LAKELAND, Fla. — Jackson Jobe was going to have to experience this sometime, the feeling of a ball he had thrown being hit over the fence. Better to have it happen here against a teammate.
The Tigers’ top pitching prospect — and the club’s No. 3 overall per MLB Pipeline — had never given up a home run. Not just in pro ball or in high school. Like, ever. Technically, he still hasn’t. While Wednesday pitted Jobe against hitters for the first time since Detroit made him its top pick in last year’s Draft, it wasn’t actually a game, just live batting practice.
Still, as shortstop prospect Manuel Sequera turned on a Jobe pitch and sent it deep down the left-field line of one of Tigertown’s practice fields, there was a feeling of indoctrination. There was no trip around the bases, nor did Sequera admire the ball, but the “oohs” and “aahs” from teammates at Tigers Minor League minicamp watching the session said plenty.
Every player who turns pro out of high school goes through that realization, the feeling of struggle that they rarely experience as an amateur. Jobe handled it graciously, if not happily.
“Today was the first, no doubt. But that’s part of it,” Jobe said. “Welcome to pro ball, I guess.”
Considering Sequera’s drive was the only hard-hit ball off Jobe in his 15 pitches, the welcome worked both ways. While Jobe was introduced to pro hitters, those hitters were also introduced to Jobe’s pitches, including the high-spin slider that wowed scouts leading up to the Draft.
Andre Lipcius hit a fly ball to right. Cristian Santana fought off a couple pitches. Other than Sequera’s homer, that was about it. Jobe’s slider darted as expected. His changeup, a pitched he worked on this offseason, had a good look.
“What I mentioned with my fastball, I think that’s kind of my only con right now,” Jobe said. “Slider feels great. Changeup feels really good. I worked on that a lot in the offseason. Just fastball shape, I’m going to start hammering.”
The hammering of the fastball was a reminder.
“I hold myself to a pretty high standard,” Jobe said. “But at the same time, I understand that things like that happen, and I’m young and I’ve got a long way to go. That’s part of it, I guess.”
That standard was going to be impossible at the pro level. Jobe went 9-0 with a 0.13 ERA last year to lead Heritage Hall School to the Oklahoma 4-A title. The right-hander racked up 122 strikeouts over just 51 2/3 innings, all while walking only five batters — good for a jaw-dropping 24.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
No way are those results going to follow into the pros. For Jobe, this camp isn’t just an introduction to the struggle, it’s an introduction to the process. His throwing session was recorded and waiting for him to review in the video room with instructors, led by director of pitching Gabe Ribas.
“Everything felt great,” Jobe said. “Fastball, need to work on a little bit of shape and efficiency. We just talked to some of the pitching guys about it. But besides that, just overall command needs to improve. Obviously, first time facing hitters, that’s kind of how it goes. But I feel good overall.”
By the time Jobe walked out of the Minor League clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, he had a tool for tweaking his fastball. He was given a baseball that was flat on either side, a tool meant for him to focus on grip and shape. Throw the ball wrong, and the ball will spin as strangely as it looks. Throw it right, and it looks fine.
Jobe had some experience with this kind of instruction when he was in Tigertown last summer following the Draft. The Tigers have since changed their player development department, hiring Ryan Garko as vice president, bringing in Ribas and pitching coordinator Stephanos Stroop from the Dodgers’ organization and adding longtime college coach Steve Smith — Casey Mize’s old pitching coach at Auburn — as another coordinator.
“The new guys here have a lot of knowledge, and the guys are awesome,” Jobe said. “Even being able to go in the video room with them after and look at different stuff and talk about fastball shape has been awesome.”
The other key difference now is Jobe’s campmates, most of whom were busy playing out their Minor League seasons when Jobe was in town last summer. Not only does Jobe have other prospects his age in camp, he has upper-level prospects on the cusp of the Majors such as Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Ryan Kreidler.
Greene is particularly important, Jobe noted. Like Jobe, he was a top-five Draft pick out of high school. He knows the pressure, and he also knows the adjustment from rarely struggling in high school to learning from struggles as a pro.
Jobe will face more live at-bats in the coming days. He’ll likely face his good friend and fellow Tigers pick Izaac Pacheco at some point, a meeting they both have been eagerly awaiting. The experience, Wednesday included, should get him ready for his first Minor League stop in April.
“Bullpens are great. Live ABs are great,” Jobe said. “Obviously, today didn’t go how I planned, but we’ve got about a month and a half until games start. That’s when it really matters, so we’ll see then.”