Four months ago you’d have found him playing in the World Baseball Classic, wearing a Netherlands jersey, and seemingly headed back home for another season with the L&D Amsterdam Pirates.
But things changed. The Tigers saw Tom de Blok during his WBC outings. They liked his size (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) and right arm. They liked the fact he was just about to turn 21.
And they signed him to a contract.
There are no regrets. He pitches now for Single A West Michigan and has quite the early track record: 0.84 ERA in 16 games and five starts, the product of 43 innings, 26 hits allowed, 42 strikeouts, and six walks. His WHIP is 0.74. Opposing batters have done no better than a .173 average.
“He’s got a really good arm, and he’s real big and durable with a great pitcher’s body,” said Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international scouting, whose crew had become aware of de Blok.
“At the WBC, there was suddenly a lot of attention on him, and that kind of opened some eyes. He wasn’t necessarily a focus for teams, but he kind of raised attention and showed there should be some focus.”
In fact, de Blok was no mystery to big-league scouts. He had a short stint with the Mariners as a 17-year-old after they signed him out of the MLB European Academy in Regensburg, Germany.
But after he spent spring camp with the Mariners in Arizona, de Blok “retired” and headed home, a victim of tender years, homesickness, and a baseball culture that simply didn’t appeal to a teenager.
Three years later, with college and a few early-adult experiences behind him, de Blok is back in professional baseball on this side of the Atlantic.
He also is getting steadily better. In his last six showings, five of which have been starts as the Tigers move him to rotation work, exclusively, de Blok has allowed a lone run on 15 hits in 27.1 innings. He has struck out 33 batters and walked three, a stunning 11-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
“His fastball is 91 to 94,” Moore said. “He’s actually had a little uptick there the past month or so. He’s got a slider that at times is real sharp. And his change-up is his third pitch.”
A.J. Sager, the Tigers’ roving minor-league pitching instructor, will be checking in on de Blok during a Whitecaps visit later this week. He watched him during extended spring training, before de Blok had shown enough to earn a ticket to Single A Connecticut, where he worked one game (3.2 innings, one hit, one walk, five strikeouts) before getting his West Michigan papers.
“There’s a lot to like, I know that,” Sager said. “He’s got a good pitcher’s frame. And the way he carries himself he appears to be a mature kid for a pitcher who’s not old.
“He’s got enough fastball, and he’s willing to throw it over the plate. And at times, I’ve seen him throw it to both sides of the plate. He didn’t have much experience throwing secondary pitches, but Mike Alvarez and Ace Adams (minor-league pitching coaches) have worked with him on different slider grips, and it looks like that’s coming along.”
In an era when players from Latin America are routinely signed, and when Asia imports, as well as prospects from Australia, more often become part of a big-league team’s international forays, a Netherlands resident is unusual.
But that is changing.
“As far as Europe is concerned, and looking at the pro leagues there, Netherlands probably is the top country, talent-wise,” Moore said. “They’ve got a fairly good development program there, with pro and amateur leagues.”
Moore mentions another plus. A pitcher who just turned 21, who is the same age as most of the better college pitchers who were drafted in June, is able to pitch a full season rather than be shut down or be confined to a few innings-restricted outings.
And that’s because he isn’t coming off the kind of February-to-June schedule played by college teams.
“He probably has a fresher arm,” Moore said.