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‘Diamond in the rough’: Undrafted Tiger Foley hits 101 mph

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

If he had been one of those early-round draft picks, one of those guys teams typically grab quickly even if they pitch out of a bullpen rather than in a rotation, Jason Foley’s story in 2017 would be more about logic and less about improbability.

But it wasn’t that way with Foley, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound, right-handed reliever who has been throwing 97-99 mph at Single A West Michigan, occasionally hitting 100, and who topped out in a game last week at 101.

He wasn’t even drafted.

“A great story,” said Scott Pleis, the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting. “Jim Bretz, our area scout, did a great job.”

James Orr, the Tigers’ east regional cross-checker, who works as a second set of eyes in sizing up a prospect, seconded Pleis’ thoughts.

“In scouting, these things don’t happen quite as much anymore,” Orr said. “Not with social media, the Internet, and those advances. Most of the time, everybody’s on top of everyone. This guy slipped through the cracks a little bit.”

It isn’t only a matter of velocity with Foley. It’s about a 21-year-old reliever’s numbers through 13 games: 3-0 record for the Whitecaps, with a 1.64 ERA, and 0.82 WHIP. He has thrown 22 innings, allowed 15 hits, struck out 25, and walked only three batters.

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“I’ve said this 100 times — this dude wasn’t drafted?” Mike Rabelo, the West Michigan manager, related during a weekend phone conversation. “Talking with amateur scouts, I’ve asked every one of them: How wasn’t he drafted?

“Man, I’ve said, ‘You guys (Tiger scouts) found a diamond in the rough.’ He’s had velo (high-octane fastball) from the get-go: 97 to 99 every night, and at our place a couple of nights ago he hit 101.

“And he’s a good athlete. For example, last night, we ran a wheel play on a bunt, and he did a good job. Blaise Salter made the play at third, letting the infielders crash (Foley moving to first base). He’s doing things like that, he’s holding runners, and just having a good year all-around.”

So, how did he avoid getting one of those 40-round draft slots, which span 1,500 amateur players, and which often are such throwaways in the waning picks that teams might as well call it the friends-and-family rounds?

The Tigers fundamentally credit Bretz, who was in his first full year as a Tigers scout following a long stint with the Padres.

Bretz and his bosses, as well as most teams’ area scouts, knew of a pitcher at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., who had size and decent velocity and whose scout-day workout had been so-so. The problem is he was a so-called “Friday night starter” — when a college team’s best starter typically works — who had not pitched well early last spring.

Bretz, though, kept tabs. And after Foley slipped out of June’s draft, he followed him at a low-profile Saturday night game in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

Bretz loved what he saw. He called Orr, who was working at the high-caliber Cape Cod League. Orr drove to Fitch High School, in Groton, Conn., where Mets pitcher Matt Harvey had been a prep star, and which on this summer night was where Sacred Heart’s coach had promised Foley would throw at least one inning.

“Warming up in the bullpen, he showed a good change-up and a split (split-fingered fastball) he didn’t even use in the game. Good arm action and delivery, he was close to 6-5, the video on him was good, and he was young — he wasn’t even having a birthday (21) till September, so it was almost like we were getting him a year younger than normal. And he threw strikes.

“I called David and Scott,” Orr said, speaking of Pleis and Tigers assistant general manager David Chadd. “It was crazy that people weren’t even following him. I said, ‘I’m not leaving this ballpark till we agree we’re signing him.’

“Jim Bretz had breakfast with him the next morning, and it was a done deal.”

Left unsaid, except for Orr’s assurance “we treated him fairly,” is that the Tigers paid probably six figures to sign Foley and steer him from his senior year at Sacred Heart.

Foley got some light, late-summer work at Single A Connecticut and in the Gulf Coast League, but it was all a tune-up for what would be regular duty in 2017, purely as a reliever, where he wouldn’t be required to ease off the velocity and pace himself as was the case when he started at Sacred Heart.

Not that he’s getting by exclusively with his heater.

“Oh yeah,” said Rabelo, whose Whitecaps have been one of the hottest teams anywhere in professional baseball, with a 33-15 record as they got ready for Sunday night’s game at Dayton. “He’s got a nice little slider. And he throws his change-up like a fosh (cross between a change-up and a split-finger pitch). It’s the dangedest thing. It’s unbelievable.”

West Michigan, no surprise, leads the Midwest League in pitching in all the salient categories: ERA (2.54), WHIP (1.10), strikeouts (473), and fewest walks allowed (123).

Foley is but one reason. Others include Gregory Soto (2.18 ERA, 1.14 WHIP), the brilliant left-handed starter who had his first rough game Saturday at Dayton; Austin Sodders (left-hander, 5-0, 0.83 ERA, 0.97 WHIP); Anthony Castro (right-hander, 3-0, 2.84 ERA, 1.24 WHIP); Alfred Gutierrez (right-hander, 4-2, 3.43 ERA, 0.92 WHIP); Eudis Idrogo (right-hander, 2.36 ERA, 1.01 WHIP); Eduardo Jimenez (right-hander, 1.50 ERA, 1.08 WHIP); and Joe Navilhon (right-hander, 2.70 ERA and 0.86 WHIP).

Factor in some ongoing offense from outfielders Jacob Robson, Cam Gibson, and Danny Woodrow, as well as a big season at first from Salter (.333, four home runs, .897 OPS), and it’s no wonder Rabelo, the one-time Tigers catcher, is savoring a merry first full year at West Michigan.

“We’re having a good time,” said Rabelo, who will always be known as part of the trade package that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit. “I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some good coaches and good players. I love all these guys. They’re high octane players. And they’re guys who show up every single day.”

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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