Hard work pays off: Prospect Justice Bigbie continues impressive climb through the Tigers’ system

Bless You Boys

A recent update to the MLB Pipeline Top 30 Prospects for each organization provided a new crop of names for Tigers fans to get familiar with. One of the most interesting risers in Detroit’s system is Justice Bigbie, a 24-year-old outfielder, that jumped from being unranked to No. 21 following strong performances with High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie this year.

Through 81 games between both levels, Bigbie is slashing .350/.408/.571 with 15 home runs and 60 runs batted in.

“I’ve been having a pretty good year so far,” Bigbie said. “I’m trying to keep up and really finish strong. I think this part of the year, in August on game 100 and whatever you’re at, is an important time for everybody. If you’re going to finish strong, you really have to focus and bear down.”

That nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is something Bigbie has carried with him since high school, but the confidence wasn’t always there. Playing baseball in college was hard to imagine at times, let alone becoming one of the top prospects in an MLB organization. Hard work pays off, though, and Bigbie has leaped every hurdle put in front of him so far to put a childhood fantasy within reach.

“Going through high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was kind of a late bloomer. I was a little bit smaller. I was a little bit overshadowed, I guess. We had a bunch of good baseball players on our team, and, to be fair, I didn’t really know if I wanted to play baseball in college. I didn’t really think I was good enough.”

Bigbie’s future path began taking shape ahead of his senior year. He threw for over 1500 yards and 13 touchdowns as the quarterback of Grassfield’s football team and also earned a second-straight All-Conference nod behind the plate as a junior. Showing promise in both sports, he was still deciding which one he could take further.

That’s when Andrew Bullock, a former Grassfield Grizzlie that graduated two years ahead of Bigbie, told his head coach at Western Carolina University about a budding young catcher at his alma mater. Bigbie attended a camp in the fall and earned a walk-on offer for the 2018 season.

Bigbie moved to shortstop for his final year of high school and made the All-Region First Team and All-State second team. While it’s been a while since Bigbie’s geared up to catch, that versatility and willingness to adapt he showed as a prep athlete has yet to change throughout his professional career.

He played significant time at third base and both corner outfield positions over four years of college ball — one of which was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been worse for Bigbie, who was coming off a Southern Conference Player of the Year campaign as a sophomore after working on his game in a competitive summer league.

“Obviously at Western, I was able to feel out where I was (in that conference) and able to play some good competition,” he said. “But I think going to the Northwoods, I was able to see all these players from different parts of the country.”

It was then that Bigbie began to believe that a pro career was possible, but the pandemic presented yet another hurdle to get there. Talented college players typically test the draft waters after their junior year, knowing a return to school is possible if the money or slot isn’t right. Bigbie’s numbers were down a bit over a 16-game season, and a five-round draft in 2020 meant that he’d have to repeat his elite sophomore year or improve on it as a senior to stand out in a draft pool with even more volume.

“At the time, I was really frustrated with the timing of it,” he said. “I was getting a little antsy about not knowing where my career was going to go from there, and there were a lot of players in the same position. What was the draft going to be like? Everything, really.

“So, I just kind of let things play out.”

His nine home runs and 50 runs batted in fell short of the 12 homers and 51 RBIs he hit in 2019, but Bigbie improved in nearly every other major offensive statistic tracked. Slashing .395/.500/.621 in his final year at the college level, Bigbie walked nearly as many times as he struck out (35:36) and stole a career-high 11 bases.

That was enough for Detroit to spend a 19th-round pick on him, and Bigbie says that it was an easy decision to sign. The transfer portal hadn’t become the monster it is today, and spending a fifth year in college would mean starting out in the minors at 23 years old.

Twenty-nine games in the Complex League allowed Bigbie to go through the same adjustment period that he went through as a freshman at Western Carolina. As players move up the various levels of the game, most are quick to comment on the speed of play changing.

“I don’t want to say shocked, but it’s definitely a big jump in competition level,” he said. “Especially pitching-wise and the speed of the game a little bit. But, it’s something you expect and have to adjust to. Everyone has to; it’s part of playing pro baseball.”

It took until the end of his first full year in pro ball to figure things out. After finishing his first two months in Lakeland batting .217, his bat started to pick up over the summer and earned him a promotion to High-A West Michigan. Through nine games with the Whitecaps, he slashed .387/.441/.613 with a wRC+ of 191 where 100 is the league average.

“I really don’t think much changed, to be honest,” he said. “Last year, at the end of my time in Lakeland, there wasn’t much left in the year, but I had felt really good… just that last two or three weeks before they moved me up. I think I carried that momentum over well to West Michigan, but I don’t think there was one thing that really clicked in particular.”

Bigbie continued to play well for the Whitecaps at the beginning of the year (.333/.400/.543), earning him yet another promotion to Double-A, which is perhaps the most challenging level of the minor leagues. The former Grizzlie/Catamount/Flying Tiger/Whitecap didn’t need an adjustment period this time.

Since his June 13 call-up (44 games), Bigbie has a 1.009 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, a .364 batting average and a wRC+ of 174.

“You get a ton of at-bats in a year,” he said. “If you continue to improve on your approach each at-bat, you continue to refine the strengths of your game and improve on the weaknesses. With my approach, learning how pitchers pitch, learning the game of baseball (helped). Knowing what this guy is going to do, knowing what he’s going to attack me with, you learn that as you get more at-bats.”

Bigbie praised the hitting coaches and coordinators at every level of the organization for helping develop both his mechanics and approach. West Michigan hitting coach Francisco Contreras and Erie bench coach Matt Mallot were two names in particular that have helped him over the past two seasons. Both were coaches in Lakeland in 2022 and having that established chemistry from year to year helps speed up the development process and keep consistent messaging in a player’s ear.

One area that has really improved is Bigbie’s strikeout rate, which is now down to 12.7 percent in 45 Double-A games, while the power production continues to grow.

“Obviously, you want the walk rate up and the strikeout rate down, but I think with at least the couple years I’ve been here strikeouts come in bunches,” he said. “There ends up being a week where you strike out a bunch and then there’s one where you don’t do it all. It’s the game of baseball. I try to get a good pitch to hit and put a good barrel to it.

“If I keep doing that, I think the rest will work itself out.”

It’s too early to say that Bigbie has figured out the minor leagues, but his rapid ascent through the Tigers’ system is putting fans and the media on notice. However, finding Bigbie’s spot defensively on the Tigers’ roster might be difficult.

He’s split innings in left and right field at Double-A, occasionally sliding into the designated hitter spot. A similar role might be viable in Detroit, but it’s the same one Kerry Carpenter plays, who is looking more and more like a long-term piece.

Miguel Cabrera’s retirement will open up the DH position in the lineup, as well as a roster spot for a minor-league hitter to come up next year, but Colt Keith, Justyn-Henry Malloy and Parker Meadows are ahead of Bigbie on the totem pole. Still, MLB Pipeline projects Bigbie to debut sometime next year, and that seems like a realistic timeline to run with, especially if he keeps hitting the way he has. He’ll need to tackle Triple-A first, and that may not come until the start of next season, but if he carries this production over, it won’t take a full year to get his first call to the majors.

At 24 years old, there is a clock starting to tick on Bigbie’s window, but that’s not something he allows himself to get too worked up over. As long as he can continue to progress, things will take care of themselves.

“I don’t like to think about that stuff, per se,” he said. “I just try to keep moving forward each day. I want to put my head down and work as hard as I can to improve every day. Whatever the future has in store for more is what’s going to happen.

“Don’t look too far ahead; don’t look in the past. Focus on what you have on your plate today. Those are words I try to live by.”

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