The minor-league season has been canceled, but the development of the Tigers’ prospects is still a critical aspect of the team’s rebuild. In this series, Lynn Henning will take a look at some of the key players. Today: Jason Foley.
They were words from three years ago, in May of 2017, after a Tigers farm reliever at Single A West Michigan had blown away hitters during a 13-game stretch.
Mike Rabelo, then the Whitecaps manager, was spellbound. The story of Jason Foley made no sense.
“I’ve said this 100 times – this dude wasn’t drafted?” Rabelo asked, marveling at how a 6-foot-4, right-handed fire-thrower had escaped the 2016 draft and been signed by the Tigers later that summer as a free agent.
“Talking with amateur scouts, I’ve asked every one of them: How wasn’t he drafted?
“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.”
True enough: Foley’s numbers in late May of 2017 sizzled: 1.64 WHIP, 0.82 WHIP, 15 hits in 22 innings, three walks, 25 strikeouts. A few days later he was bumped to Single A Lakeland.
And a few weeks after that he felt his elbow pop: Tommy John surgery.
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Cut to August 2020. Foley is now 24 and remains a Tigers pitching prospect. He is living at his parents’ home on Long Island, New York, across Long Island Sound from Fairfield, Connecticut, where Sacred Heart University is located and where Foley pitched before Detroit’s scouts spotted him on a summer sandlot field.
He remains in steady touch with Tigers coaches, speaking two or three times a week, as Foley, like thousands of minor-leaguers, works out in makeshift ways during the 2020 pandemic.
He had returned last year and his baseball life was expected to at least resemble his 2017 profile. And it did – somewhat. Foley threw more high-90s heat at Lakeland. But he had a so-so season as his arm continued to heal and rebound: 36 games, 3.89 ERA, and a way-too-high 1.43 WHIP, courtesy mostly of 46 hits in 44 innings. He still whiffed 43 batters and unintentionally walked 16.
This summer he works out with other area minor-leaguers who are faring during a summer with no farm-team games. The four-seam fastball, Foley and his coaches agree, is still there. Still at 97, 98, maybe a tick or two more.
But his ticket through the Tigers chain and potentially to Detroit probably rides on another pitch: a two-seam sinker he began throwing during March’s COVID-chopped spring camp. The new pitch is a product of 2020 analytics and technology. Staffers from Driveline Baseball, based in Kent, Washington, worked with the Tigers in assessing data that got a boost from SmartKage, a product designed by SmartSports, Inc., which uses personal-performance measurements to assess things like a pitch’s spin-rate.
And that’s where both Foley’s issues and his opportunities perhaps rest.
It seems Foley’s four-seam fastball, even at 100 mph, was being too easily timed by hitters. It lacked “movement.” It was a flatter pitch all because Foley’s heater had too little spin.
The remedy, the Tigers and Foley hope, is that changed grip he began using in Florida in March that puts spin on a sinking two-seamer to offset his high-throttle four-seamer.
All parties insist Foley’s two-seamer can still cruise well into the 90s – at serious velocity for a sinker. Tigers historians might remember that it was a high-velocity sinker, developed during spring camp almost 60 years ago, that turned Mickey Lolich into the near-Hall of Fame pitcher he became. Not many mortals can pull off Lolich’s trick, but there’s at least precedent.
“It should be a pitch that has late break, something that he can get down in the strike zone, and then he can use his four-seam up and expand his repertoire,” said Mark Johnson, the one-time Tigers pitcher who has been a Tigers minor-league pitching coach since 2006 and who now works at Double A Erie.
“The one thing he has is arm strength – not everyone can throw in the upper-90s, so that’s a bonus.”
AJ Sager is the Tigers’ roving minor-league pitching guru who inspected Foley last summer, as well. Sager saw him again during the few days in March that minor-leaguers convened ahead of MLB’s coronavirus shutdown.
“Foley’s stuff looked to be mostly back in the spring,” Sager said last week. “His velo came back last summer to what it was pre-Tommy John. But like most Tommy John guys, the secondary pitches and overall command tend to be a bit behind the first year back.
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“But he looked good this spring. I’m just sorry we couldn’t watch him pitch this summer.”
Once camp was called off in March, Foley’s story was typical of most minor-leaguers’ in 2020: He returned home. He hit a local gym. And then the gym closed, which spurred Foley to build his own at-home training center. He throws “two to three bullpens” a week with other minor-leaguers who likewise are dealing with canceled farm-club seasons and restrictions on get-togethers that COVID’s wrath doesn’t allow.
“I’m doing as good as you can be,” Foley said during a phone conversation last week. “Obviously, it’s a tough time for athletes, and for minor-league players in general. But everyone’s going through it, so you do the best you can trying to stay on track with your training and throwing. I think I’ve found a good balance.”
Diamond in the rough
Just why, and how, Foley missed becoming one of those 1,216 players picked during the 40-round 2016 MLB draft is benignly explained.
He pitched for a small (8,000-plus) private school in a cold-weather zone not known for kicking out boatloads of big-league talent. He had not pitched terribly well as a starter that spring of 2016 and his pro-camp audition was, in Tigers scout Jim Bretz’s estimation, “so-so.”
Bretz kept tabs as Foley shifted to summer ball with the vaunted Mystic Schooners of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Soon, Bretz saw a different pitcher. He called James Orr, then the Tigers’ East Coast Crosschecker, who was bird-dogging that summer’s Cape Cod League. Orr drove in for a second look, catching Foley during a game at Groton, Connecticut.
Orr saw all the inventory during Foley’s bullpen warm-up: good arm-action and delivery, velocity, a decent slider, and a split-finger fastball that Foley eventually would turn into a “foshball” change-up.
The Tigers signed him the next morning for money serious enough to steer Foley from his senior year at Sacred Heart. He pitched seven more innings that summer at two bottom-rung Tigers farm outposts, then reported to West Michigan in April 2017 where Rabelo was floored by Foley’s first two months, and the big bump in velocity.
Now, three years later, Foley’s mission is to make those home-gym drills as well as his weekly bullpen sessions somehow replace the farm-season games in which he otherwise would have been sweating and developing pitches.
One element, beyond his sturdy arm, could help. Foley was an accounting major at Sacred Heart. He since has wrapped up his degree. He is good with numbers. His parents, Ed and Renee, are engineers. A bit of DNA might have helped him process that SmartKage data and its applications as he sharpens his new sinker.
“Baseball has become so analytical,” Foley said. “The data said a two-seam would pair well with my arm-slot and fastball. It just figures to be a pretty good pitch for me. During those two spring-training games (back fields at TigerTown) I pitched before the shutdown, it definitely showed up. Good running and sinking action. Got several ground balls, broke a bat. It seemed to be doing what it was supposed to be doing.”
He is a legitimate 6-foot-4, pushing 6-5, and his weight is fine – “about 210,” Foley said.
The Monday video check-ins with Johnson continue. There are conversations throughout the week.
“I think I’ve done a good job of working this summer and taking advantage of the time off,” Foley said. “We’re still trying to clean up a few things with my off-speed stuff and change-ups.”
He concedes that 2020 for him was supposed to have been a bust-out year. He could have pitched in 40-plus games (he is a certified reliever). He probably would have spent at least the early summer back at Lakeland, polishing that two-seamer. Hoping for a ticket to Double A Erie.
Now, who knows? About this fall, next year, next spring, next summer? What’s the future for COVID and the medical soldiers aiming to destroy it? What’s ahead for a 24-year-old right-hander from Long Island who can still heat up a radar gun?
The pandemic has caused pain greater than crimping a pitching prospect’s plans. But there are days, Foley acknowledged as he got busy with an afternoon of remote prepping and polishing, when that pain is pain enough for man who owns a big right arm and even bigger hopes.
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