Experienced baseball fans understand that March is both the most desperately anticipated and truly underwhelming month on the calendar. After a long winter without Major League Baseball, the best thing about spring training is the knowledge that real action is near. The actual gameplay, once we’re finally permitted to actually watch said games, isn’t usually predictive of anything to come during the season. Well, other than pitcher injuries, and who doesn’t love a spring preview of those?
The problem is the variety of stages of preparation and intensity from player to player. A veteran starter looking to throw as many innings as possible in season may come to camp in shape, but having waited to ramp up the intensity of their work. Other veterans are working on their mechanics, developing a new pitch, or simply working their way into game shape at their own pace with no concern for results. On the contrary, you also have young players with steam coming out of their ears desperately trying to compete and land a 26-man roster spot. Many of them come to camp already fully in game shape trying to put their best foot forward. All these disparate goals make spring performance difficult to use as any kind of predictor.
However, on a player by player basis, there are usually some keys to look out for that could impact both how that player’s season may play out, and how the final roster takes shape in late March. Particularly for a team like the Detroit Tigers, with a lot of valuable prospects on the brink of the major leagues, and developing young players trying to adjust to the game’s toughest level, here is a brief look at some key details we’ll be focused on as the Grapefruit League season starts to kick into higher gear this weekend.
Michael Fulmer’s mechanics
The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year is obviously a long way from his best days on the mound. A shaky 2018 season, followed by UCL and right meniscus repairs in the spring of 2019, mean we’re three years on from the last time the big right-hander was an above average pitcher. He returned in 2020 to fairly disastrous results, but frankly all that mattered was the fact that he had most of his velocity intact and suffered no injury related setbacks.
Fulmer compensated for the right knee issues with a funky looking hop step into his front side landing, trying not to stretch the surgically repaired right knee, but it sapped him of lower half drive and he averaged just 93.2 mph, well off the 95.8 mph he averaged in 2018. For a pitcher who’s success largely depends on pounding hitters with a difficult mix of high velocity fastballs, that was a problem that needed some resolution this offseason.
Working with Tigers pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves, Fulmer has reportedly shortened his stride a bit to help him engage his lower half throughout his delivery. He was also leaner than ever before in 2020 to try and take some pressure off the knee, but has now built himself back up to his normal fighting trim. The question is whether this will translate to regaining some of his old fastball dominance. Heading into his first spring outing on Saturday, after a hiatus for the birth of he and his wife Kelsey’s second child, all eyes will be on Fulmer’s revamped mechanics and the Statcast metrics he’ll post.
Right now, Fulmer’s spot in the rotation is far from assured. The Tigers signed Jose Ureña and Julio Teheran this offseason, and all three of their top pitching prospects will be in the mix for a rotation spot alongside the two locks in Spencer Turnbull and Matthew Boyd. With lefthanders Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander also being stretched out early in spring camp, there is plenty of competition, and no guarantees for Fulmer. Even if the mechanical adjustments and time off rebuilding his strength pay dividends, he may yet find himself in the bullpen. However, to have any role at all, the fastball has to be much more effective than the 2020 version or his career is going to remain in jeopardy.
Matt Manning’s new curveball
Of the Tigers “big three” pitching prospects, Manning was the only one not to debut in 2020. That wasn’t so surprising, given that Manning is also the youngest by a year. Still, he probably would’ve gotten a look if not for a minor forearm strain which led the club to shut him down in late August. Instead, we got a few tantalizing glimpses in spring camp and that was all.
However, we may ultimately look back on the year of COVID as a transformative one for the 23-year-old right-hander. The key goal for him was to develop a harder breaking ball with more horizontal bite than the big 12-6 hook he’s featured as a pro. While that curveball uniformly draws plus grades, it hasn’t necessarily generated great whiff rates, particularly against right-handed hitters. To take things to the next level, a breaker with some horizontal movement was required.
The early story of Manning’s spring camp in 2020 then, was his work developing a slider. Ultimately, that experiment didn’t take, as Manning struggled to control the pitch and was advised by former pitching coach Rick Anderson to scrap the project for the time being. Coupled with the early shutdown for the forearm issue, that ill-fated experiment pegged it as a lost season.
That was really the first major adversity Manning has faced in his rise toward the major leagues. Other than some rough outings after he was drafted as the Tigers revamped his delivery, the big Californian has overpowered hitters at every level. For three seasons, Manning has relentlessly built his innings count and developed into a lean, strong, six-foot, six-inch beast, all while developing ever more potent command, velocity, and secondary pitches.
So far, the lost season only seems to have him more motivated than ever, particularly after seeing Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal make their debuts. Manning ramped up his conditioning even further, and added a yoga program to improve his flexibility. He also revamped his mechanics, specifically his arm path, during the offseason. And finally, he has developed a new breaking ball that seems to offer some of the slider traits his old 12-6 curveball did not.
In place of a prototypical slider, Manning is throwing a second curveball that is described as harder than his old one and with more tilt to it. More than any other pitch in camp, this is the one I’m most interested in seeing in action. You don’t see many guys throwing two different curveball types, but defining breaking ball types is getting harder all the time as pitchers experiment with their grip and release to get the shapes they want. The traditional straight downer at 78-80 mph might function as a changeup to left-handers if Manning is now packing a mid-80’s frisbee as well. We shall see.
Akil Baddoo’s contact ability
The 22-year-old former Minnesota Twins outfield prospect was the Tigers Rule 5 selection back in December. When Baddoo last saw game action, it was May 11th of 2019, at the Advanced-A level. He tore the UCL in his throwing arm at that point, and underwent Tommy John surgery soon thereafter. Obviously it’s a pretty tall order to be out of action for a year and then ultimately go almost 22 months within playing a game, only to find yourself in big league camp with the Tigers trying to decide if they’ll keep you on the roster all year to claim your full rights.
Baddoo is a plus runner with above average power who had some early track record of plate discipline before the arm surgery. Poor grades on his arm seem to limit him to left field, but post-surgery we don’t really know how his arm might play now. Regardless of his defensive home, if he can handle the pitching he’ll face in camp enough to survive in spring camp that would be a pretty good sign after such an enormous layoff.
So far, Baddoo has been pretty impressive. He’s squared up several balls for good exit velocity readings, and shown patience in drawing several walks as well. Considering the lack of quality outfield prospects in the upper minors, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers letting him go. As long as Baddoo doesn’t appear thoroughly overwhelmed by pitching at this level, he’s very likely to stick around.
Contact for Jake Rogers and Christin Stewart
Typically, the most useful notes in spring training come from pitchers. We can see for ourselves how a new pitch looks and where they’re sitting in terms of velocity. The health of their arms is inevitably one of the key storylines in preparing for a season. Hitters are tougher to evaluate because they have to react to pitches and getting their timing and mechanics dialed in is difficult until they’re facing live pitching on a consistent basis.
In catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Christin Stewart, the Tigers have two hitters who really need to take a big step this season or see their major league futures dim substantially. Both have struggled with velocity and major league caliber breaking balls so far in their time in the majors. A strong spring camp won’t be predictive of a good season at the plate, but both need to give signs of hope that they can transcend their previous contact issues enough to remain a factor.
For Rogers, the requirements are more modest as a catcher. If he can simply trim his strikeouts a bit and get to a little more power, his glove will carry him to major league playing time for years to come, even if it’s only in a backup role.
For Stewart, his only carrying tool is power and we’ve seen precious little of it at the major league level. If he can’t take a major step forward at the plate this year, his time in the organization may be at an end. To that end, Stewart has made some adjustments in his stance, setting up with lower hands and a vertical barrel to help him get the bat on plane with more efficiency to his stroke.
Now 27 years old, Stewart does have three options remaining, and it’s not as though the Tigers are stacked with outfield prospects in the upper minors. Still, without making a much better case for himself that things are turning around offensively, there isn’t going to be much point holding a 40-man roster spot for him any longer. Hopefully the adjustments pay some dividends.