Epic journey brings Jason Foley to MLB debut. Here’s what the Detroit Tigers expect

Detroit Free Press

Jason Foley received his “incredible moment” with a prank.

The coaching staff for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, called Foley into the clubhouse around noon Saturday. The crew told the 25-year-old reliever that he needed to fill out a document for COVID-19 testing.

Here’s the punch line: There was never a document.

“I went in, and they were getting on me and giving me a hard time,” Foley said Sunday. “Eventually, they broke the news, like, ‘Hey, you’re going to the big leagues.’ It was pretty emotional. You work your butt off to get here, so it’s been nothing but good so far.”

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The Tigers made everything official Sunday, adding Foley to the 40- and 26-man rosters ahead of the series finale with the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. He made his MLB debut Sunday with a scoreless sixth inning, despite two hit batters.

Five years after Foley signed with the Tigers as an undrafted free agent, the organization gets to find out if he’s worth keeping around for the future. He is the team’s No. 27 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.

“He opens eyes,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s got a great arm, moving fastball. Right-handers really don’t hit him hard at all. He can fill up the strike zone with 95 to 100 miles per hour fastballs and a little slider, and he opened some eyes.”

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Foley took an unconventional journey to get to the majors. He was playing in a college summer league in Connecticut in the summer of 2016, prepared to return to Sacred Heart University for his senior year.

That’s when the Tigers — the only team to show interest — signed him.

“Definitely very surprised,” Foley said. “I had already gotten over the fact that I wasn’t drafted. Didn’t really expect anything.”

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Then came Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss the entire 2018 season. He pitched in the Low-A and High-A levels in the minors during 2017, combining for a 2.48 ERA, seven walks and 41 strikeouts in 36⅓ innings.

The setback was devastating, more so than going undrafted.

“I had thrown very well prior to (elbow surgery) and just had a lot of confidence and good motivation going forward,” Foley said. “Just knowing that you’re not going to be able to play for upward of a year and miss a whole season, it was tough.”

Then came the canceled 2020 season, a product of the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire minor leagues were canceled, leaving Foley without organized games in his second year back from elbow surgery.

Two lost seasons in three years.

“It’s a dream to play in the big leagues,” Foley said. “Whatever obstacles are put in front of you, you got to go through them. It was definitely a tough battle, but I never gave up, always kept working hard and good things will happen.”

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Foley’s disappointment was enhanced because of his success in 2019, his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He pitched 36 games at the High-A level, limited in his workload, and posted a 3.89 ERA, 17 walks and 43 strikeouts in 44 innings.

When the minor leagues returned for 2021, the Tigers were impressed by Foley in spring training and pushed him to Triple-A Toledo, skipping Double-A Erie. Before getting called up to the big leagues, Foley had a 3.60 ERA, four walks and 10 strikeouts in 10 innings for the Mud Hens.

“They just hit mistakes better,” Foley said. “That’s what it comes down to. The more you leave the ball in the middle, the more they’re going to hit it. I had to learn how to mix up sequences better and throw some offspeed pitches in fastball counts. You learn the hard way, but it’s the only way to learn.”

Hinch added: “Once he got to Triple-A, he started to establish himself as a guy that was going to factor in at some point during the season. … He’s earned the opportunity to get a look.”

What to watch for

Foley has more than a triple-digit four-seam fastball in his bag of tricks.

He didn’t reach the majors by overpowering hitters. There’s a part of his arsenal that’s crafty, too. He implemented a two-seam fastball during minor-league spring training in 2019, giving him downward action to produce ground balls.

“That’s given me a whole new weapon to get outs,” Foley said. “Developed a lot with my changeup and my slider, and those have been great assets to get guys out when they’re sitting on a fastball. I’ve definitely been improving. Looking to get better every day.”

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Twenty-nine teams passed on Foley. He underwent Tommy John surgery, a dreaded procedure for any player. The 2020 season, just as he was showing signs of dominance, was shut down. But he found the determination to break through each roadblock along the way.

Finally, Foley has arrived.

And the Tigers hope he provides a boost to the bullpen for years to come.

“Taking a look at somebody we feel like could be part of our present and part of our future is good,” Hinch said. “Relievers come from anywhere. There is no set track and one-size-fits-all development. He seemingly can control the moment. He’s going to be in awe facing some of the big names as he’s climbed the ladder, but the stuff is real.

“When you see that impact and it opens some eyes, when the opportunity comes about, you want to see if you can catch something.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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