The Tigers have had success acquiring Venezuelans who outwardly love to play the game.
And while Jose Azocar hasn’t entered the power galaxy of sluggers like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez, the outfield prospect took his game to the next level this season by hitting the weights in TigerTown.
No balls have yet left the yard, but Azocar entered Sunday with a .336 batting average for the Double-A Erie Seawolves, good for third in the Eastern League.
That comes after Azocar spent most of the offseason in Lakeland, concentrating on growth in the weight room.
“A lot of his balls that (he was) hitting were weak fly balls are now more on a line,” Seawolves manager Mike Rabelo said. “He’s got more behind it. He’s been a pleasant surprise, and he’s been fun to watch.”
Azocar, who turned 23 on Saturday, said cutting down on strikeouts has been key. You can live with high-K rates for players putting balls in seats. But a hitter like Azocar, who has five home runs since coming to the United States in 2015, has to put the ball in play and let his speed come into play.
“I struck out too much,” said Azocar, signed by the Tigers in 2012 at age 16. “Now I try to see the ball well. I try to hit the ball middle to other way. Most of the time to middle, and if I do, I put my thumb back when I have a good strike, and not make strikeouts.”
Azocar struck out 119 times in 2016 in Low-A West Michigan for a 22.4 percent strikeout rate, ballooning to 26.8 percent when he struck out 122 times in High-A Lakeland in 2017. His batting average dipped to .220 for the Flying Tigers and Azocar fell of the Tigers top prospect lists going into last season.
After a month and a half of .214 hitting in Lakeland to start 2018, Azocar was demoted back to West Michigan where something clicked.
He hit .317 in 27 games for the Whitecaps, earning a promotion back to Lakeland where he his .330 in 52 games — with the strikeout rate down to 16.2 percent.
“He’s been a kid in the past that’s kind of had some swing and miss in him,” said Dave Owen, the Tigers director of player development. “He’s doing a better job of being disciplined to stay in the strike zone a little more.”
It’s been more of the same this season in Erie, as Azocar has a career-low 15 percent strikeout rate at the highest level of competition he’s seen in his career.
“He’s a guy where you accumulate these at-bats and you hope that something clicks,” Rabelo said. “Something clearly, I could go back last year, the second half in Lakeland, whenever he came back from West Michigan, he was a different hitter.”
Azocar is playing right field and has moved back and forth from center field while playing at times alongside Derek Hill, another former highly touted Tigers prospect who has made strides this season in Erie.
Rabelo said the Erie clubhouse is akin to a group of college friends now enjoying their upperclassmen status in the minors. The manager has been steering much of the ship, receiving many of them as organizational rookies with the short-season Connecticut Tigers before moving up the ladder himself with the Whitecaps in 2017, the Flying Tigers last season, and now with Erie.
Outfielder Cam Gibson, third baseman Danny Pinero, and pitchers Alex Faedo and Matt Manning are the comedic ringleaders, Rabelo said, but players like Azocar mix positively into any group with their everyday effort. “It’s easy to say about somebody, but I’ve seen him now for two years, and I have a little bit in Connecticut,” Rabelo said. “He loves playing baseball. Every time he picks up a baseball, he’s going to try and throw it as hard as he can, every time he swings a bat, there’s conviction. Every time he runs, he busts his butt down the line.”
The right fielder picked up his teammate Casey Mize during his April 29 no-hitter in his Erie debut, making a sliding catch for last season’s first overall pick.
About his joyful play, Azocar concurs with his manager, a former catcher who was traded by the Tigers in 2007 as part of a deal that changed everything, netting Cabrera from the Florida Marlins.
Azocar has been playing since he was 5 years old in Venezuela, when his father, also named Jose Azocar, would work with his son every day after school after riding bikes to the park.
The younger Azocar idolized Cabrera, and said meeting him in Lakeland was a thrill.
“He’s a nice guy too, he’s a friend and when you need something, he told you what to do; he’s a leader,” Azocar said. “He says to do my best every single day I play.
“And I only try to do my best all the time when I go to the field.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.