Colt Keith has this habit. He hits baseballs. Hard.
He does it even after a four-month interlude between at-bats, in real games.
Notice that on June 9, in what was his last act in 2022 as a blue-chip infielder at West Michigan, Keith was batting .301, with a heavy .914 OPS. He singled in his first turn that night against Lansing. Then, the kind of luck that seemed to be a Tigers-wide curse in 2022 struck, as he dove back to first base on a pickoff attempt and a freakish swipe-tag separated his shoulder.
Gone for the season.
Now he is back, playing third base and second base for the Salt River Rafters in the high-status Arizona Fall League. And, notice the similarity in batting numbers, even if it has been all of five games: .357 batting average, .929 OPS.
Keith turned 21 in August. There are thoughts, valid, he could be in the Tigers’ 2024 Opening Day lineup.
Keith has other plans.
“Yeah, I’m going to be honest,” he said during a phone conversation this week, “my goal next year is to debut (with the Tigers) in September. I’m going to go into this offseason and put in the work. I’ve got a great foundation to get as good as I can possibly get.
“I want to get to Double A next spring, hit .300 and hit some homers, and go to Triple and do the same thing. Those are the goals, especially with the Tigers in a rebuilding stage.”
This zeal to join manager AJ Hinch’s gang, ASAP, is as aggressive and concise as Keith’s left-handed swing. It dispenses with the usual “it’s their decision and all I can do is control the things I can control” refrain.
That same efficiency and fury, seen in his bat, drove the Tigers to draft him in 2020 and offer $500,000 as reward for turning down an Arizona State scholarship.
Keith essentially has been a .300 hitter since, with a fat .389 on-base percentage spicing his 113 games on the Tigers’ farm. He has nine homers in 193 at-bats, power that is just beginning to evolve for a man 6-foot-3, 211 pounds.
The question jangling nerves for his Tigers bosses — and for serious fans — has been his right shoulder. Shoulders can be problematic. Recoveries for hitters, as well as for pitchers, aren’t always happy-ending tales.
When so many months of shelf-time followed the mishap at LMCU Ballpark, worries mounted that a youngster who today ranks as the Tigers’ best farm hitter could be damaged for the long term.
Not so. That he remains at third base in these AFL games, where infield arms are most challenged, shows how much the Tigers and the Rafters trust Keith’s right arm.
“It’s gotten even better since I got to Fall League,” said Keith, who is getting occasional work at second base, as well. “It (right arm) gets better every day. Once I warm up, slowly, with the first 10 throws, it feels normal. I’d say it’s almost better than it was before. The ball comes out of my hand easier. And that’s because of four months of rehabbing and strengthening.”
Even a couple of months ago, Keith’s story wasn’t as upbeat.
“I mean, at the beginning, I wasn’t getting any better,” he said. “I was throwing with pain all the time. Then, we’d shut it down for a week, and I’d try to throw again — and then another week and the same thing.
“Even though everybody was saying it would heal, eventually, it got to a point where I was thinking I might have to get surgery, and if there’s surgery, I might not come back from that.
“So, there was always doubt. But every day, I’d come back in and do as much as I could with the medical and strength staff (at TigerTown, in Lakeland, Florida). They took real good care of me.”
Finally, in late summer, progress.
“I’d say probably around the beginning or middle of August,” Keith recalled. “Around that time, I started throwing, pain-free, which basically meant I had another month, month-and-a-half, to get a throwing program done ahead of Arizona.
“What’s weird is I never really had any issues at all swinging the bat. It was just throwing.”
Even during these first AFL games where pitching, on balance, is akin to Double-A quality, Keith has decided the doctors were right. He has healed.
“I was real nervous at first, just from not playing for so long,” he said. “But once I got on the field, all the nerves went away. Second nature took over.
“My swing needs a little tweaking here and there. But, overall, I’m happy with how I’m hitting. I’m finally having fun with the guys instead of sitting in Lakeland rehabbing.”
Ask the Tigers to appraise Keith and the feedback matches Keith’s.
“I think, most importantly, he’s healthy,” said Ryan Garko, who heads Tigers player development. “He doesn’t need days off. You can put him on a schedule and put him in there like every other player.
“There’s no soreness. No stiffness. No lingering effects, so that’s the most important thing.
“And, at third base, he looks the same as he did pre-injury. His arm shape’s good, he’s making throws across the field. Our trainer there (Sean McFarland) is West Michigan’s trainer and the reports from him have been really good.”
The AFL schedule lasts until mid-November. Thus far, all has been comfortable, Keith said, in part because he’s sharing a big, two-bedroom hotel suite with two more of his Tigers AFL cohorts: Dillon Dingler and Parker Meadows.
This post-season AFL sojourn became even more vital after the Tigers’ minor-league Instruction Camp had to be shut down because of Hurricane Ian.
“We weren’t able to give him much of a camp, so this has been really good,” Garko said of Keith’s Arizona stint. “He definitely has the hit tool. We all know that. It’s just good to have him there. We’re not getting too caught up in the numbers. It’s more a matter of seeing pitches.”
Friends of Keith know they’re seeing something, as well, these days: an engagement ring on the finger of his fiancée, Kaitlyn Vickers, a real-estate agent from Keith’s hometown, Biloxi, Mississippi. The two have been dating since their teens.
Wedding plans are a year or so away.
Big-league plans, as Keith will attest, are — at least in his view — more immediate.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit news sports reporter.