Fast-Rising Tigers Prospect Justice Bigbie Talks Hitting

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Justice Bigbie has gone from a 19th-round draft pick to one of the most promising prospects in the Detroit Tigers system in just two years time. Taken 555th overall in 2021 out of Western Carolina University, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound corner outfielder is coming off his second full professional season, during which he slashed .343/.405/.537 with 19 home runs in 485 plate appearances across High-A West Michigan, Double-A Erie, and Triple-A Toledo. The 24-year-old’s 157 wRC+ was tied for seventh highest among all minor leaguers with at least 400 PA.

Bigbie talked hitting, with a primary focus on high-velocity training, at the conclusion of the Arizona Fall League season, which saw him log a .749 OPS with the Salt River Rafters.


David Laurila: In some respects, you came out of nowhere in putting up big numbers this year. On the other hand, your overall track record (which includes a .350/.426/.539 slash line in four collegiate seasons) is that of someone who has always hit. In your mind, did you actually take a huge step forward, or did you mostly just do what you’ve always done?

Justice Bigbie: “I mean, I don’t want to say that I continued to do what I always do. I try to continue to improve, continue to get better each day, and I feel like I’ve done that since getting my first taste of pro ball in 2021. I’m continuously making tweaks to my swing and improving what I can improve on. I think that’s contributed to the success I had this past year.”

Laurila: What sorts of adjustments did you make?

Bigbie: “More than anything, I worked on velocity. Everybody throws hard nowadays. The average velocity in professional baseball keeps going up, and it’s going to continue to keep going up. As a hitter, you have to keep up with that. It’s like, ‘Can you hit the hard fastball?’ You’re going to see mid-90s pretty much every single night — even upper 90s — and the more you see it, the better you can get at it. And there are different ways you can train for that. There are machines you can work with to help you hone in on that velocity.

“That helps you slow the game down a little bit. When you’re in the batter’s box, it can be easy to get a little overwhelmed and feel like the game is moving a little too fast for you. The better you can train at higher velocities, and kind of make your offseason hitting extremely tough… I think that helped me a lot going into this past season.”

Laurila: Is improving through velocity training mostly a matter of reps, or do adjustments come along with it? For instance, do you need to tweak your mechanics in order to better handle what’s coming at you?

Bigbie: “It’s a combination of both. And it’s not fun hitting off of a machine at such a high velocity. You’re going to fail a bunch in that cage, which can be extremely frustrating. But the more you do that, the more you can hone in on the mechanics of your swing. You can see where your swing is going wrong, and kind of what needs to be fixed. I mean, everybody can hit off the tee and off of front flips — your swing feels great doing that — but once you get on the machine and have higher velocity, you can see, ‘OK, this is where I’m not doing what I need to be doing in this part of the swing.’ You can break it down from there.”

Laurila: Hitters will sometimes cheat to get to high velocity in games, be it consciously or subconsciously. With that in mind, can velocity training lead to bad habits? Can you subconsciously begin reacting to 94-mph fastballs as though they’re coming in at 98-99?

Bigbie: “Yeah, I think you can definitely fall into that kind of bad habit. There’s a fine line, in my opinion. Learning over the past couple of years… I mean, I think there are some chances you can take, cheating to a fastball. That’s part of the game, especially with pitchers throwing so hard. You can occasionally sit on a fastball and cheat to it, looking to get your barrel to that pitch. But it’s not something that you want to continuously do. You don’t want to leave yourself susceptible to other pitches.”

Laurila: How often does the organization have you doing velocity training?

Bigbie: “You kind of pick your days, I guess. At the same time, the coaches do a lot of that planning, both in spring training and during the season. There are days they have mapped out for us with higher velocities, and there are days where we won’t do higher velocity; we’ll just tone up our swings a little bit so that we feel good going into the game. Maybe it will be, ‘Hey, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday we’re going to do some higher velocity, and the other days we’re going to go a little bit easier on the swing.’”

Laurila: How high do you dial up the velocity?

Bigbie: “So, in the offseason I’ve kind of mapped out my hitting program… maybe not program, but how I plan to operate. I’ll start with a normal BP fastball for the first couple of weeks, kind of getting back into things — getting my swing back underneath me — and then I’ll kind of crank it up a little more. With the baseballs, you can crank it up to the low-to-mid-90s, depending on how far you are from the machine. You can scoot up a little bit and have it closer than the 60 feet, six inches that the mound would be.

“This past year, I started using the foam balls, just so it doesn’t hurt your hands as much off the machine. I mean, you can crank that thing up to where it’s close to 100, or even 101-102, depending on where you’re at in terms of reaction time.”

Laurila: What about training for elevated fastballs and lower fastballs? Those are two different animals.

Bigbie: “The ride fastball is definitely becoming more prevalent in today’s game, so I’ll look at my numbers and get in touch with some of our coordinators and coaches to kind of see what… I mean, I already have a feel for what I do well and don’t do well in terms of hitting heaters at the top of the zone and sinkers at the bottom. I kind of go from there with what I need to work on more.”

Laurila: Do you feel that your swing is more conducive to handling heaters up or heaters that are further down?

Bigbie: “Personally, I think that my swing path would probably be more fit for the heater at the belt. I don’t want to say the ‘top of the zone,’ because there’s that fine line. Obviously, some hitters can get to that riding fastball at the top better than others, but it’s not a pitch that you want to be hunting. It’s the same thing for good sinkers at the bottom. You typically can’t really do much with that pitch, either.

“You need to hone in on what you hit well, but you also need to work on what you don’t hit as well. I kind of exaggerate a little bit in the offseason, working a little bit higher and also a little lower. I’ll work up from the bottom of the zone to get those two different swing paths right.”

Laurila: Justin Turner told me this summer that with some pitchers, 100 mph doesn’t feel nearly that hard when you’re in the box, whereas with others the ball gets on your more quickly than the radar gun suggests it should. Is that something you’ve experienced?

Bigbie: “Absolutely. That’s the crazy thing. When you’re going to games, especially when you’re younger, the first thing you do when a pitcher throws a pitch is look at the velocity. Maybe it says 93, which is about average, but if you were in the box it might be, ‘Oh, that seemed like it was 96.’ Or, like you said, it’s the other way around. It might be 98 but not feel like it’s 98.

“Pitchers do different things. I mean, everybody has a different extension, a different release point, a different release angle. Because every pitcher is different, every velocity looks different. That’s something you’ll communicate about in the dugout. It’s, ‘Hey, his fastball is 91, but it doesn’t feel like 91.’”

Laurila: Changing direction a bit, do you know what your exit velocities were this year?

Bigbie: “I think my 90th percentile was right around 106, maybe 107. I’m not exactly sure. I mean, I obviously want to look at that stuff at the end of the year to kind of see where I’m at, but I mostly try to stay away from that stuff. If I think about it too much, it can kind of mess me up a little bit in the head.”

Laurila: In other words, you don’t want to start chasing exit velocity. Basically, you want to just focus on squaring up pitches and hitting them hard?

Bigbie: “Absolutely. That’s 100% right. And it’s something the coaches I’ve been around, with the Tigers, have done a great job of. They’re not shoving all of the data in our faces, but rather they’re looking at certain data points where they can say, ‘Hey, this might be a little bit down, and this is why we think it’s down.’ We’ll look at that, and maybe there are tweaks that need to be made to start hitting the ball a little harder again. There are always things you can get better at as the season goes along.”

Laurila: Changing direction one more time, you were a 19th-round draft pick. Do you have a chip on your shoulder, given that over 500 players were taken in front of you?

Bigbie: “To be honest with you, I don’t really think about it all that much. I really don’t. Even when it happened. I don’t think I ever even thought of it as a chip on my shoulder. I was just grateful to be drafted, and grateful to be getting a chance to play professional baseball. From there, I’ve just wanted to play the best baseball I can and prove myself the best that I can. That’s still my attitude. I just want to go out there and play baseball.”


Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jo Adell, Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Jacob Berry, Alex Bregman, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Charlie Blackmon, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Will Brennan, Jay Bruce, Triston Casas, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Garrett Cooper, Gavin Cross, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Brendan Donovan, Donnie Ecker, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Michael Fransoso, Ryan Fuller, Joey Gallo, Paul Goldschmidt, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Robert Hassell III, Austin Hays, Nico Hoerner, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Hosmer, Tim Hyers, Connor Joe, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Heston Kjerstad, Steven Kwan, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Royce Lewis, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Marcelo Mayer, Hunter Mense, Owen Miller, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Lars Nootbaar, Logan O’Hoppe, Vinnie Pasquantino, Luke Raley, Brent Rooker, Drew Saylor, Marcus Semien, Giancarlo Stanton, Spencer Steer, Trevor Story, Fernando Tatis Jr., Spencer Torkelson, Mark Trumbo, Justin Turner, Trea Turner, Josh VanMeter, Robert Van Scoyoc, Chris Valaika, Zac Veen, Alex Verdugo, Mark Vientos, Matt Vierling, Luke Voit, Anthony Volpe, Joey Votto, Christian Walker, Jared Walsh, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Bobby Witt Jr. Mike Yastrzemski, Nick Yorke, Kevin Youkilis

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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