Relief prospect Drew Carlton climbs Tigers’ ladder with precision, not power

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

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Drive south from Tigertown’s baseball complex in Lakeland, Florida, and you run into Drew Carlton’s old neighborhood.

His folks, Richard and Michelle, are day-traders whose home, where Drew grew up, is a minute or two from George Jenkins High where Drew pitched before finding his way to Florida State, and in 2017, to the Tigers as a 32nd-round draft pick and right-handed reliever who since has had quite the ride.

He’s been invited to big-league camp when it convenes Wednesday for pitchers and catchers. And do not minimize his chances lest you play straight into the hands of those who for too long have underestimated a pitcher whose fastball religiously hangs in the low-90s.

Notice his early numbers. They are persuasive.

Three seasons in the Tigers farm chain, from Single A to Double A: 104 games, 1.74 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, .211 opposing batting average, with these ratios per nine innings: hits (6.9), walks (1.8) and strikeouts (9.1).

And, oh yes: In the span of those 104 games and 160⅔ innings he has allowed four — four — home runs.

This is not ancient history, even if Carlton, 25, missed 2020 as did most minor-leaguers who dealt with a COVID-canceled season.

He returned last month from a 14-game stint with Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. And, not exactly a shock to Carlton students, his grades were steady: 14 games, 14⅓ innings, 0.63 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, nine hits, one walk, 11 strikeouts, and of course, no home runs.

How, exactly, he does this minus a searing fastball that tends to underpin most shutdown relievers’ portfolios is best explained by Carlton.

“My fastball is a little weird,” said a man who is 6-foot-1 and whose weight, Saturday, he estimated to be in the “205 to 210” range.

“My fastball sinks a lot. And it’s a four-seam sinker, which is kind of strange. But I make it work. I think it throws the hitters off. They see the four-seam spin, but it dives like a two-seam.

“I also throw it up in the zone, which is also kind of weird for someone with my arm-slot — three-quarters. It looks a little weird to a hitter and tends to get them to swing over it and under it.”

Carlton paused and half-shrugged during this Zoom interview. He understands the stage act isn’t terribly conventional. 

“It’s just having a feel for all three pitches (he also throws a slider and a change-up) and being able to locate all three for strikes,” he said. “That was the thing my pitching coach, Mike Bell, tried to hammer at us at Florida State.

“Throw strikes at any time, with any pitch, in any count. It helped me get into that mindset of knowing what I wanted to do with the ball and where I wanted to put it.

“As a pitcher, the main thing you want to do, for someone without overpowering stuff, is locate and throw around the (bat) barrels.”

It isn’t all that complicated. And, no, there’s not a great deal of secrecy or mystery to Carlton’s presentation, as was acknowledged Friday by A.J. Sager, the Tigers bullpen coach and roving minor-league pitching instructor.

“Drew is not just a strike-thrower, but a quality strike-thrower,” Sager said. “He has been since we drafted him. He throws three pitches for strikes in any count.

“He does a great job of keeping the ball out of areas the hitter can do damage. He fields his position well, and pays attention to the running game.

“A quiet guy, but highly competitive.”

Closing time

All of these traits, these pluses, were considered and exploited when Carlton was pitching at FSU.

Bell, now the head baseball coach at Pitt, was, yes, supervising FSU pitchers during Carlton’s days with the Seminoles. He and his boss, Mike Martin, were hoping to lock down a bullpen closer.

Typically, any team’s closer, even in college, is a guy who can arrive and throw bat-busting bullets that incinerate batters and make notions of a last-at-bat rally fruitless.

But the Seminoles coaches had a different plan. They weren’t as concerned about fire as they wanted finality. They thought the answer was obvious: Take one of their starters who could avoid that most deadly of sins, walks, and let him finish games.

Carlton was summoned for a meeting with Martin and with Bell. What, precisely, they had in a junior-class starter wasn’t sure.

“I got pulled into the office one day,” Carlton recalled, “and they said, ‘We need a very reliable arm in the bullpen and we don’t see anyone as reliable or who throws as many strikes as you. We’d really benefit from having you in that bullpen with that veteran arm.’”

Not much to say if you’re a man of honor. If you’re that exalted species known as a “team player.”

Even if he wasn’t wild about it.

“At the beginning, not really,” Carlton said. “But as the season went on, I adjusted. I wasn’t really expecting to be that comfortable in that situation.”

Carlton as a sophomore had done fine as a Seminoles starter — 3.94 ERA in 17 games, including a two-hit gem against Florida in the NCAA tournament that beat a Gators star who a year later was to become Detroit’s first-round pick: Alex Faedo. But, just as Martin and Bell foresaw, Carlton calmed FSU’s back-end. He pitched 35 games in relief: 2.17 ERA, with the usual array of strikes, strikes, and more strikes.

Bell spoke Saturday about that rather dramatic — as college baseball decisions go — meeting with Carlton early in 2017.

“He’s an ultimate competitor, a true pitcher, and I think the bigger the stage and the bigger the game, he’s a guy who never backs down,” Bell said during a phone chat. “We kind of sold that to him — that this was going to add value to him down the road if pro teams determined he could do different things.”

Bell said it was Carlton’s makeup as much as his arm that, for FSU’s coaches, led to an easy choice.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that Drew has always been Drew — he understands who he is and doesn’t try to be somebody else,” Bell said. “Whether it was in high school, or college, or as he now works through pro ball, he’s always had poise on the mound. You can say he has ice in his veins, but more for me is that he doesn’t back down from anything.”

‘Mudder’ mentality

That absence of a fearsome fastball isn’t an issue, at least in a coach’s view. Carlton’s repertoire has changed through the years — the cutter is now a slider, and the “slurvy” breaking pitch he once threw is gone, replaced by a purer change-up.

“Fastball command and the ability to pitch off his fastball has always been there,” Bell said. “He can locate it, he can get a little more velo (velocity) if he needs it, he can sink it, and he can pitch in on a left-handed or right-handed batter.

“He knows how to attack hitters. He can take the ball every day, and that’s the beautiful thing. He’s not that big. But he’s a 6-foot ‘mudder’ and I love him to death.”

Carlton knew, as his closer profile deepened in 2017, that he would be drafted that June. Where, and by which team, he had no clue. But it was the Tigers who bit, in the 32nd round, and then offered enough cash to steer him from his senior season at FSU.

He was doing fine, academically, it might be added. An economics major — he likes the day-trading world in which his parents, and younger brother, Jake, all work — Carlton was within 20 credits of graduating when he joined the Tigers. It’s less than a year of mop-up studies he plans on finishing, well, once baseball is behind him.

That might be down the road a bit. Maybe quite a bit if his past antics continue.

Turns out, pitching baseball is something he finds terrifically gratifying, even as he trekked last autumn to the Dominican Republic for six weeks with Escogido. He and his wife, Victoria — they’ve been together since high-school days — enjoyed Santo Domingo, including the COVID-confined time at a most pleasant and beautiful hotel.

But it was on the baseball field that Carlton saw a deeper dividend. Winter League ball in the D.R. is sophisticated. You better pitch, and pitch well, if you’re to hang around and not be jettisoned by teams that expect to win.

Carlton passed yet another test. Now, another looms. And how wild is it that this spring-camp audition comes at his hometown, where years ago he would be among the crowd at Grapefruit League games, or on summer nights when the Lakeland Flying Tigers were dueling at Marchant Stadium as a couple of kid prospects named Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson were just beginning their paths to Detroit.

He understands realities, of course. He didn’t pitch competitive baseball last year. He has some grooming ahead, probably this season at his 2019 stopover, at Double-A Erie, or maybe at Triple A. He could get torched during these upcoming Grapefruit League contests and see how far a man, even at 25, is from Detroit.

Or, he might just continue doing what he’s been doing for some time now. He might pitch — well.

Sometimes, it seems, scripts don’t change. They carry on, they evolve, they give way to new scenes and times that don’t much deviate from a theme that steadily works.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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