez tossing six innings of four-hit, one-run baseball, which featured zero walks and a pair of strikeouts.
“He has heavy sink on his fastball, which usually runs 94 to 97. He’s made great strides this year. Mark Johnson (Whitecaps pitching coach) taught him a new pitch, a variation on his change-up, so he’s kind of got two change-ups now, with a slider. Mark’s really worked with him on his timing, selling his pitches.
“The problem before he was slowing down his arm on his off-speed stuff. He wasn’t throwing with conviction. Hitters could see it. And he wasn’t getting the late movement he needed.”
Baez’s numbers have climbed since the new get-’em-off-stride pitch evolved. He had a 1.08 WHIP in July spanning three starts that saw him work 17.2 innings, grant 15 hits, while striking out 16 and walking four.
On the season, he has a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts, with a 1.30 WHIP. The numbers, early and later, reflect how much Baez has changed, and rearranged his prospect profile, since his change-ups began clicking.
“He’s always had a plus arm,” said Graham, speaking of a Dominican Republic native the Tigers signed in 2011. “But he kind of threw the ball forward. Now he’s learning how to pitch.”
West Michigan typically has some of the better talent in the Tigers’ farm hatchery. The problem has been hanging onto it. The best of the bunch (Willy Adames, for example, in 2014) too often gets traded, or, as happened this season, gets pushed to Single A Lakeland, which was the case when left-handed starter Matt Hall and right-handed closer Gerson Moreno were awarded high-Class A stripes.
Another pitcher who at some point will graduate from Fifth Third Field is Drew Smith, a right-handed reliever who was the Tigers’ third-round swipe in last year’s draft as he wrapped up his junior year at Dallas Baptist.
Smith, 22, has worked 26 games for the Whitecaps with a 3.58 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and .200 opponent batting average. His numbers in 32.2 innings: 22 hits, 37 strikeouts, and a few too many walks (16 unintentional).
“Best outing of the year last night,” Graham said of a three-inning shift that saw Smith allow a single hit, strike out three and walk one. “Fastball was running 95 to 97, with a good curve ball. The problem with him early was he had no confidence in his breaking ball and never threw it, so his fastball was getting hit.
“Last night, he threw about 11 curveballs and 50 percent were average. He still needs to learn his breaking ball before he can advance any higher.”
On the position side, it’s always about West Michigan’s outfield: Jose Azocar, Derek Hill and Cam Gibson. They cover all of Kent County as defenders. The bats, in a couple of cases, are still the question.
Jose Azocar profiles as the heavier guy on offense. He turned 20 in May and, while the long summer is beginning to take a toll, Azocar is still batting .292 in 102 games, which pleases Graham only because “he swings at everything” as the Tigers work on paring down Azocar’s strike zone.
Defensively, Azocar has the Midwest League’s best outfield arm (Baseball America ranking and not otherwise contested), even if doesn’t always possess the best judgment. Azocar has 11 errors, most of them after he’s missed a relay.
“He has such a good arm, he always wants to throw it,” Graham said. “He tries to get guys off-balance and sometimes he throws the ball away. We’ve been telling him: This isn’t rookie ball anymore where you might trick people. These guys know the game and the league. So, a lot of his errors have come as the game has sped up on him. But with maturity, that will change.”
And then there’s Derek Hill. The Tigers would like to think 2016 has been the start of something big for their 2014 first-round pick. He has stayed healthy. He has played in 97 games. He is batting .265, with 35 stolen bases. He plays a stunning center field. Baseball America is among those who rate him as having the most speed of any position player in the Midwest League and being the league’s best outfield defender.
But will his right-handed bat allow him to be a big-league regular? Hill is only 20. The Tigers can wait.
“I continually tell everyone,” Graham said, “he’s improving very well. Is he moving as quickly as Detroit (Tigers front office) wants him to? I don’t know.”
The Tigers generals say they’re satisfied. But privately, at least, they want, and need, to see more offense if Hill ever warrants that first-round status the Tigers bestowed upon him in 2014.
Tucked within Hill’s 2016 numbers (.267 batting average, .668 OPS) are intriguing reverse-split stats: He is batting .226 against left-handers, .284 against right-handers.
“It’s interesting,” Graham acknowledged. “He sometimes gets a little too pull-happy at this stage, so righties are trying to bust him in, or lefties throw a change-up away. He’s got to work on his plate discipline and off-speeds.”
Which is all part of a summer at West Michigan.
The climb continues for prospects of all flavors. Three more levels await within a farm system that in time will reveal who will flourish, and who will confirm how difficult it is to crack the big leagues.