Contrary to what his 6-foot-8, 280-pound frame might suggest, RJ Petit has always been in love with baseball.
His basketball career consisted of church ball as a kid.
“I like to call myself the Scottie Pippen of church basketball,” Petit joked. “I never really had the feel or touch for scoring or anything like that, but gosh, I could get a rebound when I wanted to.”
Football wasn’t for him, either.
“Every year in high school, I always had the wrestling coach and the football coach ask me to play, and I just never really had an interest,” Petit explained. “I went to spring practice for football, went for two weeks, and they put me at right tackle. I did pretty well, but I just didn’t have that football mentality. It’s just different, especially on the line.
“I couldn’t understand why people were so mad all the time, the guys I was blocking. It was just something I didn’t really enjoy.”
Baseball was clearly his passion. And after the Tigers selected the Charleston Southern right-hander in the 14th round of the MLB Draft on Tuesday, he has a chance to pursue it as a career and see how far he can take this.
“We’ve known about him for a while,” Tigers amateur scouting director Scott Pleis said, “and we’ve liked what we saw. So it was nice to get him.”
This is the fun part of the Draft and its return to a three-day event this year after lasting just five rounds in 2020. For all the focus on top prospects, projections and bonus pools when the Draft begins, it’s a grind. By the last day, it’s essentially a foot in the door for players trying to give it a shot, and a search for scouts to find diamonds in the rough. They don’t come in one standard size.
Petit is a fascinating member of the latter category.
“I remember multiple times this year, backing up third base and having the other dugout in my ear, making jokes about my size,” he said. “And I honestly laugh at a lot of them, because a lot of them are funny. I just try to laugh at it and enjoy it.”
But with that big body, perhaps not surprisingly, comes a big arm. And that’s what has the Tigers hoping they get the last laugh.
While Petit is not a late bloomer to baseball, his fastball is. He didn’t catch the attention of college programs until the summer before his senior season in high school. He was throwing 88-91 mph, by his estimate, and topping out around 93.
“I wasn’t the biggest prospect,” he said. “I mean, I was a big prospect, but not in that sense.”
Charleston Southern was the one school to offer Petit a scholarship. He added some muscle to his height, worked with coaches to refine his delivery and pushed his fastball into the mid 90s, topping out at 97.
Petit struck out 50 batters over 40 1/3 innings in 2019, earned All-Big South honors and was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American. He went into 2020 as the Big South Preseason Pitcher of the Year when the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled his sophomore season after two games out of the bullpen. He stayed in shape, but he wasn’t playing.
“I put on a little bit of weight, which I realized quickly that I did not need,” Petit said.
That’s where his listed weight of 300 pounds originates. He still felt good and had an impressive summer last year, striking out 29 over 18 1/3 innings in the Coastal Plain League. Still, he dropped 22 pounds going into his junior season.
Back in the Buccaneers’ rotation this spring under a new coaching staff, Petit was again an all-conference pick, posting a 2.79 ERA in 14 games. His strikeout rate fell to 75 over 84 innings. He also hit eight batters and threw five wild pitches. His velocity was a little lower as a starter than in relief, and his slider was slower and loopier.
With the Draft coming up, Petit went to a training facility close to home in Charlotte, N.C., and worked on his delivery.
“It was more of just getting in the best shape I can, working on things mobility-wise that I’m lacking and trying to hammer those out,” Petit said. “And as a result, I gained a couple of miles an hour in the bullpen setting, and my slider ticked up like 2-3 miles an hour on average.”
All the while, the Tigers were paying attention. His old coach, George Schaefer, joined the team as an area scout. Petit worked out in Lakeland, Fla., last week.
“We had a little inside track on him,” Pleis said.
The Tigers are no strangers to big pitchers. They drafted a 6-foot-10 right-hander, Hugh Smith, in 2018. But Pleis can’t remember drafting another pitcher with an overall body frame like Petit. Ironically, Detroit drafted a 5-foot-8 pitcher, Wichita State closer Aaron Haase, three rounds after Petit.
They’ll both get a shot, which is one of the great things about baseball. That’s all Petit can ask for.
“At the end of the day, all I need is the opportunity,” he said. “Doesn’t really matter where, just going to go out and do what I do. The goal is to get to the top regardless.”