Tigers’ top prospect Jace Jung driven to learn, ‘be great’ on road to Detroit

Detroit News

Comstock Park, Mich. — Jace Jung doesn’t claim to have everything figured out.

He continues to be a student of the game of baseball — and a student of the game of life. Jung has millions in the bank, but he still spends his spring mornings in west Michigan taking online classes, working toward earning his degree in university studies from Texas Tech.

Jung’s parents are teachers, and if they taught young Jace anything, it’s to keep learning.

“We grew up that if you didn’t have all A’s or a couple B’s, then you were in trouble,” Jung said the other day, letting out a laugh. (For the record, he claims to have never gotten a single C.) “They instilled that into us, and I’m just carrying that out for them, doing my part. I think that’s important.

“I wanted to finish school. I had already made up my mind that if, hey, I get drafted, I’m gonna finish school. That way, the rest of my life, I don’t have to worry about it. Get it done while I’m still young, while I’ve still got the drive and work ethic to do it.”

Every baseball prospect is picked apart by a legion of scouts — running, throwing, hitting, speed, etc. — and there are varying reports about Jung’s skills, but few can question his work ethic, his drive to learn, and get better, at everything from hitting to hunting.

Jung, 22, was the Tigers’ No. 12 overall pick in last year’s MLB Draft — the last first-round pick in an Al Avila era that produced far more busts than breakouts.

Jung is hoping to buck that trend, as one of a trio of promising prospects at High-A West Michigan, along with outfielder Roberto Campos and third baseman Izaac Pacheco. They’re three big reasons why the Whitecaps lead the Midwest League in runs, hits, doubles, home runs and OPS, among other categories. Pacheco and Campos are the Tigers’ No. 12 and 13 prospects, respectively, per MLB Pipeline.

Jung is the Tigers’ top prospect, and after a slow start this season — he called this spring the coldest baseball he’s ever played, with some temps in the 20s; occasionally, growing up in Texas with those westerly winds, it could get into the 30s — he’s perked up lately, batting .250/.387/.422 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 31 games. Those numbers are improvements across the board over his 30-game stint at West Michigan in 2022. Jung’s isolated power (ISO) is up considerably.

Part of the growth can be attributed to a new batting stance. He holds the bat up higher this year — think Mickey Tettleton, for you Tigers fans of the ’90s — which appears to be getting the bat through the zone quicker.

“He’s hitting the ball harder. In terms of his power tool, we have him listed at 55 (think, Nick Castellanos), above-average raw power,” said Rogelio Castillo, a baseball analyst and co-owner of Tigers Minor League report (tigersmlreport.com). “It shows from last year to this year. He’s making harder contact more consistently.”

Jung recently had 10 hits in a seven-game span, including a long home run. One ball came off the bat at 109 mph.

Finding his way

These are the kind of swings he showed during an impressive three-year career at Texas Tech, where his OPS was over 1.000 all three seasons. He had 21 homers as a sophomore, and 14 as a junior, to become the third first-round draft pick in Texas Tech history — and the first since his older brother, Josh Jung, picked eighth overall by the Texas Rangers in 2019 and now playing every day in the major leagues.

In terms of learning, Jace, who bats lefty, considers Josh, 25, a righty, one of his many teachers. The two text every day. Josh has eight home runs and 25 RBIs through 40 games with Texas this season.

In the offseason, they talk about a lot of stuff. Right now, they talk only about baseball.

“Right now, yes, that’s our life,” Jace Jung said this weekend in an interview with The News, lounging in the stands at LMCU Ballpark ahead of a night game. “That’s our job, to go out there and play the game we’ve played since we were kids. Now, we get to do it full-time and have fun with it.

“I love picking his brain about what he’s thinking at the plate, what drills he’s doing to get ready for the game, all that kind of stuff. It’s just a cool feeling.”

The Jungs grew up playing baseball from about the time they could walk. Dad Jeff was a baseball coach, and Jace and Josh always hung around practice.

Jace played other sports, most notably football, which is king in Texas. He played linebacker and played through his junior season before he realized he needed to focus on his best sport, baseball. His senior year, when he only was playing baseball, he made first-team all-state.

Then came the epic career at Texas Tech.

In other words, Jung hasn’t had many struggles in baseball. Or at least he hadn’t until he became a pro — and everyone has their credentials. What stood out to Brayan Pena, the ex-Tigers catcher and current Whitecaps manager, is that Jung, even amid his struggles, didn’t give an inch.

“He really wants to be great. That is something that really captivates my attention and our attention. He doesn’t take anything for granted,” Pena said. “He goes out there every single day and works very hard. He wants to be a big-leaguer very soon. That’s something we also are trying to make sure he understands, that it’s a process.

“Obviously, we want him to continue to grow, we want him to continue to get better.

“I don’t want to be selfish. I want him to continue to move up.”

Pena is another one of Jung’s teachers. They’ve had many heart-to-hearts this season and last. Pena’s personality, and ability to connect to players, is a big reason he was a holdover from the Avila system to Scott Harris’ staff (Pena also embraces analytics, big time). Jung also uses Pena to practice his blossoming Spanish (never stop learning). He loves to point out Pena is “calvo,” bald.

“JJ is special, man,” Pena said with a big grin. “Man, he’s funny.”

Interestingly, when asked about Jung, Campos and Pacheco, the first thing Pena mentions is they’re good people. He said that’s important. Individual growth is important, but so is leadership. Baseball is the ultimate team game.

Jung is a second baseman, and when compared on defense to Pacheco (he’s major-league ready, defensively, folks say) and Campos (he’s raw and an adventure in the outfield, in center and right), Jung is steady. He’s not flashy, by any means, and his arm won’t be mistaken for a cannon, but he makes the plays he needs to make.

Castillo said a defensive comp for Jung would be Jhonny Peralta, the former Tigers shortstop.

“He’ll do,” said Castillo, “in other words.”

Embracing the journey

There’s room for growth, and Jung always is looking to grow — on the field, and off.

Away from the game, when he’s not studying anyway, Jung is a typical 22-year-old, in that he likes video games. “Fortnite” is his go-to. Outdoors, he’s a big-time hunter. It’s a family passion, and he loves it, specifically hunting deer. Asked how many he’s bagged over the years, he doesn’t even dare to count. Then again, for Jung, it’s not always about the bottom line. It’s about the journey.

“You try to go out there,” said Jung, “and cherish every moment you have.”

Jung is good at living in the moment. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the pressures of being a high draft pick. He knows he’s not making the major leagues tomorrow. It’s a process, and he’s all in for that process.

He also knows there will be life after baseball, which is why he continues pursuing his degree — and why he insists he hasn’t spent a nickel of the $4,590,300 signing bonus he got from the Tigers. No splurges. No cars. No houses. No watches. No nothing.

He lives on his modest minor-league salary, and lives like the typical minor-leaguer. Because, in his mind, that’s what he is. The expectations are great, but there’s no need getting ahead of yourself.

“I’m saving it,” Jung said of the bonus. “When the day comes, the day comes.”

The same goes for his major-league career. When it comes, it comes.

The Tigers have a handful of potential second basemen of the future, but only one, Colt Keith, who recently had a six-hit game in which he hit for the cycle with two homers, is believed to have the offensive upside of Jung. And Keith is projecting more as a third baseman.

If all goes according to the Tigers’ player development plan, sometime this summer, Keith will move from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo, and Jung will make his way to Erie.

As Pena said, as much as he’d love to keep working with Jung, he’ll be happiest when he moves on, and moves up.

Until that day comes, there will be some good days, but some more bad days, to be sure. Those bad days remain pretty unfamiliar terrain for Jung, though he’s plenty willing to learn how to get through them and get past them.

“I feel like all the struggles and stuff come with this game,” Jung said. “There’s gonna be times in this game where you’re 0-for-20 and you’ve gotta find a way to get out of your struggles, find a way to start getting back on the right track. That’s where my struggles come from, trying to overcome the obstacles that come from this game.

“You know, at the beginning of the season, I felt like I had to do a lot. But having Brayan Pena as a manager, just sitting down and talking with him, ‘Just play your game. You don’t need to do too much. We drafted you where we did and we know what you can do. Just go out there and play and have fun.’ That’s what I’ve really tried to do the past four, five weeks, is just go out there and have fun.

“Not trying to put too much pressure on myself, and just playing the baseball game I love.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

On deck: Nationals

Series: Three games at Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

First pitch: Friday — 7:05 p.m.; Saturday — 4:05 p.m.; Sunday — 1:35 p.m.

TV/radio: All games on BSD/97.1

Probables: Friday — LHP Matthew Boyd (2-3, 6.47) vs. RHP Jake Irvin (1-1, 4.11); Saturday — RHP Alex Faedo (0-1, 4.22) vs. LHP Patrick Corbin (2-5, 4.65); Sunday — LHP Joey Wentz (1-3, 6.38) vs. RHP Josiah Gray (3-5, 2.73)

Boyd, Tigers: Looking to bounce back after an uncharacteristically poor outing against the Mariners last Friday. Unable to sync up his delivery, he walked four in just 1⅓ innings. The start before that, though, was a quality start against the Cardinals in St. Louis. When he’s able to command his pitches, especially his four-seamer, he gets a lot of chase (32%) and whiff (30%).

Irvin, Nationals: This will be his fourth start since being called up from Triple-A Rochester. After two strong starts, he got lit up by the Mets his last time out (six runs in 4⅔ innings). He throws a slow curveball (79-80 mph) off a 93-mph four-seam fastball. Big-league hitters are 2-for-17 with 10 strikeouts with a 36% whiff rate off his curve.

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