How Jackson Jobe went from barely touching 90 mph to the Detroit Tigers’ No. 1 pick

Detroit Free Press

From these humble beginnings…

Jackson Jobe learned to pitch in a simple unheated barn in Piedmont, Oklahoma, about a 20-minute drive from his home.

There was no high-tech analytical equipment that measured spin rates. Just a space heater set up on the floor, one end glowing bright orange, like the back of a jet engine trying to fight off the winter chill.

It was January 2020, a few months before COVID-19 stopped the world.

Jobe stood on a portable mound, his right foot on the rubber. The artificial turf was torn from over-use.

[ Why the Tigers think prep pitcher Jackson Jobe is ‘total package’ ]

He wore dark shorts and a loose T-shirt. No hat. His thick, dark hair flopped over his forehead, making his eyes look like they were peeking from under a mop. He had a decent arm, not great, able to throw 85-88 mph.

Jobe was 17 and had just finished his high school football season at Heritage Hall, one of the top prep schools in Oklahoma. He played quarterback and safety, a gifted athlete who was now transitioning back to baseball, preparing for his junior season. His only goal was to hit 90 mph on the radar gun. He was sick of throwing in the 80s. There was nothing special about throwing in the 80s.

So he urged Alex Marney, his pitching coach, to pull out the radar gun. It was a constant battle. Jobe wanted to see his numbers on the gun; Marney wanted to focus on the fundamentals.

Marney was something of an unlikely pitching coach. He had a full-time job as a senior reservoir analyst, doing analytics and economics on oil and gas wells. But he loved baseball and loved coaching. Marney walked on at Oklahoma State as a pitcher but never played. Now, he was giving pitching lessons, as a side gig, in a barn on a friend’s five-acre lot.

“We were working on stuff and he was making progress,” Marney said. “But he was still a better hitter than pitcher. He was more focused on hitting and being a good shortstop.”

Eighteen months later, the transformation would be stunning. Jobe’s velocity would skyrocket to 99 mph. His slider spin rate would draw comparisons to elite major leaguers. He would learn a change-up in two months, just to prove the scouts wrong.

And the Detroit Tigers would take Jobe with the third pick in the MLB draft.

All in 18 months.

It’s like helium was pumping through his veins.

From ordinary college prospect to first-round pick.

From simple beginnings to the top of the rainbow of baseball potential.

“Wait a second, this doesn’t happen,” I said, interrupting Marney as he told the story. “Kids don’t go from throwing in the 80s to touching 99 in one year. This doesn’t seem real.”

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“It’s absolutely insane,” Marney said. “When COVID happened, it was the perfect storm.”

Brandt Jobe, Jackson’s father, repeated the same sentiment.

“Did you see this coming?” I asked.

“If you asked me a year ago, I probably would have said that you’re crazy,” Brandt said. “But he’s worked so hard for this. He has really matured.”

‘He’s resilient’

“We call it the Hurt Locker,” Rob Watson says.

Watson runs a private workout facility in Edmond, Oklahoma; Jobe started training there about 18 months ago.

“We just get after it,” Watson says. “We are grinding.”

Watson has an interesting connection to the Tigers. After playing at Oklahoma State, Watson was drafted by the Tigers in the 17th round of the 2002 draft. He played in West Michigan and climbed to Lakeland, then the High-A affiliate. But his minor league career stalled after 169 games.

For the past 18 years, Watson has trained baseball players from high school kids to Jordy Mercer, the former Tiger.

Small world, eh?

“What kinds of things do you do?” I ask.

“Check out our Instagram page,” he says.

So I did.

The Hurt Locker is a 3,000-square foot facility with a batting cage, weightlifting area, kitchen, lounge and pool table, with antlers mounted on the wall. Put another way: It’s basically a slice of heaven for a baseball junkie.

As I scrolled through videos, I found some with Jobe.

“He’s worked hard,” Watson said. “He’s got resilience. He’s got passion for the game. He loves the game. I can go on forever.”

The training looks creative. A video shows several baseball players going through a drill that looks like a cross between pushups and hand-walking over dumbbells.

“It’s a small group of guys that work their butts off,” Watson said. “They’re obsessed with baseball just like I am. We work really hard. We don’t lift heavy weights but we do a lot of weight training. We do a lot of repetitions.”

Now, here’s the amazing part. Jobe lives about 40 minutes from the Hurt Locker.

And he would go there before school four to five times a week.

“On some days, I guarantee he didn’t want to drive 40 minutes up to the gym to workout but he found a way,” Watson said. “He got his butt in there, and mentally he is a very, very strong young man. I’ve challenged him. I have pushed him and I’ve tried to scare him away at times and it was impossible.”

A few times, Watson pushed Jobe so hard he didn’t know if he would come back.

“But hey,” Watson said. “You know what? He came back and he responded right away. He’s resilient.”

After working out, Jobe would shower, grab a breakfast burrito or drink a protein shake and go to school.

“It’s just like pro ball,” Watson said. “You show up and you have a certain amount of things you have to do every day, and some of it sucks, and some of it’s a grind, and you just have to have a good attitude.”

Jobe worked so hard, so many days in a row, that Watson used to try to back him off.

“There’s times I had to shut him down,” Watson said. “I was like, ‘Jackson, you’ve got to take a day off, man. You gotta rest.’”

The velocity begins to spike

Jobe hit 91 mph in a scrimmage during the spring of 2020.

“Then COVID happened,” Marney said.

And the high school baseball season was shut down.

So he kept throwing in the barn, kept working out at the Hurt Locker, kept getting stronger; and maybe, the result is one of the few happy stories that came out of COVID.

In June, he went to a local showcase held by Prep Baseball Report (PBR).

“It was a big deal for him at the time,” Marney said. “At that point, he had put in three months of just awesome work in the weight room, throwing bullpens, and his diet was awesome. He put on probably like 15 pounds of just really good functional strength.”

His goal was to hit 93 mph at the PBR event.

“He threw great, and they posted 92.6 and he was kind of ticked,” Marney said. “Because I got 93 on my gun. I was like, ‘dude, it doesn’t matter, let’s just keep with the process and things are gonna pop.’”

Two weeks later, he went to the Perfect Game National Showcase — an event billed as “the most prestigious showcase event in all of amateur baseball.” Since 2001, 404 former participants at this event have played in the big leagues, and 2,493 have been selected in the MLB draft.

Jobe started out on the infield, playing in 95-degree heat.

“I was pumped,” Marney said. “I knew that he was gonna do great, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for what happened.”

Jobe looked great in batting practice and singled in his first at bat.

“We’re like, ‘Man, this is a great day,’” Marney said.

The next day, Jobe played more infield and then he was asked to pitch.

“It’s 95 degrees out,” Marney said. “And he gets on the mound. I’m nervous as heck, biting my fingernails behind home plate.”

In the stands, Brandt was concerned that his son’s legs would be exhausted from the heat and playing infield.

“Oh no, this is gonna be terrible,” Brandt remembered thinking. “We’re like, ‘man, let’s just hope he throws 93.’”

Marney was behind home plate with his radar gun.

“His last warm-up pitch, before the throw down to second base, was 94 miles per hour,” Marney said. “I was like, holy (crap) — that’s the hardest he’s ever thrown.”

By the end of the outing, Jobe touched 96 and had professional baseball scouts spinning from his spin rate.

“I was like, holy crap,” Marney said. “I’ll never forget. Brandt texted me the whole time. He’s like, ‘what do you get? What you get?’ And I was like, ‘he hit 96.’ That outing was just unbelievable. He was just making hitters look stupid.”

Marney found Brandt in the stands.

“I sat next to Brandt,” Marney said. “We both just looked at each other, and we were like, ‘holy crap.’ That’s the day that his entire life changed.”

The rest of that summer was a learning experience, as Jobe started to understand how to use his newfound velocity.

“Some games, you know, he was 90 to 92,” Marney said. “At the end of the game, he would say, ‘I left a lot in the tank.’

“That was really the first exposure he had to being a pitcher. And he was learning on the fly. By the end of the summer, he realized that hey, I can get after it and it feels great when I’m done. So he got to where he was sitting 91 to 94 in games.”

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The secret inside him

After several scouting reports were critical that Jobe didn’t have a changeup, he took two months to learn one.

Just to prove them wrong.

Jobe has that thing — an “it factor” — that all the great ones have: He is never satisfied. He walks around with a chip on his shoulder, finding slights and motivation.

“He would text me screenshots of somebody saying something bad about his changeup,” Marney said. “And he would be like, I’m going to show them. And he worked his butt off.”

Jobe tinkered with different grips and mindsets.

Two months later, he had a changeup. Not just any changeup; it’s considered a future plus pitch. Baseball America gave his changeup a 60 grade (out of 80), writing: “Unlike many high school stars, Jobe already shows feel for a future plus mid-80s changeup as well. He shows confidence in it and it has late downward dive.”

The fact that Jobe could add a pitch in two months is a reflection of his athleticism and body control.

“He’s such an incredible athlete,” Marney said. “It’s like a coach’s dream, because, you know, you coach him on something and he’s able to do it immediately.”

After the summer, some high school pitchers were still rated higher than Jobe.

And that only motivated Jobe even more.

“Jackson said, ‘I’m going to be No. 1 by next year,’” Marney said. “Not only did he become the best pitcher in the high school draft, but he exceeded it by far.”

Scouts flocked to Oklahoma City to watch him pitch during the high school season.

“He pitched in some really tough conditions, weather-wise, his first few outings,” Marney said. “His first few starts were literally 40 mile per hour winds, dust flying up out of the infield.”

But he walked only five batters all season, which is an indication of his command and control.

“I don’t know what his ceiling is going to be velocity-wise, because we didn’t do any kind of specialized velocity training or anything like that,” Marney said. “He was touching 99 by the end of the season and his arm felt great after those outings. He recovered well, and he still was able to play the field.”

MORE FROM SEIDEL: Why I absolutely love that Tigers picked Jackson Jobe

Scouts expect him to put on more weight as he gets older.

“I think he’s gonna surprise everyone,” Marney said. “I don’t think he’s even close to as good as he is gonna be. I can’t wait for people to see it in person because it’s electric and it looks smooth as hell. Just explosive electricity. It’s unreal.”

But he is still a shortstop at heart.

“He can pick it,” Watson said. “He’s gonna win a Gold (Glove Award) on the mound. There’s no doubt in my mind. Wow. He’s a very, very good defender. And I saw him make some plays this year that were like, there’s not any big-league pitchers that are making those plays right now.”

Who needs to know about dorms?

When the MLB draft was held last week, Jobe could have gone to Denver for the festivities.

But he decided to stay home with a small group of friends, including both Watson and Marney because they played such an important role in his development.

“I’m so proud of him,” Watson said. “He’s a cool cat. He’s awesome. Detroit’s getting a really, really good one, man.

Jackson asked Watson about playing in the Tigers’ minor league system, and Watson told him about the dorms in Lakeland, Florida.

“He was asking me about the dorms,” Watson said, laughing. “I was like, I’m not positive, but you’re probably going to be in big-league camp pretty quick and probably stay somewhere else. So you probably won’t have to worry about that.”

Both Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene — the Tigers’ previous two first-round picks — reached out to Jackson after the draft to congratulate him and welcome him to the organization.

“How cool is that?” Brandt said. “That says a lot about them and the organization too, right? Because these guys are gonna be teammates. A few years from now, who knows what’s gonna happen. Detroit has some incredible athletes. It’s gonna be fun to watch what happens.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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