When he ripped a pitch 459 feet Saturday for an artillery-grade home run in an Arizona Fall League game between the Salt River Rafters and Peoria Javelinas, it was tempting to think Colt Keith was probably on to something.
As in strength, sourced in more muscle mass, which can happen when you’ve packed on 34 pounds in six months.
Keith, who turned 21 in August and who now sits as the best-hitting prospect in the Tigers system, weighed 211 pounds when he checked into camp last spring.
When he arrived at Scottsdale, Arizona, last month for AFL duty, a 6-foot-3, left-handed swinging third baseman hit the scales at 245.
The extra bulk might spur suspicions of a few too many Five Guys or Taco Bell binges, particularly when Keith’s regular season at Single-A West Michigan had to be shut down in June when he separated his shoulder.
But this is Colt Keith. This is a man torching baseballs — and calories — as he pushes for what more and more looks like a Comerica Park check-in sometime in 2023.
“I weighed in at 245, with 11% body fat and almost all of it (weight gain) muscle,” Keith said during a phone conversation. “I usually sit around 10 or 12% body fat, so it’s fine. I’m actually today around the high 230s — 238, 239 — because I’ve been playing games every day.”
Has he ever.
Keith sat eighth among all hitters Tuesday in the six-team AFL, which began its schedule early in October and runs for two more weeks as a kind of graduate-school seminar for some of MLB’s best prospects.
He was batting .348 in 15 games, with a whopping .492 on-base percentage (15 walks against 10 strikeouts in 46 at-bats) as part of a .970 OPS. His exit-velocities have been crushing the 100-mph zone.
Mostly, he has played third base. There have been a couple of outings at second base, and some rare work at DH. Keith says his infield range is fine even with the extra pounds.
“No, that’s the weird thing — I feel really good, really fast,” he said. “I feel quick. I’ve gotten a few stolen bases (two), a few hustle doubles. I’m moving well.”
And yet this 30-pound boost ranks as a rather dramatic change in a single, hotshot prospect’s overall profile. How it happened is as intriguing as to why it happened.
Keith wanted “power, and more exit velocity, which gets more hits — and that depends on more muscle.”
Keith says it came by way of those four months he spent at the TigerTown training and rehab complex at Lakeland, Florida, after separating his right shoulder in June, on a first baseman’s tag during a pickoff attempt at first base.
“I was lifting — rehab lifts, which means I wasn’t benching or squatting,” he said of his following months at Lakeland. “I was doing more functional stuff with lighter weights.
“And I was eating correctly. Not like a massive amount, but I kept putting on weight. I came to the conclusion it was all natural weight.”
The Tigers were on board. No criticisms. No suggestion that he shift to lunches of cottage cheese and pineapple slices.
“No, they really didn’t suggest anything different,” Keith said, “all because I wasn’t trying to put on weight. I was just putting on muscle like crazy.”
So far, no orders from the Tigers’ development staff to become sleeker ahead of March, when minor-leaguers report to Lakeland.
“I think what I’m going to do is shoot for around 240,” Keith said. “Maybe lose a little more body weight, just to get more dense instead of having more muscle. Because, once you get to around 250, it’s hard to move.
“I’m gonna have to eat really clean this winter.”
Keith has let it be known he is banking on making it to Detroit next September, when rosters expand. It’s ambitious thinking for a 2020 fifth-round pick who had just wrapped up high school at Biloxi (Mississippi) High.
What the Tigers will not yet say is that Keith could be ticketed for Comerica Park at any point in 2023 — if he passes the next test, which is almost sure to come at Double-A Erie.
It’s an old baseball truism: Show you can hit at Double A and it’s a reasonable bet you can cut it on the MLB stage, particularly when Keith often is younger than pitchers he faces.
His past month in Arizona adds to notions he’ll be ready for whatever the Tigers have in mind next season. AFL pitching is considered Double-A caliber, or even better, which Keith is handling.
“Yeah, I’ve been really comfortable,” he said, mentioning a previous night’s at-bat against Kumar Rocker, the one-time Vanderbilt star who now pitches in the Rangers system. “He was throwing 95, 96, with a banger slider. But it wasn’t overpowering me.
“We faced a big-leaguer from the Phillies (Francisco Morales), and he was throwing 97. I got walked by both of them, taking tough pitches.”
There are no disagreements from his Salt River manager, Warren Schaeffer, who otherwise works as Triple-A skipper of the Albuquerque Isotopes, in the Colorado Rockies farm chain.
“My first takeaway from Colt is, boy, he can swing it,” Schaeffer said during a phone chat. “I think he’s going to hit for power. Right now, he’s more of a batting-average guy. But he’s so strong. I know he previously was a (high school) wrestler.
“He’s got all it takes to be a good hitter for a long time.”
As for how the added bulk seems to be meshing with Keith’s frame and swing, Schaeffer says everything fits. He was unaware there had been a 30-pound jump.
What he does know is Keith at the moment needs more work on his glove than with his bat.
“The thing that stands out about him is his willingness to work on the defensive side of the ball,” Schaeffer said. “I think he knows that’s the area where he needs to improve upon.
“He’s not terrible over there (third base), but he needs work, and he’s willing to put in the work. Taking better hops, the way to use his arm — but that’s why he’s here.”
Schaeffer mentioned that one of Keith’s tutors was checking in during a recent workout: Alan Trammell, the Hall of Fame shortstop who is a Tigers special assistant.
“He (Trammell) was out there working with him the whole time,” Schaeffer said. “That boy (Keith) is ready to play.”
The Tigers are ready, as well. They’re working on adding lineup timber in 2023 and beyond. They’re fine with Keith coming aboard as soon as a man who swings the bat with such fury shows it’s time at last for Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.