Tigers’ prospect Keith is an old-school hitter in a young body

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — No, Colt Keith says, he doesn’t have any thoughts of being a two-way player, even though he was scouted in high school as both a hitter and a pitcher before the Tigers drafted him as a third baseman in 2020.

Still, Keith admits, he tried to talk his way into a cameo appearance last season late in blowouts at Low-A Lakeland and High-A West Michigan.

“Yeah, I’ve asked multiple times: ‘You know, I’d love to go in and pitch, I love pitching, I love competing,’” he said last week. “But I got the same answer both times I asked. They both said, ‘If I put you in, I’d be fired before the game ended. You’d never see me again.’”

So, the only times to see Keith show off his arm are when he’s throwing across the infield. But then come Spring Training drills like Wednesday morning, when infielders practice receiving relay throws from the outfield and firing home into a bucket sitting on the plate.

Most infielders tried hitting the bucket on a bounce as they threw from short left-center field. Keith fired fastballs home on the fly.

There’s a lot of body for Keith to get behind a throw. He was listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds when he was drafted, and said he ended instructional league last fall at 208. He came to Minor League minicamp last month bigger all around.

“I hit a growth spurt last year. I’m now 6-3 1/2, 235,” said Keith, who said his feet added half a shoe size as well. “I’ve gained a lot of strength my last growth spurt.”

That late growth, and the extra strength that comes with it, are big for Keith’s development, not just physically. The skills are there, the Tigers believe, for Keith to grow into a formidable player and climb prospect rankings. He’s currently ranked 12th on MLB Pipeline’s Tigers prospect list.

For a fifth-round pick out of high school, the 20-year-old Keith has shown the discipline of a more veteran player. He has a quick, compact left-handed swing that allows him to see pitches for an extra split-second before committing. He also knows his strike zone well and doesn’t stray from it to chase a pitch very often.

Part of that is plate discipline, hand-eye coordination and a swing he has worked to cultivate.

“I actually had a lot of power in high school,” Keith said, “and I was able to do that because the pitching was, you know, it wasn’t as good. When I got to pro ball, I learned real fast that guys would take advantage of that. I had to shorten it up, let my barrel stay in the zone longer and get to the ball faster and hit the drives.”

Another, more surprising factor is philosophy.

“I don’t like to strike out,” he said. “My team doesn’t like me to strike out. It doesn’t help. So I put the ball in play.”

He knows how old school that sounds.

“Well, I mean, I’ve just always hated striking out,” he said. “And if you look, stats are better when you put the ball in play. Especially with two strikes and you get down in counts, if you still put those balls in play, you’re going to be better off.

“It’s a great mindset to have, staying with a short swing and putting the ball in play. Once you get to the big leagues and guys are throwing 98-99 [miles per hour] with sinkers, it’s hard to hit there. And if you’re striking out 30 percent of the time in the Minor Leagues, it’s going to go up in the big leagues. So that’s why I try to keep it down.”

Keith had a 21.5 percent strikeout rate and a 16.6 percent walk rate over 44 games at Low-A, according to FanGraphs. His strikeout rate rose to 35.5 percent in an 18-game sample size at West Michigan as he adjusted to pitchers at a level where he was 3 1/2 years younger than the average hitter according to Baseball Reference.

He has provided tough at-bats against younger and older pitchers in camp, and others outside of camp. When Keith entered Tuesday’s scrimmage against Phillies Minor Leaguers in Clearwater, he took the first five pitches he saw from right-hander Nick Duron — the first three balls, the next two called strikes on the corner. He swung and missed at a high fastball on the payoff pitch and was walking back to the dugout when a frustrated Duron reacted.

“The pitcher’s saying, ‘Sit the … heck down,’ to Colt after he struck him out,” Tigers top prospect Spencer Torkelson said. “And we’re like, ‘What?’ I told him it was March 8; the season doesn’t start for another month. The whole dugout had Colt’s back there.”

With Keith’s patience and swing, it isn’t hard to see him flustering pitchers, intentional or not. And even if Keith never gets a chance to pitch professionally, as he adds power to that quick swing, it isn’t hard to foresee him tormenting pitchers on his way around the bases instead. Despite his size, he finished with more triples (five) than home runs (two) last season.

“I think the older I get, the more I’m going to get comfortable with professional pitching,” he said, “and I’ll be able to tap into more power. I’m already seeing it this year, getting more comfortable with pitches, knowing what guys are going to throw, learning about the game. I know that I can have different contact points to get some more power.”

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