Christin Stewart just won’t stop hitting. He has been the Detroit Tigers’ best bat-first prospect for a couple of seasons, but the beginning of a new season has seen him take his production from “good” to “otherworldly.” I love batted ball profiles, and they don’t come much sexier than Stewart’s. Line drives are coming of his bat at a 25.5 percent rate. He’s also crushing fly balls; those are leaving the park at an enormous 23.5 percent clip.
As if that wasn’t enough, Stewart has cut his strikeouts down significantly. Whiffs were the only concern regarding his bat entering this season, and he has done everything possible to quiet that worry in the first 32 games of the year. Only striking out 17.3 percent of the time, Stewart looks a lot less like the free swinger he once was.
Stewart’s rates, however, are more than just numerically sound. The results have been better than anyone could have expected in his first season at Triple-A. Not only is the outfielder hitting for a line of .305/.380/.590, he has hit almost as many doubles as he has home runs, and there has been no shortage of home runs; he just hit his ninth dinger of the year on Saturday.
With center fielder Leonys Martín on the disabled list, Mikie Mahtook was recalled from Toledo to take back the spot he lost to JaCoby Jones in left field. The Tigers had a very short leash with Mahtook the first time around, so if they are similarly impatient this time, Stewart may see his chance arise to make an impact in the big leagues. If not, he will have to wait until later this season (or at least until the next injury) to finally take his cuts in a Tigers uniform.
Double-A Erie SeaWolves: C Jake Rogers
The jump from the low minors to Double-A is infamous, effectively the separator of prospects from organizational filler. Small sample size warning labels apply, but after 19 games, Jake Rogers finds himself on the wrong side of that line. When the Tigers traded for the catcher, the word on him was that he would reach the majors on his glove alone — but it would be his bat that defines his role. That bat was called into question at the time, and he has done little to dispel concerns.
The 2017 season saw Rogers take significant step forward at the plate, uncorking power that hadn’t been seen before. By wRC+, his overall offensive performance at both Low- and High-A were quite a bit above average. Some evaluators came away convinced he had a shot to reach his potential of an excellent regular if he could make the hit tool work. In fact, he worked his way into top 100 consideration, listed by MLB.com as one of the prospects who just missed their list.
My dad has a saying that I’ve always found a bit odd, but applies really well to Rogers’ case: the worm has turned. His uppercut swing hasn’t been too effective in Double-A thus far, and he is hitting only .169/.247/.169 in 95 plate appearances. None of his hits have gone for extra bases, and he is striking out a whopping 29.5 percent of the time.
Not all hope is lost, though. His batted ball profile reveals an 18.2 percent line drive rate and a career low rate of infield fly balls. A batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .250 falls well below the game-wide average of .300, and will probably improve. He’s in a nasty slump, to be sure, but the season is early and Rogers has consistently improved since being drafted by the Houston Astros in 2016. There is no reason to think he won’t turn things around.
Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps: RHP Brad Bass
Leading into June last year, Bass snuck into the back end of MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 Draft Prospects list and ranked as the 150th right-handed pitcher in the class according to Baseball America. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the Tigers popped him with the 215th overall selection, as college pitchers with upside often get drafted higher than they are ranked. His appeal is simple: a fastball with life and a strikeout slider.
The issues that pushed Bass to the seventh round are not anything Tigers fans are unfamiliar with. He has an underdeveloped changeup and struggles with his command at times. He pitched out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League and performed better there than in the rotation, so it’s easy to predict a permanent move to relief down the road. The Tigers are giving him a shot at starting, though, and the results make for an interesting study.
By surface metrics like ERA (4.88) and WHIP (1.75), Bass is not doing too well. A look at statistics that run a little deeper... well, he is still struggling. Believe it or not, he is actually outperforming his FIP of 5.27, and is only slightly worse than a 4.75 xFIP. An ugly 15.3 percent walk rate is the icing on the cake that reads “No, thank you.” What, then, makes Bass even worth a second look?
First of all, he is striking out guys left and right. There are concerns that his stuff plays down when he is stretched out, but so far, Midwest League hitters seem just as fooled as amateur ones. Bass’s strikeout rate took a hit in his last outing, but he still has 21 punchouts in 24 innings this year. He is also sporting an inflated BABIP of .375 that is completely unsubstantiated by is batted ball profile. True, he gives up too many line drives, but he also has induced a popup rate of 16.7 percent.
The long and short of it is that walks are killing Bass. If he can get the free passes under control, there is little to stop him in the low minors. Thing may get a little dicier once he crosses the Double-A threshold — just like we’ve seen with Rogers — but there is also the option of putting Bass in the bullpen, where the walks will hurt him less and he can focus on giving each pitch his all.