Kerry Carpenter, Colt Keith are portraits in patience on Tigers farm

Detroit News

You follow the daily boxscores. You talk with his manager. The data and reports are strong, consistently.

You shift to those 2022 raw numbers on Double-A Erie outfielder Kerry Carpenter:

He has 19 homers — in 47 games. He is batting .326, with huge on-base (.387) and slugging (.703) percentages that craft an OPS of 1.090. This is gaudy stuff.

He is only 24 years old. He bats left-handed. He is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. He plays either corner outfield tract, or first base. As for splits, he’s batting .311 against right-handed pitching, and even better —.375 — against lefties, so nothing disparaging brewing there.

Why is this man still at Double A?

And when might he be in Detroit?

Or, more to the point, what is the hole in his profile, what makes the hitting experts and students overseeing Carpenter nervous about projections and pushing him to a next level — or levels?

The questions were tossed Sunday to Ryan Garko, who is in his first full year heading, and revamping, the Tigers’ developmental project.

“All you want to do is dominate the level you’re at,” Garko said during a phone conversation from his home in Laguna Nigel, California, just before he headed to West Michigan for a week of inspecting Tigers farm sites. “He’s (Carpenter’s) got power, he’s hitting for average, he’s using the whole field — all the markers for success.

“And he did it last year (strong finish, with seven of his 15 homers coming in the season’s final 37 games), so the sample size is big enough that he’s figured some things out.”

Then what hasn’t he figured out?

Begin with strikeouts: 51 in 172at-bats. That equates to a 29% punch-out rate, which isn’t reassuring when big-league teams require something beneath 25%.

More: Around the Tigers’ farm: Kerry Carpenter is putting up ‘real’ numbers at Erie

Carpenter also has walked but 13 times in those 47 games. This suggests he isn’t laying off a lot of stuff he should avoid.

Garko won’t say, outright, that strikeout-walk rates are telling most of the story here. But anyone can deduce, even from a cold numbers analysis, it’s why Carpenter is still at Erie.

It could also explain why a man of his size and sophisticated background (he played at Virginia Tech) wasn’t drafted until the 19th round.

“I think even Kerry knows that, if he does get to the higher levels, pitchers there have better stuff, so he’ll have to make adjustments.” Garko said, speaking of a hitter who made swing changes (more lift, more lower body — and more muscle) during the past season. “He’s gotten so much better that I’d be confident in him making adjustments if he goes get to Triple A.

And to Detroit?

“But I would say the jump from Triple A to the big leagues is now bigger than it’s ever been — by 50 million miles.”

The reason, Garko explained, is that Triple A has been thinned by the MLB-wide push to get younger players to the big leagues. More youth at Triple A, and less veteran guile, are trends that don’t enable players to buff and polish their games as once was the case when there were Triple A graybeards galore.

It’s another way of saying: Carpenter probably is getting all the competition he needs at Erie. A move to Toledo might be exciting for Carpenter. It would imply to fans that a guy with big numbers and nice credentials is closing in on Comerica Park.

But illusions can be etched in the same ink that details hot numbers.

“You do have to bring it up — the strikeouts, the walks, the pitches he’s swinging at,” Garko said. “There are a lot of ways to be a really productive hitters, so, sometimes you can live with the strikeouts. We’ll find out. That (near) 30% can go down.”

Another hitter who seemingly is ripe for an upgrade: Colt Keith at West Michigan.

Just look at a 20-year-old’s steadiness: .299 batting average, .371 on-base, .535 slugging, for a .906 OPS. He has eight homers — seven in his last 24 games. And by the testimony of his own manager, Brayan Pena, the ex-Tigers catcher, Pena “has never seen anyone (minors) hit the ball harder” than Keith.

A plane ticket to Erie is no big deal. You hop on a flight at Gerald R. Ford International Airport and a few hours later are all but in the clubhouse at UPMC Park.

Ah, but of course it’s not that simple. Keith has work to do. He is not spinning wheels at West Michigan, not — yet — steadily over-matching high-Single A pitching.

“Going back through the league a second time,” Garko said, referring to repeat series against Midwest League teams, “he’ll find that pitching coaches and opposing pitchers know who he is.

“He’s really swinging the bat well. So, they’re going to game (plot strategies) for him, play cat-and-mouse, especially during those six-game series (minor-league teams since 2021 have regularly played six-game series).

“Pitching coaches eventually will find your holes and adjust.”

Garko acknowledges Keith is special. He is young for his minor-league level, which, Garko explained, is typically the track record for star big-leaguers.

But, again, there is much to learn yet at West Michigan for a player two years out of high school.

“Defensively, we really want to keep him at third base,” said Garko, who along with Pena and the development corps has been playing Keith occasionally at second base. “Defensively, he’s gotten much better.”

Pena agrees. Defense is but one reason Keith for now can expect a long and meaningful summer at Comstock Park. There has been steady attention, with West Michigan’s development coach, Nick Bredeson, sticking close to Keith, in tandem with visits from the Tigers roving minor-league infield tutor Billy Boyer. A better backhand attack has been primary there.

But that left-handed bat. It is what will push him to Double A, and then — there is little disagreement — to Detroit. West Michigan hitting coach CJ Wamsley is in accord with Pena when it comes to talking about Keith’s knack for smashing pitches.

“He hits the ball extremely hard — and he hits the ball extremely hard very often,” Wamsley said Sunday, agreeing also with Garko that Keith can expect different pitching plans as his hot 2022 continues.

“He’s pitched differently from some other guys even now,” Wamsley said. “We’ll be facing such and such a guy, and he doesn’t throw sliders to left-hand hitters — and then he (Keith) gets four sliders.

“A lot of his at-bats I sit back and watch, and say: ‘He was in control of that at-bat — not the pitcher.’”

But the Tigers are in control of Keith’s progression, at least in terms of venues. For now, Single A is his classroom. And it figures to remain so, just as a ballpark in Pennsylvania, on the shores of Lake Erie, should present — also for now — all the challenge a hot-hitter named Kerry Carpenter requires.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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