Sunday came and the Tigers’ draft-day plans were final.
No matter what the Pirates decided to do at first-overall, where they were expected to take a broadly popular choice to begin the 2021 MLB Draft — Marcelo Mayer — the Tigers were resolute about who they were snaring with the draft’s third overall turn.
Jackson Jobe, an exception in Detroit’s minds to warnings that you run from prep pitchers, would be the Tigers’ pick.
Mayer, they liked — a lot. A left-handed hitting shortstop, with a swing so smooth it could be trusted to handle fiery pro pitching, was atop their list of hitters and position stars.
But he was not Jobe. No one was Jobe. Not in the Tigers’ estimation. It was an early view hammered home all of last week as scouts, and analytics whizzes, and all the eyeballs and science that could be brought to a debate as important as a reconstructing team’s first shot at 2021’s talent crop, gathered in Lakeland, Florida, to conclude that Jobe was one of those once-in-a-decade athletes.
It was something of a shocker, for this reason, principally: The Tigers seemingly needed a superstar shortstop for a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series since it last had a flagship man at short — Alan Trammell in 1984.
Trammell was expected to reaffirm that very point. And, to a heavy extent, he was with Mayer all the way after Trammell, who lives in San Diego, saw Mayer over and over and over again during games and practices at Eastlake High, just outside of San Diego in Chula Vista.
Trammell, in fact, saw all the Tigers’ top draft-board considerations — every one of them in his job as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila.
What he saw in Jobe meshed with what the Tigers’ area scouts, cross-checkers, draft executives, and front-office bosses, right down to Avila, also saw in an 18-year-old, right-handed dynamo from Heritage Hall High in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Here was the exception to baseball’s stay-away-from-prep-arms commandment.
To appreciate, in one statistical window, why Jobe was considered to be a kid pitcher not only worth trust but worth commitment, feast on these numbers from a teen who throws a high-90s fastball with a slider that, almost disbelievingly, exceeds 3,000 rpms — “and without using the sticky stuff,” as one Tigers scout, who asked to remain nameless, offered.
Ten games, 51⅔ innings, 15 hits, 122 strikeouts, five walks.
A teen throwing big-league pitches at 18 walked five batters in 50-plus innings.
More than astounding numbers were involved, of course.
There is a term baseball scouts use: “quick-twitch.” It refers to muscles and to reactions that are explosive. A quick-twitch prospect has a chance to be exceptional: more velocity and movement on his pitches, more bat speed as a hitter, more shutdown skills as a defender.
Jobe is your definitive quick-twitch 18-year-old. So much so that the Tigers, who watched him crush pitches as a hitter, or play Gold Glove defense as a shortstop when he wasn’t pitching, have entertained, at various times, thoughts that Jobe might be worth using in the same manner as everyone’s current two-way dynamo, Shohei Ohtani of the Angels.
The Tigers won’t carry through on those thoughts. But to say they haven’t considered them is false.
Compare the Jobe model to Mayer and you see why Detroit acted as it did Sunday.
Mayer is known in scouting parlance as more of a rhythm talent. He does everything smoothly. Swings a bat beautifully. Plays defense in the manner of Fred Astaire gliding across an infield. Throws elegantly.
That’s why he topped the Tigers’ position list. It is why, had Jobe been gone, they would have taken Mayer. He almost certainly will be a good big-league player, maybe a very good one.
Jobe, however, was in the stratosphere. He has a ceiling that looks like something Richard Branson might have touched Sunday as Branson made a bid to glimpse the heavens.
Can this all come undone?
Sure. You’re talking pitchers. Arms. Fragility. Tommy John surgery. Labrum tears.
You’re also talking about a gifted athlete, 6-foot-2, touching 200 pounds, who now has all the advantages that bioscience, innings limits, pitch counts, and his own blessed body and delivery can marshal to offer him as long of a baseball career as can reasonably be envisioned.
So, why wasn’t Jobe slurped up by either of the two teams picking ahead of Detroit — the Pirates and Rangers?
The answers are easily appreciated.
The Pirates were dead set on going with a bat. When money became a factor — Mayer’s agent, John Boggs, had let it be known they wanted something approaching full-slot cash — the Pirates backed away, retained some extra dollars for their later picks, then opted for hard-hitting Henry Davis from Louisville.
The Rangers were in love with the draft’s finished pitching product: Jack Leiter of Vanderbilt. Leiter had the kind of celebrity and elevation in 2021 that Jobe likely would share, or exceed, in three years if he were to have marched off to his University of Mississippi commitment.
So, that left the Tigers to mull their two top gems: Jobe and Mayer. Which they did through all of last week’s marathon sessions and debates at Lakeland. They stuck with Jobe.
Just too good, too special, too majestic in his skill set, they concluded.
The Red Sox, next in line Sunday, quickly scarfed up Mayer.
It will be some brand of separate thoroughbred race in these coming years — the Jobe vs. Mayer contest.
Or, maybe we should consider it in this context: Two excellent athletes were just tabbed for future MLB stardom by two teams that figure to get all the grandeur, even glory, that 18-year-old prodigies can ever hope to bring to ballparks blessed to display them.
Blue-chippers each, the Tigers simply concluded their Oklahoma blue-chipper was a tad bluer.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.