Keith making an impression at camp: ‘He can really hit’

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Colt Keith waited all week for a chance at live batting practice against a Tigers pitcher in Spring Training. His present was a matchup against Matt Manning on Friday morning.

By session’s end, he was wearing Manning out.

As Keith went pitch-to-pitch against the third-year starter, he was determined not to chase. Not only had he picked up at-bats against pitchers back home in Biloxi, Miss., before he reported to camp last weekend, he picked up a scouting report on Manning before stepping into the box.

Keith is a doggedly disciplined hitter for a 21-year-old — the youngest player in camp — and he was determined not to give Manning an easy out.

“Knew he had a good fastball going into it,” Keith said. “Knew he had a really good 12-6 curve that he likes to throw to lefties. He’s got really good stuff, and I went into it just trying to stay short, which I usually do against guys throwing that hard. Sat fastball, saw the curveball pop and adjusted, and just hit it hard in the air.”

Not only did he hit it hard, he hit it out. It was an impressive at-bat, though not necessarily a surprise to those who saw him in Minor League camp last year.

“Oh yeah,” manager A.J. Hinch said, “he can really hit.”

Manning had his chance at revenge later in the session and had Keith fooled, but Keith lined the pitch into right field for a solid single anyway.

“He threw a slider down. It was actually a really good pitch,” Keith said. “I actually thought it was a fastball until the last second. I wanted to hit it up the middle, ended up being a little early and just got the bat head down there. Not sure how I got under it that much. Should’ve been a ground ball to the second baseman. It was a good pitch, a pitcher’s pitch, and I ended up getting the bat there.”

Earlier Friday morning, Keith made an equally impressive play in the field, grabbing a ball down the line in drills and making a leaping throw home on target that had Hall of Famer Alan Trammell complimenting him.

“That’s what I worked on this offseason,” Keith said. “I worked on being side to side and getting a little leaner so I can make plays like that.”

Keith has worked with former Ole Miss and University of Florida track coach Brian O’Neal on lateral quickness and mobility. Though he hit .344 with a 1.004 OPS in the Arizona Fall League, walking as many times as he struck out (16), he struggled defensively at third base. Part of that was rust from missing most of the Minor League season with an injured right shoulder, but he didn’t want to feel like that again. So he worked out like crazy, shed 10 pounds, and added muscle and mobility.

That went on until he left for Spring Training. So did his hitting work, taking pitches against free agents, college pitchers and high schoolers throwing side sessions between starts.

“I was getting work in like crazy,” he said. “Those three days before I came here, it was all-day workouts, hitting, fielding, throwing, everything I could do.”

On days like Friday, the work pays off. It won’t get him to the big leagues yet — Hinch has already told him that he won’t make the Opening Day roster — but it’ll go a long way toward making an impression.

“We had our player meeting with him and emphasized that his approach currently works,” Hinch said. “So now it’s [about] experience and facing better pitchers as he goes across the Minor Leagues and then continuing to chip away at whatever defensive positions he can play. 

“We know the one place he’s going to be comfortable in his first big league camp is the batter’s box.”

That’s how the Tigers saw Keith when they selected him in the fifth and final round of the 2020 MLB Draft. It was a bit of a gamble, since he was committed to attend Arizona State, but the Tigers signed him for a $500,000 bonus.

Three years later, Keith is one of the top position prospects in the system, a young hitter with the mature plate approach Hinch and president of baseball operations Scott Harris have been emphasizing. With Grapefruit League games starting Saturday, he’ll get some at-bats to torment opposing pitchers instead of his own.

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