For some players, hitting can be habit-forming.
There was, for example, Jacob Robson’s summer at Single A Connecticut two years ago, right after he signed with the Tigers, when he batted .329.
There was his 60-game follow-up last year at Single A West Michigan where, again, Robson batted .329, all before he was launched to the Florida State League for 58 more games at Lakeland, where he did fine against better pitching: .277.
Now, at Double A Erie, Robson is again up to old ways, batting .289, including a stretch during his past 10 games when he’s hit .356. This is interesting data, locally, not only because the Tigers have in Robson a left-handed hitter and outfielder who isn’t terribly far from the big-league gate. It matters also because he happens to be a river removed from Comerica Park.
Robson, 23, was born in London, Ontario, but grew up in Windsor, where he went to Massey High, on the city’s south end.
He decided on a rather extreme geographical and cultural move when he opted for Mississippi State, where he played well enough to convince the Tigers he was good enough to earn an eighth-round draft shot.
He plays center field for the SeaWolves, gets pretty much the maximum from a body that at best tops out at 5-foot-10, and has a left-handed bat Erie manager Andrew Graham finds more than handy.
“He’s an interesting player,” Graham said Saturday as the SeaWolves warmed for an evening home game against Reading at UPMC Park. “Everyone sees his stature – he’s not the biggest guy. But he’s a very strong kid, with a little more power than most think.”
Five home runs testify there, one of which was an inside-the-park beaut.
“He can run,” Graham said. “And he never takes a game off. Even if he grounds out to the pitcher, he sprints to first base. He runs a 4.1, 4.2 (seconds) to first, and he can base-hit bunt.
"He plays a good center field, with close to an average arm. And his bat has really picked up. And it’s been clutch. He was 3-for-6, with five RBIs, Thursday night, and had a walk-off, two-run double in the 13th.
“He’s a very exciting player with everything going.”
Well, almost everything.
It isn’t often you carry a .383 on-base percentage with 61 strikeouts in 53 games, but Robson (pronounced: RAHB-son) has managed it, with the help of 29 walks.
Because of the strikeouts, Graham can’t always defend using him as a leadoff hitter. But he has been doing a bit better there, his skipper says, which is why there are minor leagues: To develop skills and patch holes
The SeaWolves have been playing in 2018 what seems to Graham like a record number of one-run and extra-inning games.
Lately, they’ve been going more Erie’s way, not only because Robson has been hitting so well, but also because Will Maddox, a 25-year-old, left-handed hitting second baseman, has been so steady after dealing with an arm issue: .336 in 32 games, with an .862 OPS.
Maddox was a 14th-round pick by the Tigers in 2014 as he finished up a stint at the University of Tennessee. He has a .315 career average in five summers on the Tigers farm.
“Every year I’ve had him, he’s hit .300 or better,” said Graham, who managed Maddox at West Michigan and at Lakeland ahead of both men’s move to Erie in 2018. “He doesn’t have the prettiest of swings, but he puts a barrel on the ball and can use the whole field.
“His defense is getting more comfortable. And he’s a gamer. I love having him.”
Pitching is Erie’s strong suit in terms of Comerica Park potential. Beau Burrows hums along, as does Sandy Baez, who pitched neatly against the Yankees last week in his big-league baptism, all before having a rough day Saturday at Erie.
Kyle Funkhouser, meanwhile, has caught up, pitching sturdily in four of his last five starts, including Wednesday night’s game against Hartford, when Funkhouser worked seven innings, allowed all of two hits and one run, while striking out nine and walking one.
“It’s more of getting into a mindset of being aggressive in the zone,” Graham said of a Tigers fourth-round pick in 2016, who a year earlier had been a Dodgers first-rounder until Funkhouser decided to return to Louisville for his senior year.
“It had just seemed like earlier he was trying to pitch away from contact instead of going right at hitters. Last time out, he loaded up the strike zone with strikes.”
Funkhouser’s fastball has been its usual hard heater, averaging 94, and hitting 95 and 96. Burrows and Baez operate in the same vicinity, with Baez often climbing higher.
Another storyline has evolved in a one-time Tigers farm starter who now works out of Erie’s bullpen: Matt Hall.
Hall, a left-hander, was a sixth-round pick out of Missouri State in 2015 after he had led the NCAA in strikeouts. He kept the Ks coming as he climbed the Tigers chain. But a pitcher whose trademark has always been his curveball this season moved to relief, where, in 20 games he has a 2.90 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and .183 enemy batting average.
Friday night, against Reading, Hall was dazzling: four innings, no hits, nine strikeouts, no walks.
“It’s interesting, I’ve had him the last three years, and he’s always struggled the first couple of months,” said Maxwell, who, true to form, has seen Hall go from a 3.75 ERA in May to a 1.35 ERA in June. “Last year, he had horrible numbers the first month (6.59) to a stretch later on where he went 22 or 23 consecutive scoreless innings.
“But he’s been good.”
Hall has added a bit of a drop-down delivery that has helped with deception, particularly with a slider that needs some work. He also has inverse splits against right-handers: 1.47 ERA versus 4.97 against lefties. The difference is he is walking nearly a batter an inning when pitching to left-side hitters.
A tweak or two there, and Hall could be on his way, mostly because of that extraordinary curveball.
“Analytically, that spin-rate on his curveball is one of the best in the game,” Maxwell. “I think it was like the top six in all of baseball.
“And I don’t think his spin-rate is ever going to change. I just think he’s got to keep working on dropping his arm down, getting more command. That slider from a low three-quarters angle is outstanding. He just hasn’t had a feel for it yet in a game.
“But that’s the question: Is he going to stay on top, like he did (Friday) night? Or drop down?”
That, again, is why there is a farm system. To cultivate, to question, to experiment, to discern, to teach, to prepare.
The rest is up to an individual – and to his talents.