What Detroit Tigers prospect Jackson Jobe learned in his first season of pro ball

Detroit Free Press

COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. — Detroit Tigers prospect Jackson Jobe, making his debut for High-A West Michigan Saturday, showed his three best pitches to dispose of Chicago Cubs prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong in the third inning.

A first-pitch fastball from the right-hander traveled outside the strike zone and forced Crow-Armstrong to check his swing. Home plate umpire Kenny Jackson deemed he went too far, making it 0-1, despite a frustrated Crow-Armstrong throwing his hands in the air. The left-hander then whiffed at Jobe’s changeup to push the count to 0-2.

For the third strike, Jobe called on his not-so-secret weapon: An MLB-ready slider which stumped Crow-Armstrong, acquired by the Cubs from the New York Mets in the 2021 Javier Báez trade, on another whiff. Jobe, who turned 20 at the end of July, strutted around the mound, adjusted his belt buckle and returned to the rubber in front of the most fans he’s ever entertained.

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“For me, it really fuels me,” Jobe said. “I feel like I do a lot better. I like that pressure on me when I’m out there.”

The Tigers drafted Jobe No. 3 overall in 2021 out of Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma, where he posted an insane 0.13 ERA with five walks and 122 strikeouts over 52⅓ innings as a senior.

Professional baseball, Jobe quickly learned, isn’t anything like high school. There’s the talent level, sure, but also the pitch clock, pitching out of the stretch and holding runners. The minors’ pitch clock gives a pitcher 14 seconds between pitches with nobody on base and 18 seconds with a runner on. Likewise, Jobe rarely pitched out of the stretch in high school because runners rarely reached base.

“He’s learning how to pitch,” said Brandt Jobe, Jackson’s father. “Let’s be honest, in high school, even the best high school players couldn’t hit his stuff. Now, all these guys have seen 95-97 (mph). What do you have that’s different?”

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Brandt Jobe, by the way, golfed Saturday morning and afternoon in the PGA Champions Tour’s Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc. Then he drove LMCU Ballpark, arriving about 30 minutes before the first pitch. His son tossed five innings of one-run ball on four hits and one walk with three strikeouts.

The Whitecaps hosted 8,524 fans for Jobe’s debut, the team’s largest crowd since 2019.

“He needs to be here doing this because he’s got to learn how to go through this process,” Brandt Jobe said.

‘The next step in his development’

“Learning how to pitch” is Jobe’s next step.

He has five pitches — a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, sinker and curveball — though he mostly relies on his four-seamer, slider and changeup.

“The slider is a really good pitch right now by anybody who would see it or any metric we’d use,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ vice president of player development. “It’s still giving up a little bit of damage, just because he’s a young player and still learning how to sequence his pitches, take a little bit off, add a little bit, read swings, read hitters. That’s the next step in his development: becoming a pitcher.”

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That slider features an elite spin rate above 3,000 rpms.

“What he does with the slider that no one realizes is, he throws at different speeds, and it has a different look,” Brandt Jobe said. “Everybody is seeing curveballs. Those are all sliders. It’s how you manipulate the slider. The slider he throws that’s nasty and in the dirt, that’s going really hard. He can go softer and loop it a little more.”

Jobe logged a 4.52 ERA with 25 walks and 71 strikeouts across 61⅔ innings in 18 starts for Low-A Lakeland before his Aug. 19 promotion. He made his professional debut April 17 but didn’t complete four innings until May 21 and five innings until June 10.

Remember, this is just his second season as a starting pitcher and his first season focusing solely on pitching; Jobe was a shortstop in high school. Boredom became a factor in Lakeland. The organization stressed the importance of a consistent routine between starts — training room, weight room, diet, sleep, travel and more — and slowly built up his innings in hopes of preserving his health now and in the future.

“So much of the focus was on developing a professional routine and teaching him the professional life,” Garko said. “With Jackson, it’s been building the foundation of being a professional, being the starting pitcher and how much work it actually takes.”

The slow build was always part of the plan. The Tigers took a conservative approach: 80 innings as the floor for Jobe’s first season. He has thrown 66⅔ with two starts remaining.

“That’ll probably be it for him,” Garko said.

Fastball first

In 2022, Jobe’s fastball has been the primary developmental focus. Velocity and vertical break are the key indicators of fastball success.

Jobe and the Tigers have been working on it since minor-league minicamp in February, upon learning Jobe’s fastball tends to run into the barrel of the bat. The goal is to develop a fastball with more vertical break and less horizontal run. Creating rise will help him miss bats at the top of the strike zone and avoid pitches in the dead-zone location for hitters to crush.

Velocity, however, isn’t a concern, giving Jobe wiggle room as he aims to improve the his fastball’s movement. “Velocity helps you get away with not having pinpoint command or not having a ton of deception or a ton of rise,” Garko said. Jobe’s fastball routinely sits 94-97 mph; he’s one of the hardest throwing starters in the organization. Everything else, though, is a work in progress.

“I’ve come so far,” Jobe said. “In spring training, we were trying the sinker and trying all this different stuff. It’s just a matter of staying behind the ball and getting some more movement. That’s been one of the biggest things for me this year, and I feel like I’ve finally gotten the hang of it.”

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Adjusting his fastball grip — moving his thumb underneath the ball — created more vertical rise. Once Jobe figured that out, he fell in love with pitching up in the strike zone.

“A lot of people had a lot of things to say, and he took it all in,” Brandt Jobe said. “He wasn’t able to compartmentalize what works for him and what doesn’t. He was trying everything. I think he realized not everything works. … He’s learning a lot about himself.”

Trying to stay behind the ball when throwing his fastball resulted in a mechanical problem with all his pitches. The upper half of his body kept falling off to his glove side (his left), so his body wasn’t moving directly toward the plate. Watching film helped him diagnose his mechanical flaw.

He said he corrected the issue in July.

From July 2-Aug. 17, spanning his final seven starts for Low-A Lakeland, Jobe posted a 4.45 ERA and averaged 10.4 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. His whiffs and strikeouts went up, and his walks dropped. But a new issue arose: He started giving up more home runs — a sign of inconsistency. He allowed eight of his 13 home runs in those seven outings. He conceded another home run on a 93 mph fastball Saturday, but he also generated six of his 11 whiffs on fastballs.

“It was a big learning experience for me,” Jobe said. “I got out of whack there at the beginning of the season and got away from myself. I was trying to do too much. I made the adjustment physically and mentally. It’s something I’ll take with me throughout my career.”

‘There’s a lot more in the tank’

Jobe has dealt with a mental block, too, this season

For now, he seems to have conquered that challenge.

“The beginning of the year was tough because I wasn’t doing as well as a lot of people expected or what I expected,” Jobe said. “I kept working, figured some things out, and since July, I feel really good. I wish I would have had that adjustment earlier, but I learned something from it. That’s what this first year is all about.”

Despite his obvious growth in 2022, he’ll likely be judged for years against Boston Red Sox shortstop prospect Marcelo Mayer.

The Tigers passed on Mayer in favor of Jobe, and the Red Sox scooped him up one pick later. As Jobe failed to meet his personal expectations in Lakeland, Mayer thrived in Low-A. Both have reached High-A, though, and Mayer is batting .190 with three home runs, 10 walks and 20 strikeouts in 16 games.

“People want to see it,” Brandt Jobe said. “I’m his dad, and I want to see improvements. There’s a lot more in the tank. We’re going to see what he is.”

The results Saturday served as a strong start to the next chapter in Jobe’s development, even as he’ll likely start 2023 back in West Michigan.

The Tigers’ top prospect will be required to evolve from a thrower into a pitcher before advancing to Double-A Erie.

“The sky’s the limit,” Whitecaps manager Brayan Peña said. “I don’t want to brag, but when we have an opportunity to play at the highest level for different teams, and you have a chance to be behind home plate and experience different pitchers at that level, I got to a point where I understood when somebody is special. And this young man is special.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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