DETROIT — The first prospect Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris mentioned in his end-of-season remarks two weeks ago wasn’t sweet-swinging Colt Keith or Jace Jung, both of whom had their share of praise all summer. It wasn’t even high-rising pitching prospect Jackson Jobe, who continues to put up quality work in the Arizona Fall League.
No, it was Justice Bigbie. Considering the path the outfielder took to enter the conversation among Tigers prospects, it makes sense.
“I think about the 19th-round [Draft] picks, the Kerry Carpenters, the Justice Bigbies, who got a lot better [this year],” Harris said. “They showed up to Lakeland this year ready to work, ready to get better, and they got a lot better.”
The comparisons between Carpenter and Bigbie, 19th-rounders in the 2019 and ‘21 Drafts, respectively, who emerged as ranked prospects with breakout seasons, have been chronicled already this year. What made Bigbie — Detroit’s No. 21 prospect — stand out was his combination of quality contact, all-fields hitting and plate discipline.
About a week after that session, Bigbie stepped to the plate at Salt River Fields for the Rafters against the Peoria Javelinas, the top team in the Arizona Fall League. After falling into a 1-2 count, he fouled off three pitches from Padres prospect Miguel Mendez, including back-to-back 97 mph fastballs. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Mendez challenged him with a high fastball, and Bigbie laced it to right for an opposite-field RBI single.
“I was in battle mode at that point,” Bigbie recalled later in a phone interview. “He had a good fastball and a hard slider, so I was really trying to get a good pitch over the plate.”
That at-bat sums up what allowed Bigbie to break out this season.
The Fall League is Bigbie’s fourth stop this year, having started his season at High-A West Michigan. He jumped in June to Double-A Erie, where he did the bulk of his hitting and helped the SeaWolves clinch an Eastern League playoff spot, then spent September at Triple-A Toledo.
At each stop, Bigbie hit more to the opposite field than he did to the pull side, posted a high average in balls in play and posted walk rates in the high single digits. Only in Toledo did his strikeout rate rise out of the teens. He hit .343 for the year with 25 doubles, 19 homers, 78 RBIs, a .405 on-base percentage and .942 OPS.
When Harris talks about dominating the strike zone, Bigbie is arguably the model.
“I want to continue to work on pitch selection,” Bigbie said, “and now is a great opportunity to really focus on that. That’s really valuable in baseball getting on base and drawing walks. That’s one thing that was preached to us in Spring Training: Eliminate that three-ball [count] chase, swing at good pitches and stay within the zone.”
While Bigbie entered Wednesday batting .229 (8-for-35) in Arizona, he has as many walks as hits — including three walks in the AFL opener — and seven RBIs.
Harris mentioned Bigbie again later in his session, noting his work as an outfielder this year after spending most of last season at first base. If he continues developing like this year, the right-handed-hitting corner outfielder might find himself at Comerica Park alongside Carpenter at some point next year.
Bigbie says he isn’t thinking about that yet, though he’s working on his outfield defense. But as he goes to work in the Fall League, he is thinking about next year.
“Obviously I’m happy with my year and I think that’s something I want to build off of,” Bigbie said. “I had a great year this year, but in my mind I’m already starting to get towards next year. I’ve still got some baseball to play here, but I want to continue to work and continue to build for next year. That’s the big thing.”