‘Career-changing’ adjustment that made Colt Keith the Detroit Tigers’ top prospect

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers prospect Colt Keith watched videos of his swing.

Hundreds of videos.

In fact, Keith watched videos of his swing — alongside Tigers hitting coordinators Jeff Branson and Max Gordon — going all the way back to his high school days, searching for a solution. Eventually, the 21-year-old found the answer and implemented a swing change.

Keith blends elite swing decisions with above-average contact quality and is the most advanced hitter in the Tigers’ farm system.

He plays in Double-A Erie, but the top prospect seems ready to make his MLB debut and help the Tigers. He has proven himself, despite his age, as one of the best hitters in the Arizona Fall League last offseason and in the Eastern League this season.

“My personal goals have been set, and I’m already very on pace to break all those,” Keith said. “I think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my personal goals. No matter if I stay in Erie or stay in (Triple-A) Toledo, I want to focus on defense and proving that I’m the hitter that I think I am and that I can progress into the big leagues.”

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After an injury-shortened 2022 season, Keith received an invitation from the Tigers to big-league spring training, and as the youngest player in camp, he hit .261 with five extra-base hits (two home runs), four walks and six strikeouts in 16 games.

The Tigers assigned him to Double-A Erie.

In 48 games, Keith is hitting .323 with 26 extra-base hits (10 home runs), 23 walks and 49 strikeouts with the SeaWolves. He has a 10.2% walk rate, 21.7% walk rate and .964 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

The swing change happened at the beginning of May and guided him to the Eastern League Player of the Month award.

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“The award is awesome for the kid to feel success in your league when you get recognized as being the best player for that particular timeline,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think it’s just as important for him to get better on defense and figure out how to be a well-rounded offensive player and things like that.”

In May, Keith hit .374 with seven doubles, one triple, six home runs, 27 RBIs, 10 walks and 23 strikeouts in 22 games for the SeaWolves. On May 16, he hit for the cycle while finishing 6-for-6 with two home runs.

He led the Eastern League in batting average (.374), slugging percentage (.670) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.107) for the month and ranked second in on-base percentage (.437).

“It’s cool to get that honor, but I still feel like there’s some places I’m falling short in my game,” Keith said. “There are some personal goals I haven’t met yet. I have a ways to go with the player I want to be. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be here (in Double-A Erie). Maybe the whole year. If it is, I need to keep on finding ways to challenge myself and stuff like that.”

The art of a swing change

As for the swing change, Keith points to a six-game series against Double-A Portland — an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox — at the end of April. He hit .286 with three homers in 20 games in April, but he was struggling as the calendar was about to change months.

In the Portland series, Keith hit .120 (3-for-25) with two walks and seven strikeouts. A slump caused him to lose confidence in his approach, which sent him to the film room to evaluate the situation.

“All though my life, whenever I feel pressure or go through a slump, what I want to do is get crouched down low and get into a power position to put the ball in play,” Keith said. “For me, that does the opposite. I didn’t really figure that out until about a month ago. It was the beginning of May.”

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Keith credits Branson and Gordon, members of the Ryan Garko-led player development department, for helping him identify the need for a swing change, rather than an approach change.

Once Keith started researching, Gordon showed up the next day prepared with videos and analysis. The Tigers, specifically Garko, hired Gordon in January 2022 after he spent five years working as a hitting coordinator at Driveline Baseball.

“In my first year of pro ball, I don’t think that this happens,” Keith said. “It shows our progress in our staff. I think this might be career-changing for me. If I’m able to see the ball like this all the time, just because I can stand up, if this translates to Triple-A and the big leagues, this is huge.”

Keith explained the swing adjustment in detail.

“I went from crouching to stranding straight up in the box, lifting my leg and swinging hard at strikes,” Keith said. “My head movement stayed still, and I was able to see the pitches a lot better. When I’m crouched down, I tend to leak towards the pitcher, and whenever your head is moving while you’re hitting, that’s when you get in trouble. It was a swing change for me.”

Reviewing videos of Keith, he appeared to “crouch” to an extreme in his stance as a first-year professional in 2021. That year, he hit just two home runs in 65 games. The posture in his stance switched to an upright position in 2022 and 2023, but during slumps, he would revert to the old posture.

The change looks subtle, but he feels a big difference. He feels relaxed in his upper body with less tension in his shoulders.

“Once you point it out, it’s pretty obvious,” Keith said. “If you’ve watched my swings from the last month, I’m standing straight up in the box. If you’ve watched my videos from my best swings in high school, it’s the same thing. That swing change was huge for me. I’m happy I’ve learned something about my body in that way. It’s been a month straight of seeing the ball well and being really comfortable.”

Ready for Detroit?

The Tigers need help on offense.

Keith, a fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft, has all the makings of a future star in the big leagues. His simple approach — hunt fastballs and adjust to secondary pitches — has led to tremendous success throughout his career, including a 15.0% chase rate and a 73.7% contact rate this season.

As a left-handed hitter, he is batting .306 with seven home runs in 165 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and .373 with three homers in 61 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.

“I’ve never been a guy to shy away from lefties,” Keith said. “The power against lefties in the past hasn’t been there. I’ve never hit them for power, but once I learned to stay back and stay tall, the power has been there. I’m really confident against lefties this year.”

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The next best thing about Keith’s offensive profile, aside from controlling the strike zone, is his ability to crush high-velocity fastballs while limiting chase against breaking balls and offspeed pitches.

He has an 82.8% contact rate against four-seam fastballs, and against all pitches, he has an above-average 89.6 mph exit velocity. Another fact: Keith hasn’t faced a pitcher younger than him in 221 plate appearances this season.

It’s another example of Keith being advanced for his age.

“Having success in the Eastern League is about not missing that one pitch,” Keith said. “You can get hits on the balls on the corners and changeups down, but you’re going to do your damage on the fastballs middle and the hangers that leak back to the middle of the plate. Not missing that pitch is really big for me.”

There’s no question about Keith’s offense, but where he will play on defense is the remaining question. He is the SeaWolves’ primary third baseman but sometimes struggles to field the ball cleanly at the hot corner.

If he keeps hitting like a future star, the Tigers will certainly find a spot for him on the roster regardless of his defense.

“It’s every day,” Keith said. “I’ve been taking reps, probably way too many reps, but it’s a good thing I’ve become obsessed with. There’s a lot of talk that maybe I won’t be able to stick in the infield and have to go to the outfield, which I can see that side, but I want to be a really good third baseman or second baseman. It’s getting better.”

A couple weeks in Triple-A Toledo, whenever the Tigers decide to promote him from Double-A Erie, could keep the transition smooth in his pursuit of his MLB debut this season.

But Keith has proven he is ready for the next challenge.

The timeline will be determined by the Tigers.

“When I’m trying to help the team win, that’s when my stats will show up the best,” Keith said, as Erie is four games back of first place with 16 games remaining in the first half of the season. “One of my goals this year is for the SeaWolves to have the best record in the Eastern League by the time the halfway point comes (June 25). I’m going to keep focusing on that.”

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

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