Colt Keith thinks like Conor McGregor, plays like Joey Votto, looks like Detroit Tigers’ best prospect

Detroit Free Press

It’s a lesson learned from his father.

Colt Keith tries to simplify everything about his game.

Troy wrestled in college and summed up the family sport for his son in one sentence: “If you want to take somebody down, just pick them up and put them on the ground.” The mentality — don’t think, just do — translates to baseball just as well.

“It’s the same thing,” Keith said. “If you want to get a hit, just hit the ball.”

The 2020 draft pick took thousands of ground balls this offseason to improve his defense, but he didn’t dissect his fielding actions. He implemented workout and nutrition routines last offseason to hit more home runs, but he didn’t overhaul his swing mechanics. He looks up to Conor McGregor, loves Bryce Harper and has been compared to Joey Votto.

Keith, a left-handed hitter, is the Detroit Tigers‘ best prospect. The 21-year-old third baseman hasn’t played above the High-A level and will be the youngest player in big-league camp this month. He is one of the most underrated prospects in baseball and wants to make his MLB debut in 2023.

“That’s my goal,” he said, “to leave them with no choice.”

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“It’s a really advanced approach to go with the physicality that he possesses,” Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko said. “He definitely understands how to conduct an at-bat, which is why he hits for average, hits for power and controls the strike zone.”

A few months ago in Mesa, Arizona, Keith sat down the left-field line, not far from the foul pole, to watch the Arizona Fall League Home Run Derby. Eight prospects participated in the inaugural event while more than a dozen Fall Leaguers enjoyed the show near the dugouts.

But Keith leaned back in his seat in the stands surrounded by fans, an underdog exuding confidence.

“I think that’s a winner’s mentality,” he said. “Say you’re going to do it, and then go do it.”

Simple, right?

Not so much.

“He’s confident he’s going to make it happen,” said C.J. Wamsley, Keith’s hitting coach in High-A West Michigan last season. “It’s special, it’s different. You don’t see that a ton to that magnitude. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys with that mentality, but Colt goes above and beyond. I don’t want to say ‘above and beyond,’ but the dude goes hard.”

Setting the foundation

This offseason, Keith trained in Biloxi, Mississippi. He practiced fielding with his agent and high school coaches, took swings five days per week with Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Travis Swaggerty and continued developing his strength, mobility and flexibility through daily workouts.

“I like him,” an American League scout said. “Good approach. I think there will be hit and power against right-handed pitchers. Probably some platoon sensitivity, but simple and strong.”

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One of Keith’s goals is to be recognized as a top-100 prospect. He didn’t crack Baseball America’s preseason top-100 rankings and wasn’t featured in MLB Pipeline’s preseason top-100 rankings, though ESPN ranked him No. 75 on its top-100 list.

“I’m going to tell you right now, Colt is definitely one of the top 100 players in the country,” said Matt Paul, Keith’s agent and workout partner. “When he looks at that list and doesn’t see his name, that fuels that fire. When I don’t see his name, I kind of like it in a way.”

Early in Keith’s professional career, Joel McKeithan — then the Tigers’ minor-league hitting coordinator and now the hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds — sent players in the organization film of their swing and player comparisons. The Tigers compared Keith to Votto.

“It’s important to watch how he plays,” Keith said. “That’s my goal, to be like him in the big leagues.”

Votto has played nearly 2,000 games across 16 seasons for the Reds, hitting .297 with 342 home runs. The 39-year-old, the 2010 National League MVP and a top-10 MVP finisher five other seasons, has led the majors in on-base percentage three times and led the NL seven times. The left-handed hitter’s combination of contact, power and plate discipline punched his likely ticket to the Hall of Fame.

“I definitely see a lot of similarities in how they naturally move and their approach to at-bats and the skills they have,” McKeithan said. “High-level approach, ability to control the zone, put the ball in play and drive it to all parts of the field.”

Next, there’s Harper. The 30-year-old, another left-handed hitter, has played nearly 1,400 games across 11 seasons for the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies. He won NL Rookie of the Year in 2012, NL MVP awards in 2015 and 2021 and marched the Phillies to the World Series in 2022.

Both Harper and Keith are confident, borderline cocky and determined to succeed.

“He says what he’s going to do,” Keith said, “and he goes and does it.”

Just like McGregor.

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In 2008, McGregor — an up-and-coming fighter at the time — shared his goals: Win the UFC lightweight championship, earn more money than he knew what to do with and become the No. 1 fighter in the world. Throughout his career, McGregor has frequently predicted the outcomes of his fights, right more often than not. In September 2014, McGregor said in a post-fight news conference, “I am cocky in prediction. I am confident in preparation. But I am always humble in victory or defeat.” Those words inspired Keith, who wrestled nationally until his freshman year of high school.

“He says what he’s going to do, and then there’s pressure to go do it,” Keith said, “so he trains how he’s supposed to train, then does it.”

That’s the foundation of Keith’s persona.

‘Like a Mookie Betts thing’

Keith didn’t want to attend college.

“I honestly hated sitting in classrooms,” he said.

The son of a wrestling coach and an attorney crunched the numbers coming out of Biloxi High School in Mississippi. He could attend Arizona State and hope for a larger signing bonus in the future, but he wouldn’t be draft-eligible again until July 2023, or he could enter the draft and sign for a lesser bonus in June 2020, then potentially earn the big-league minimum salary at some point in 2023. At the time, the MLB minimum was $563,500.

“In my head, by the time I would get drafted out of college, hopefully in the first or second round, I could be making the big-league minimum at the same time,” Keith said. “That was my goal, to be in the big leagues making more than I would (with) my bonus. That was the main thing, betting on myself.”

After the third round, Keith thought he would be passed up entirely. The draft, shortened to five rounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic, brought mixed emotions as he slipped to the final round.

The Tigers drafted him at No. 132 overall and signed him for a $500,000 bonus.

Back then, Keith sought to prove he should have been drafted higher.

He thinks differently now.

“Who is there to prove it to?” Keith said. “Maybe down the road, it’ll be like a Mookie Betts thing. Like 30 teams passed on him five times. That’s the only thing that can happen, but hopefully, by then, it doesn’t even matter.”

Betts, too, was a fifth-rounder, selected out of high school at No. 172 overall in 2011 by the Boston Red Sox. By 2014, Betts appeared in 52 games for the Red Sox at a pro-rated MLB minimum salary of $500,000. He won AL MVP in 2018 and signed a 12-year, $362 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the 2021 season.

This season, the pro-rated MLB minimum is $720,000.

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As a raw athlete, Keith entered the Tigers’ organization and immediately felt overmatched in the instructional league. He went home and practiced hitting velocity and spin ahead of the 2021 season, his first full campaign as a pro, and tore up the Low-A Lakeland competition — hitting .320 in 44 games — before struggling in an 18-game cameo at High-A West Michigan to end the season.

His smart swing decisions helped him make adjustments.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve always been able to swing at strikes and not swing at balls,” Keith said. “If where he releases it isn’t where I want it to be, I don’t swing, and most of the time, it’s a ball. If I think it’s going to end up middle-middle, then I swing. That’s it. Unless there are two strikes, then I wait until it’s closer and make sure it’s not going to hit a corner.”

But something was missing.


“And I hit more homers,” Keith said, “just like I wanted to.”

‘I just look at the results’

In September 2021, Keith traveled from Grand Rapids to Lakeland for a multi-week skill acquisition camp. At the end of the camp, the coaches instructed a group of players to hit the ball hard.

Keith wasn’t pleased with his first few swings.

He had a fierce look in his eyes and proceeded to pull back-to-back home runs to right-center field. One of the balls hit the minor-league clubhouse.

“That was the first time I saw him be free and let it eat,” Wamsley said. “When he came back for spring training, it was a lot of the same. It’s a testament to what he was able to do with his body.”

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Last offseason, Keith prioritized hitting for power. He surveyed professionals — both players and coaches — and utilized the advice to create workout and diet plans, as well as goals for his body. Instead of changing his swing, Keith believed he needed to boost his strength and enhance his quick-twitch muscles. Only then, he thought, would his optimal swings turn into extra-base hits and home runs.

“I’m trying to hit the ball hard somewhere toward center field,” Keith said. “If I’m a little late, it’ll go toward left field. If I pull it, it’ll go toward right field. I’m trying to take that same swing and get super strong with my forearms and legs, so instead of that ball being 95 (mph exit velocity), it’s 110 and keeps going. It’s not changing my swing at all. It’s getting stronger so the ball goes further.”

The idea is deceptively simple, but Keith put in the work behind the scenes.

In 2022, Keith hit .301 with nine home runs — all against right-handers — in 48 games for High-A West Michigan, plus .344 with three homers in 19 games in the Arizona Fall League. (He had two homers in 65 games during the 2021 season.)

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Several of Keith’s basic stats stood out compared to fellow prospects, including Arizona Fall Leaguers, with at least 250 plate appearances, including a .311 batting average (96th percentile), .395 on-base percentage (93rd percentile), .543 slugging percentage (97th percentile) and .939 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (97th percentile).

As for the advanced metrics, Keith ranked in the 97th percentile with a .401 wOBA, the 93rd percentile with an 89.6 mph average exit velocity, the 89th percentile with a .429 xwOBAcon, the 88th percentile with a 41% hard-hit rate and the 83rd percentile with a 32.5% sweet-spot rate.

“I just look at the results,” Keith said. “If I’m hitting doubles, homers and batting .300, there can’t be a problem. That’s why I’ve never looked into (the analytics). I know Scott Harris, our new president, is really into chase rates and walk rates, but I don’t even know how to get those numbers. I just know I don’t swing at balls and walk a lot. That has to be what he wants me to do. Simplifying it makes it easier.”

He also posted a 12.8% walk rate (77th percentile), 19.6% strikeout rate (75th percentile) and 15% chase rate (97th percentile). His contact rate inside the strike zone was below average, but his elite swing decisions compensated for some of the in-zone swing-and-miss tendencies.

Keith dominates the strike zone and generates damage on contact.

“I started to realize in batting practice that I could put balls out whenever I wanted,” Keith said. “It’s starting to feel like that more and more. Once I get hot, and I’m seeing the ball well, getting my swing down and playing every day, I see myself — without a doubt in my mind — hitting 30 home runs. I don’t see that as a problem for me.

“If I’m batting below .300, I’m going to be a little upset. I’m going to bat .300, but I’m also going to have homers. That’s just going to come if I’m playing well because I think I have natural power.”

But again, something was missing.


‘The outcome will be the same’

On June 9, Keith hit a single to right field in the first inning. Moments later, he suffered a right shoulder injury diving back to first base on a pickoff attempt. He missed the remainder of the regular season and didn’t play again until the Arizona Fall League.

For the next two months, Keith couldn’t throw a baseball right-handed while rehabbing and contemplating surgery, so he practiced throwing left-handed. “Sometimes, labrum surgeries go south and you don’t come back (with normal range of motion),” Keith said. “That was definitely a possibility. I was freaking out.” Worst-case scenario, he would transition to first base, rake at the plate and use his left hand to throw.

But Keith didn’t need surgery.

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After two months, he finally noticed progress in his rehab program. After four months, the Tigers cleared him to participate in the AFL and play third base.

He wants to play third base in the big leagues, but his defense is the biggest area of concern. Growing up, Keith prioritized hitting and pitching. Last season, he realized his hands weren’t as soft as other third basemen despite above-average arm strength. If third base doesn’t pan out, he has experience at second base, but he profiles as a defender at the corner positions.

This offseason, Keith worked on his defense.

“If I want to be an All-Star, if I want to get paid the money I want to get paid, I have to play above-average defense,” Keith said. “I’m not there right now. That’s OK, but it’s something I have to work on.”

Soon, the Tigers will know whether or not Keith can play third base.

“I worked to be a better hitter, and it showed,” Keith said. “I worked to get more power, and it showed. Now I’m working to be a better fielder, and I guarantee the outcome will be the same. It will be unrecognizable. I’m willing to put in hours and hours of practice to fix every weakness until there are no weaknesses left. With me, you’re looking at a work in progress. I’m nowhere near where I want to be with my game.”

In July 2020, Keith predicted the minor leagues wouldn’t break him. He has been tested over the past two seasons but continues to bounce back. This season, he will brave new challenges as he advances closer to Detroit.

But Keith thinks he’s prepared.

So do the Tigers.

“The bat is always going to be the ticket, but we’re looking for solid defenders all over the field,” Garko said. “And Double-A will be a good challenge for him because the game speeds up at every level. I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. We’re excited to hear him put that focus on the defensive work because he’s a complete player. We know he can hit, and I think he can be a pretty good third baseman.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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