Around the Tigers’ farm: Jackson Jobe’s steady starts have revived a once-bleak 2023

Detroit News

Even as few as 90 days ago, what Jackson Jobe has managed to do in 2023 seemed far-fetched.

He has made 13 starts, has a combined 3.19 ERA at three farm stops — Florida Complex League Tigers, as well as Single-A Lakeland and West Michigan — and a 1.04 WHIP.

His last two turns at West Michigan: 12 innings, nine hits, two earned runs, zero walks, and 15 strikeouts. He has in those 12 innings 25 swings-and-misses.

“Dynamic arsenal,” said Whitecaps manager Brayan Pena.

“Quality slider-changeup combo. That combination is going to be too much for hitters to handle in the near future.”

Jobe spent the season’s first three months in relative exile. He had lower-back inflammation that cropped up during spring camp and kept him from working a single game until June 17.

There were thoughts, early on, that 2023 might be all but ruined. There also were thoughts from fans and followers that Jobe’s spring lower-spine ills were one more reason why the Tigers should have refrained from taking a prep pitcher with the 2021 MLB Draft’s third overall turn.

Now, it’s rather quiet out there — except at West Michigan. Jobe’s long-ballyhooed right arm — and “stuff” as it’s known in baseball parlance — has a 21-year-old, right-handed starter on path to be the big-league starter the Tigers insisted they had grabbed 26 months ago.

“We’re developing a really good pitcher in our organization,” Pena said, emphasizing Jobe’s strikeout numbers (41 in 30 innings at West Michigan — against only three walks). “He’s strong, mentally, and in a good place, physically.

“And he’s very coachable.”

Given some past history, are the Tigers looking at a repeat here of Rick Porcello, who was drafted in 2007’s first round and who two springs later was in the Tigers rotation?

No. That fantasy disappeared in March.

Jobe had been on a different, more deliberate, path compared with Porcello, anyway. And would have been so even without spring’s lower-back flare-up.

But it is becoming obvious that if health cooperates, Jobe could be at Double-A Erie in spring, perhaps by the time tulips bloom.

After that, guesswork applies. And, increasingly, it’s hitters who are doing the guessing — wondering how exactly they’re supposed to do damage against this guy.

Madden’s mission (not impossible)

Another of those early-round pitching prospects Tigers students thought might — might — be helping in Detroit as early as this year is perhaps getting closer.

Note Saturday’s start by Double-A Erie’s Ty Madden: five innings against Altoona, three hits, no runs, two walks, eight strikeouts.

Factor in his 2023 season for the SeaWolves: 24 starts, 3.67 ERA, with 133 strikeouts in 108 innings and there’s a big-league pitcher brewing here.

Now dig into his season splits.

Against right-handed batters, a 23-year-old, right-handed starter — 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, drafted 32nd overall in 2021 — is holding hitters to a .209 average and .590 OPS.

Against left-handers it’s a different tale altogether: .270 batting average, .372 on-base, .510 slugging, and .882 OPS.

Throw that weak link against a big-league lineup and you not only don’t have a starter who will long survive, you have a reliever who can be trusted only against right-side batters.

The answer is obvious and one Madden and the Tigers have been working on throughout 2023.

His changeup must become a weapon against lefties. So, too, must a cutter that clearly hasn’t evolved in a manner that can bore and shatter lefty bats.

It hasn’t yet happened. But when you have Madden’s talent and pedigree (he was the University of Texas ace) grips and pitch shapes can and will change.

Once they do — once that capacity to shut down left-handed sticks, in particular, arrives — the Tigers will look at Madden as the potential rotation piece they were all but certain they’d added in 2021.

Melton making his mark

It is natural to think another right-handed starter will, in tandem with Jobe, be headed Erie’s way in 2023: Troy Melton.

A fourth-round plucking by the Tigers in 2022 out of San Diego State, Melton has tossed in 15 games (14 starts) for the Whitecaps and has a stingy 2.05 ERA paired with a 1.06 WHIP. His hit totals — 49 allowed in 61⅓ innings — speak to how rugged is Melton’s repertoire, which is behind nine-inning strikeouts and walks ratios of 8.5 and 2.3.

August’s numbers for Madden were particularly sharp: .171 opponent batting average in four starts, with a .409 OPS.

Basic to the numbers is a high-90s fastball.

“Some of the most exciting stuff in the organization,” said Ryan Garko, who directs Tigers player development, speaking of a one-time catcher who is 6-4 and 210 pounds. “This is his first full season, and he’s been pretty impressive — how he’s taken the ball and really done everything that could have been asked this year.”

Short hops

▶ Good stretch by catcher Dillon Dingler since he was bumped to Triple-A Toledo: three doubles, one triple, and a home run in 10 games, with a .747 OPS — and rave reviews for his defense as the Tigers work feverishly to develop Dingler, and some desperate catching depth at the higher rungs.

▶ Justice Bigbie refuses to cease hitting at Erie, which makes Erie little different from any place Bigbie swings a bat: .365/.425/.562/.987 in 61 games, with 11 home runs. In his last five games leading into Sunday, Bigbie was 10-for-20, with four walks.

▶ Erie manager Gabe Alvarez on Brant Hurter, 24, who throws left-handed, was a seventh-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2021 and who is Erie’s rotation attack dog (24 games, 109 innings, with strikeout-walks ratios per nine innings of 10.3 and 2.4):

“When he’s commanding all four pitches, it makes it really tough on a hitter,” Alvarez said. “He also works really, really fast, and the fielders love it. He gets the ball and he’s going. We’re trying to line up our playoff rotation, and he’s throwing Game 1.”

▶ Alvarez on right-handed reliever Blake Holub (26 games, 2.70 ERA, 1.04 WHIP): “He’ll run it (fastball) up there; mid-to-high-90s, touching 97, and up to 98, but usually pretty consistently 94-96. The thing with him, he has a natural cut to everything. His comp would be (Red Sox reliever) Kenley Jansen, where every ball is cutting. Mid-to-high-90s, with cut, makes it.”

▶ Alvarez on right-handed bullpen sniper Tyler Mattison (18 games, 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings): “He’s really special. He’s the guy after he throws, the next day, talking to the other team’s manager or hitting coach, they’ll say, ‘Man, that Mattison kid is really good.’

“He’s 97, 98, with a big-time power curveball. That’s a nasty combo.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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