The first-pitch fastball was around the outside corner, just tempting enough to draw a flinch of the bat. Cubs top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong thought he’d checked his swing early enough, but plate umpire Kenny Jackson thought otherwise.
The 0-1 changeup was just a few ticks slower than the previous fastball, but had enough deception and action that Crow-Armstrong took a full swing this time, and a full miss as he nodded in respect.
Everybody who knows Jackson Jobe’s game knew what was coming next. The Tigers’ No. 1 prospect drew Detroit’s interest in the 2021 MLB Draft on the strength of his wicked slider, with a high spin rate and movement that woos old-school scouts and new-school analytics alike. While there’s plenty of work ahead for Jobe on his way to the Majors, his slider could play against big league hitters right now.
Sure enough, Jobe spun a good one, buckling under the swing. Crow-Armstrong had some parting words with Jackson about the checked-swing strike one, but he had no argument about what he just saw.
The battle of top prospects Saturday night at West Michigan was arguably a mismatch. The third-inning strikeout was one of three that Jobe compiled in five innings — a relatively low total for a pitcher who averaged 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings over 18 starts at Single-A Lakeland and had fanned three batters over 1 2/3 innings in his Flying Tigers finale 10 days earlier. But this strikeout was different, both in the caliber of hitter with a low strikeout rate and in the full arsenal shown by the pitcher.
It’s a far cry from the pitcher Jobe looked like six months ago in Tigers’ Minor League minicamp. The slider was there. The fastball was hittable. The lessons came quickly, starting with the home run that Tigers shortstop prospect Manuel Sequera sent deep against him on the back fields at Tigertown in February.
Jobe grew up this season, and not just in turning 20 years old a month ago.
“It was a big learning experience for me,” Jobe said. “I feel like I kind of got out of whack there at the beginning of the season, got away from myself, just trying to do too much. But I made the adjustment physically and mentally. It’s a really good learning experience, and something I’ll take with me throughout my career.”
The Tigers’ decision to promote Jobe to High-A at this point in the season was a bit surprising. His surface stats in Lakeland, including a 4.52 ERA, were good, but not dominant. Even over the last month, it wasn’t much different. But opponents hit just .196 (9-for-46) with 15 strikeouts off Jobe over his final three starts, and his pitches were advancing to a point where he could toy with hitters.
The biggest improvement came from the fastball, a project from Spring Training. He had the velocity coming out of high school, but the fastball was straight and relatively hittable. The Tigers and pitching director Gabe Ribas worked in Lakeland to maintain velocity while improving the movement, notably the spin rate.
“I’ve had the velo; it was a matter of just staying behind the ball and getting some more movement,” Jobe said. “I feel like I’ve finally gotten the hang of it, so it’s definitely a very big factor in my game.”
Since most Florida State League games take place in Spring Training ballparks equipped with the Hawk-Eye tracking system, pitch data is available on Statcast. On May 7, the first game Jobe crossed the 50-pitch mark in a pro game, his four-seam fastball averaged 94.5 miles per hour and 2,499 rpm, topping out at 2,582. Twenty days later, Jobe topped 60 pitches in an outing for the first time, and averaged 96.5 mph and 2,520 rpm with his fastball, topping out at 2,616.
When Jobe made his Lakeland finale on Aug. 17, he threw 31 fastballs out of 48 pitches, averaging 95.3 mph and 2,581 rpm. His top spin rate on the fastball was 2,712. His top spin rate on the slider was 3,118.
Along with the mechanical adjustment came a mental shift.
“I honestly think I was giving the hitters too much credit,” Jobe said. “I was trying to nibble and do all this stuff instead of just pitching the way I know I can pitch. I feel like I have good enough stuff to pitch to my strengths and not necessarily their weaknesses.”
The Tigers decided to raise the level with Jobe, not just with his competition, but the team behind him. They also raised the level of the atmosphere around him. Jobe’s final start in Lakeland drew an announced crowd of 357. His West Michigan debut drew 8,524, the largest crowd for the Whitecaps since 2019. Nobody knew how Jobe would react to that kind of attention, but he thrived on it.
“It really fuels me,” Jobe said. “I like that pressure on me when I’m out there. It was a lot of fun, and being able to perform makes it even better.”
No Statcast data is publicly available from Saturday’s game, but Jobe’s fastball drew six of his 11 swings and misses.
Jobe will likely have two more starts this season — next week at the Padres’ High-A affiliate at Fort Wayne, Ind., and then one more at home against a Great Lakes club stacked with Dodgers prospects. Both he and the Tigers hope the lessons learned in the final weeks of this season give him an idea of what to work on this winter before likely returning to West Michigan to begin next season.