It’s Sunday morning, and Brayan Pena, the West Michigan Whitecaps manager, is in his clubhouse office at Comstock Park, just outside of Grand Rapids, ready to answer a pressing question as his gang gets ready for an afternoon game against the venerable Beloit Sky Carp:
Just what does Wilmer Flores need to do to get that ticket to Double-A Erie?
I mean, the numbers are crazy. Flores, a right-handed gunner who turned 21 in February, is the hottest, most overpowering, pitcher anywhere in the Tigers’ farmlands.
He has pitched in six games (five starts) and has been broken in gently, as 19.2 innings, total, confirms. He has a 1.83 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.
He has faced 77 batters and has struck out 35. He has walked (gulp) all of two. That happens to be a strikeout-per-nine ratio of 16.0 whiffs against a walks-mark of 0.9.
Flores is throwing strikes at a 72% clip. This, from a guy with a fastball that, as Pena documented Sunday, “runs 93-96, 97, sometimes higher.”
Alongside, as Pena attested, a “wipeout slider.”
Bear in mind this is the same Brayan Pena who spent 12 seasons as a big-league catcher, including a 2013 stint with the Tigers. He understands what it takes to pitch in a place like Detroit or elsewhere on baseball’s big stage.
So, even though Pena is in no hurry to lose Flores, what’s keeping him from Double A?
“His change-up,” Pena said during a phone conversation. “He’s been working very hard to get it to where we want it to be at. And we’re seeing some improvement.”
Pena half-chuckled and acknowledged that perfection isn’t within every pitcher’s capacity.
“How many guys in the big leagues have three plus-pitches?” he asked.
Pena says he’s happy to let Flores follow orders from the Tigers’ developmental side; from Gabe Ribas, who oversees the farm system’s pitching, to West Michigan’s pitching coach, Dean Stiles, all of them under the supervision of Ryan Garko.
“He’s so young,” Pena repeated, talking about a prospect who is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and whose brother — also named Wilmer — plays infield for the San Francisco Giants. “There’s no rush.”
Flores’ most recent butchery of an opposing team came Friday night against the Sky Carp, which, like most trendy minor-league teams, doesn’t lack for a colorful moniker. Flores tossed five innings. He allowed three singles. He struck out six and, of course, walked zero. He threw 72 pitches, 51 for strikes.
He has had only one clunker of a game. It happened May 7, at Lansing, and to hear Pena explain it, was a pay-no-attention fluke that saw Flores throw 30 pitches in two-thirds of an inning. He was nicked for a couple of singles. He walked one and struck out two.
“It was just one of those days,” Pena said. “A couple of hitters went out there and fouled off some tough pitches.”
No need to tax an arm that threw only 66 innings a year ago, after the Tigers had signed him — not drafted him — out of Arizona Western College, in Yuma.
That’s right. Undrafted. Flores is from Venezuela, which isn’t enjoying the kind of stability known when Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen — to name three prominent countrymen — experienced during their boyhoods there.
Flores couldn’t even find a showcase event that, as a teen, might have advertised his skills. He ended up at a junior college, Arizona Western. The Tigers had been paying attention and signed him.
Now, it’s a matter of building that arm, which is another reason why, for now, West Michigan makes sense. Friday night was the first time Flores had gone five innings. He was as formidable during five frames as he had been through three or four.
“It’s funny,” Dan Hasty, the Whitecaps play-by-play announcer was saying Sunday, “he strikes out six in five innings and you were kind of saying, ‘Is that all?’
“He is electric. There’s just this buzz and a feeling of dominance when Flores comes to the mound that I think is rare to find.
“The swings are uglier against Flores than against any pitcher we’ve seen this year. When he gets on that mound, you know you’re in for a show.”
Pena had a similar take. He even mentioned those long locks that spill onto Flores’ shoulders.
“He goes out there with that fluid delivery, and his long hair, and he’s fun to watch,” Pena said. “And what’s so impressive is that he’s a very young pitcher who hasn’t had that much experience.”
It’s another way of explaining why there has been no pressure to ship Flores to Erie. Just keep in mind that the minors are famous for quick promotions, all after those in charge have extolled the wisdom of being patient with a prospect, of letting him further gestate at his present level.
Flores will be Erie-bound soon enough. The change-up can evolve at Double A, especially when the rest of the mix is as rich in minerals as Flores’ is proving to be.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.