Roberto Campos is maturing.
He knows his goals and understands the path to achieve them. He shows up at the ballpark earlier than his teammates, finds ways to get better every day, follows a strict pregame routine and prioritizes his physique.
Campos, who signed with the Detroit Tigers for $2.85 million in July 2019, turned 19 years old in June and was the undisputed leader of the position players in Low-A Lakeland last season.
“It has been like that since I was in Cuba,” said Campos, who defected to the Dominican Republic at age 13 with his brother and father after winning the Punta Cana International Tournament. “I always wanted to be a leader and support my teammates. I just want to be a leader, not a follower.”
Campos hasn’t received national recognition in his two seasons as a professional player, but he is believed to be on the verge of catapulting himself into the upper echelons of baseball prospects.
He could be one adjustment away.
And that’s why he changed his swing.
“I think there’s a maturity that comes with going through so much at a young age,” Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko said. “The great thing is he has fully bought into trying to help the Tigers win a World Series and doing the things we value in player development.”
In 2022, Campos hit .258 with five home runs, 40 walks (8.9% walk rate) and 97 strikeouts (21.7% strikeout rate) in 112 games for Low-A Lakeland. He posted a 31.9% chase rate, .326 on-base percentage and was a slightly above-average player on offense, with a 103 wRC+.
On defense, Campos started 65 games in center field, 27 games in right field and eight games in left field. He feels most comfortable in center field but could transition the corners because of his strong body, power potential and arm strength.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Campos said in Spanish, with Tigers bilingual media coordinator Carlos Guillen interpreting. “When I was 16, I didn’t take things so seriously. Now, I have learned to be more appreciative for stuff like working hard, keeping my head down, being a man and being more disciplined.”
After the 2022 season, coaches from the player development department met with Campos to discuss a plan for the offseason.
He watched videos of his swing with Low-A hitting coach Francisco Contreras — who has moved up to High-A West Michigan for the 2023 season — and recognized a problem with his bat path.
“During the season, I was looking at the pitches in a very good way, but I wasn’t able to reach them,” Campos said. “I was behind and late to the ball, but I was able to see the ball perfectly.”
Over the past two years, Campos held his bat over his shoulder while waiting for the pitch. The knob of the bat would angle toward the sky, and the end cap would angle toward the ground. Strength and bat speed benefitted his performance, but he didn’t have enough time to adjust to certain pitches.
He needed to simplify his swing and shorten his bat path.
So, that’s what he did this offseason.
“My shoulder was getting heavier, and my bat was taking longer to get out and hit the ball,” Campos said. “Now, I put the bat straight — almost attached to my body — so it’s easier for me to see the ball and throw my hands at the ball. My swing is shorter, and I feel way better about that.”
Basically, the new-look Campos holds his bat parallel to his chest. The knob is pointed directly at the ground, and the end cap is pointed directly toward the sky. After some practice, he became comfortable with the shorter swing.
Last season, Campos hammered up-and-in pitches while struggling to make consistent contact on the outside half of the strike zone. His first big swing change, in theory, will improve his adaptability as he reacts to pitches in different locations.
“Obviously, the player goes home and works on things,” Garko said. “With Campos, it sounds like he’s trying to find a place at launch where the barrel gets in the zone and stays in the zone for a long time.”
Elevating the ball
Adjusting to pitches is the first benefit of the swing change.
The second? Power.
In his first MLB spring training plate appearance, Campos launched an opposite-field home run off Toronto Blue Jays left-handed reliever Matt Gage to put the Tigers ahead, 4-2, in the eighth inning. He also hit a home run on the first pitch of his professional career in 2021.
Campos possesses home run potential — as exemplified by his 87 mph average exit velocity, 120.2 mph maximum exit velocity and 37.4% hard-hit rate — but he finished last season with five homers in 448 plate appearances.
“We want him, as he gets older, to get the ball in the air a little bit more without reaching for power and without his mechanics breaking down,” Garko said. “We want him in a better position at launch to get the bat on plane with the ball. … One of the things we talked to him about was getting on plane early, staying on plane and staying through the ball.”
For Campos, unfavorable contact points resulted in too many ground balls last season. He hit the ball on the ground 51.5% of the time, according to Fangraphs, about 9 percentage points higher than last year’s MLB average.
Elevating the ball was an issue, but hitting the ball hard wasn’t. He averaged an 84.9 mph exit velocity on ground balls, 94.1 mph exit velocity on line drives and 87.8 mph exit velocity on fly balls, all above-average results in the Florida State League.
A shorter swing is expected to help Campos get his bat underneath pitches because he will have more time to adjust. If that happens, he has all the tools to crush double-digit home runs.
“I’m trying to hit the ball toward the middle of the field,” Campos said. “Not to the sides, not the gaps, just to the middle of the field. And I’m focused on putting the ball in the air.”
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The Tigers can’t wait to see Campos in spring training.
Once he arrives, Garko will send him to the batting cage and collect data about his swing changes. For all position players, Garko said the Tigers need to verify that their mechanics align with “the best biomechanical position for them to be in when they launch their swing.”
There might be additional adjustments in Campos’ future, but this offseason, he feels like he set a strong foundation. Soon, the new swing will be tested by superior competition in High-A West Michigan.
But Campos, mature for his age, is equipped to handle the next test.
“I’m taking everything very seriously,” Campos said. “This is my dream. I dreamed of playing in High-A. I’m dreaming of playing in Major League Baseball, so every step I take, I’m getting closer to it. I know I have to work on some little things to get better, improve myself, make it to the majors and stay in the majors. I’m young, but I feel ready.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.