Four months ago you could find him in Lakeland, Fla., in the Tigers clubhouse at Marchant Stadium, a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher recently added to the 40-man roster who had stars in his scouting report and stars in his eyes.
And there – along with an oblique injury that was the bigger story -- might have been part of the problem to a cold April-May start for Sandy Baez. He went from a big-league environment back to the bushes in a span of only a few weeks. It’s a return to reality that can purge juice from your battery in a flash.
One of the true power-armed prospects on Detroit’s farm had only a single start in April for Single A Lakeland and it was pure rust after his oblique had healed: three runs in four innings.
May was truly a throwaway: five starts, a 7.94 ERA, 35 hits in 22.2 innings.
But, ah, June – and Baez was back, physically and psychologically: four starts, a 1.52 ERA, with 35 strikeouts in 23.2 innings.
That high-velocity, boring fastball Baez throws was mixing with a nice change-up to make a mess of Single A batters. And it still is, carrying into July, as his Saturday start confirmed: six innings, four hits, seven strikeouts, one walk.
“He impressed people in major-league camp (spring training), but those were one-inning outings,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, who understands it’s not always easy for a traditional starter to pitch cameos during Grapefruit League games and satisfy himself, or his bosses.
“Obviously, it’s easy to impress others with all that stuff, but when you’re young and impressionable, you need to mature, physically and emotionally. It’s one of those potholes any prospect needs to experience.
“His first two months were pretty pedestrian. But the last month or two he’s been back to what we always thought he would be. We’re seeing what we had always hoped to see as far as progress.”
Baez was signed six years ago out of Juan Baron, Dominican Republic, and was not exceptional in terms of numbers until last summer when he reached Single A West Michigan.
He began, as the season wore on, to throw with more mastery a fastball that hit 100 mph. He might have been the fastest-rising pitcher in the Tigers system in 2016, which led to the 40-man roster spot and to thoughts that 2017 would be his take-a-bow year as a blue-chip prospect.
And that could yet be the case. But he is at high Single A for a reason. And that’s primarily because of a slider that must – must – join his fastball and change-up as a pitch he can wield with dominance.
“Some guys, you show ’em a grip, and it takes a while to work on that,” said Mark Johnson, the Flying Tigers’ pitching coach who was also Baez’s tutor last year at West Michigan. “It’s just a matter of getting consistent with it.”
Baez’s fastball is still his locomotive. It can stretch to the high 90s but tends to ride more in the 93-95 range. His change-up is bordering big-league.
Again, it’s the slider that must steadily make his fastball tougher to lock in on. It’s the slider that will lead to more swings and misses. And to bedeviling hitters who will only get better at reading Baez’s pitches as he makes his Tigers farm tour.
“It’s a little surprising, as powerful as he is and his arm is, that he hasn’t struck out as many people as you think he would,” said Littlefield, who has seen batters all but incinerated by Baez’s heater and change-up. “But you’re starting to see more of that now, particularly the last couple of months.”
It isn’t only the slider that can, and must, get better if Baez is to become part of a new, re-tooled Tigers rotation in a couple of years. It’s the whole repertoire.
“His fastball, he has a two-seam and four-seam and he’s just learning now how to expand the strike zone,” Johnson said. “Basically, he’s learning how to pitch – to expand the zone and read hitters’ swings.”
In other words, Baez will be at big-league camp next spring. And he’ll still be learning a craft that only time and growing older, personally and professionally, can deliver.