Tigers know for Gage Workman, it’s all about cutting the Ks

Detroit News

Ah, the Gage Workman vigil can be tough — on all parties.

The Tigers aren’t complaining. They saw those three home runs last week, in three successive games against Double-A Bowie, which was part of a 10-game stretch in which Workman, 22, hit five homers, four doubles, and a triple.

Not bad when you’re a switch-hitter and the best left-side infielder among the current Tigers farm crop.

They, of course, also saw Workman follow up with games Friday and Saturday for the Erie SeaWolves in which Workman was 1-for-8 with four strikeouts.

For those updating their Workman stats cards, the 2022 numbers heading into Sunday’s game against Bowie were: .228 batting average in 115 games, 14 home runs, .280 on-base percentage, .710 OPS, 186 strikeouts and 31 walks in .421 at-bats.

And fans expect this man to get to the big leagues? With those whiff numbers?

Do not make assumptions, say those who are grooming him. Nor read overly deeply into digits.

Workman, in fact, has made progress on the swing-and-miss front, reducing his strikeout rate a tad during the summer’s second half.

More: Around the Tigers farm: Those Ks keep coming, as do Gage Workman’s skills

Not that strikeouts can be anyone’s sole focus when studying a 22-year-old who two years ago was the Tigers’ fourth-round pick, from the same Arizona State team that served up Spencer Torkelson.

“He’s hit the ball hard all year — he does impact the baseball when he hits it,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers vice president who heads player development, who emphasized that Workman has been making gains on pitch-selection and avoiding chases.

Garko notes Workman, as they say, is a “young draft,” meaning he was only 20 when the Tigers took a stab in July, 2020, as he was leaving ASU. They then could have played it safe with Workman, Garko said, and left him to marinate this season at high-A West Michigan.

But the simple truth is he has too much talent. Too much potential. Too many physical gifts. They wanted him in more of a Marine Corps setting at Double A.

“We were aggressive,” Garko said. “His defense is too good, and he had gone to Arizona State (sophisticated baseball school). I think he’s a player who has improved over time, which is what we kind of worked on.

“He’s simplified his move a bit and has started to make more consistent contact, especially when the quality of his contact (exit velocities, as one measure) always has been really good. He hits the ball so hard.”

How, though, does a hitting prospect expect to cut it against big-league pitching with a strikeout rate that sits at 44% on the year, and ahead of Friday’s and Saturday’s games, was no better than 41% spanning the last month?

“Yes, absolutely, that’s the scary part,” Garko said. “If strikeouts don’t go down now, that number usually doesn’t go down as you advance.

“So, we need to get it to an acceptable level. It’s a matter of, really, how much chase (swinging at bad pitches) is in there? What are the (strike) zone misses? What’s he doing against fastballs? Against breaking balls?

“We’ll dig a little deeper. I know there was a lot of chase earlier in the year, right-handed, at the bottom of the zone. We’re getting him to change his sights a bit.”

Garko says there is no doubt Workman is the system’s best left-side defender now that Ryan Kreidler has been summoned to Detroit.

He will stay at shortstop, Garko said, even at 6-foot-3, 202 pounds. And all because he has range and an arm that speak expressly to his overall talents.

That is, he will stay at short if he can shop down on those punch-outs. If not, then he probably takes that power to third base or to another position, with hopes he can benefit some big-league roster, somewhere, even as a part-timer.

The Tigers knew what they were getting two years ago, when Workman was then playing third base for the Sun Devils and whistling cross-diamond throws to Torkelson at first.

What the Tigers saw were what other scouts had concluded as that five-round, COVID-crimped draft played out: A man with such immense upside they would risk a fourth-round turn. At least one other MLB club also had in mind making the same gamble, all before the Tigers struck with the 102nd-overall pick.

“I think you have to remember, this is not yet a very experienced guy,” Garko said, referring specifically to 2020 when COVID canceled an entire minor-league season. “It sometimes takes a lot of at-bats to figure things out.

“I think, mentally, in his approach some things are clicking for him. There are always development tools you use in getting a player better.”

The offseason will be key there. Analyzing data. Focusing on what can, and can’t, realistically be improved or made tolerable. Workman, Garko repeated, simply hits the ball too hard to not nurture with every trick the Tigers can muster.

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

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