Until this season, Detroit Tigers prospect Sandy Baez seemed a pitcher of a type the lower minors are packed with. A righthanded starter with a big sinker (and not much else) whose path to the majors is probably in relief? Solid control, but without good feel or command? Sounds like a Tigers prospect.
The Tigers saw a spark of development in Baez this season that distinguished him in their eyes. As the only prospect protected from this offseason’s Rule 5 draft, Baez got a vote of confidence from the organization that he is nearly ready to graduate to the upper minors.
Many outside observers were also impressed with the 23-year-old Dominican this season. In August, Lynn Henning of the Detroit News called Baez perhaps the most overlooked player in the Tigers’ farm system this season. Where Baez’s changeup and breaking ball once regularly drew poor results, this season there were flashes of plus potential with both.
Baez was signed in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic. His progress has been slow, and he is getting a bit old for his competition level, but he will have a shot to build on his 2016 gains for another season in the Tigers’ organization.
Baez’s best feature is his fastball, but this year he produced a distinct improvement in control as well. He kept the walks in check, at just 2.22 per nine innings, while his sinker kept the ball in the park (0.56 home runs per nine). As a result, he was able to handle Single-A hitters without much difficulty, despite not really having a dependable out pitch as of yet.
Baez is a fairly hard thrower, and appeared to have added a little size this year, which could help maintain his durability as he starts to assume a heavier workload. He threw 113 1⁄3 innings in 2016. This is nothing special for a pitcher in their age-22 season, but was a huge step up for Baez, who had not thrown more than 66 innings of pro ball in a season yet. While there is some disagreement about the optimal use of Baez’s fastball, it’s universally described as a quality power offering.
Mark Anderson of TigsTown has good things to say overall.
Well-built and athletic, Baez can hump his fastball up as high as 96-97 mph and there are reports that he has reached even higher on occasion. He routinely sits 93-95 mph with excellent life at the plate and an ability to pound the strike zone.
James Chipman, writing for the Detroit News back in 2015, suggested that Baez is at his best when he takes a little off the pitch for more sink.
The offering is at its best in the lower velocity band where it features wicked late life that can best be described as a "bowling ball" because of its heavy, late natural sink. Baez regularly pounds the offering east to west in the lower third of the strike zone. He frequently avoids bat barrels, inducing lots of weak contact.
Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs generally agrees with Chipman, and added this tidbit.
Baez does throw a starter-worthy ratio of strikes despite a relatively unbalanced delivery. He’s slightly funky and deceptive.
How Baez’s fastball plays in the upper minors may well end up determining his future path. If he continues to build velocity and sit effectively around 94-95 miles per hour, there’s a possible bullpen role in Baez’s somewhat near future. But if that velocity doesn’t come with quality life, he may be limited to starting and have much further to go in his development to ever pitch in the major leagues.
The key thing holding Baez back at this point is a good secondary pitch. It feels like he made inconsistent strides in that department this season. Whether he can more regularly get either the changeup or his breaking ball — identified by some as a slider, others as a short curveball — flashing consistent life and deception will decide his future. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen is still pretty skeptical.
The curveball is short and Baez decelerates his arm to baby it into the strike zone, while his changeup feel hasn’t come.
However, one has to wonder if Longenhagen saw Baez earlier last season, and perhaps wasn’t around to see the improvement in arm speed other observers noted in his changeup. As early as 2015, James Chipman was more positive about Baez’s arm speed on the pitch.
Sits between 81-83 mph. Plays well off the fastball keeping hitters off-balance and guessing. Has feel, maintaining arm speed to sell the pitch, giving it swing-and-miss potential moving forward. Arguably still a work in progress, however, in its current state, as his consistency varies.
In an interview with Lynn Henning of the Detroit News, West Michigan Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham identified Baez’s extension and arm speed through the changeup as a point of improvement during the 2016 season.
Mark Johnson (Whitecaps pitching coach) taught him a new pitch, a variation on his change-up, so he’s kind of got two change-ups now, with a slider. Mark’s really worked with him on his timing, selling his pitches.
“The problem before he was slowing down his arm on his off-speed stuff. He wasn’t throwing with conviction. Hitters could see it. And he wasn’t getting the late movement he needed.”
Baez still has issues with his lower half and could use more leg strength to support his delivery. He still struggles at times to repeat his landing spot, and will get off balance and fall off the mound toward first base. Cleaning up some of those flaws would perhaps go a long way toward improving the consistency of all Baez’s pitches.
Overall, the impression left from the reports is that Baez did improve his feel for both his breaking ball and off-speed stuff. However, the evidence didn’t really present itself until later in the season. Baez struck out just 88 hitters in 113 1⁄3 innings. However he averaged close to a batter per inning in July, August and one September outing before being shut down for workload concerns as the Tigers continue to carefully build Baez’s endurance.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected 2017 team: High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
Those second half strikeout numbers provide a nice glimmer of hope that Baez will have more to offer beyond his fastball in 2017. However this season is likely going to be something of a make-or-break one for Baez. He will have to carry over that improved feel for both pitches, and continue to refine his delivery to successfully make the jump to Double-A. There remains plenty of work to be done, but the Tigers have seen enough now to envision a useful finished product.