For Colt Keith, Confidence Is the Key to Future Success

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Colt Keith is searching for his comfort zone at baseball’s highest level. Currently day-to-day with a sore knee – which occurred during a collision over the weekend — the Detroit Tigers rookie infielder is slashing just .215/.269/.280. Moreover, belying his sturdy 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame and ability to propel pitches far distances, the 22-year-old has gone yard only twice in 201 plate appearances.

The potential for much more is unquestionably there. In January, Eric Longenhagen assigned Keith a 50 FV despite questions about his defense, pointing to the promising youngster’s “offensive prowess… rooted in his raw power.” Barely a week after those words were written, the Tigers signed Keith to a six-year contract worth $28.6 million — this despite his having yet to debut in the majors.

He was even farther away from The Show when I first talked to him late in the 2021 season. The 2020 fifth-round draft pick out of Mississippi’s Biloxi High School had recently been promoted to West Michigan, and whereas he’d been scorching the ball with Low-A Lakeland, he was at the time struggling to hold his head above water with the High-A Whitecaps. That he was scuffling came as little surprise to the self-aware slugger.

“For whatever reason, everything about my swing, and everything I know about baseball, seems to go out the window when I move up,” Keith told me at the time. “Then I have to restart and get used to the better pitching and to the speed of the game. Once I do that, I’m back in the groove.”

That Keith has been slow to get into a groove in his first taste of big league action was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to him when the Tigers visited Boston as May was segueing into June. Another was that his recent performances suggested he might’ve been close to breaking out of his funk. Two nights earlier, Keith had gone 2-for-4 in his first-ever game at Fenway Park. The following afternoon, he catapulted a 385-foot home run into the visiting bullpen in right-center field.

Alas, no breakout was forthcoming. Keith’s left-handed stroke has since produced but one hit in 22 at-bats, his OPS plummeting from .607 to its current .548. As for the home run, we’ll get to his thoughts on that particular swing shortly.

Like most young hitters, Keith has both tinkered and evolved since his early days in pro ball. A notable adjustment has come this season, which I learned about when I asked how his current setup and swing compare to October 2022, when I caught up to him in the Arizona Fall League.

“I would have had a bigger leg kick then,” Keith said of his erstwhile AFL stint. “It was lower velocity there, and here guys throw harder, spin the ball better, and also locate better. So, right now I’m doing a toe tap. I went in and out of a toe top and a leg kick last year, but now it’s just the toe tap. It’s a little different, too — a bit shorter, more simple.”

Even with the adjustment, hitting big league pitching is proving to be anything but simple. Keith admitted that timing has often been an issue — “I’ve been late on a lot of pitches” — and he also owned up to “a lot of frustration.” Finding consistent rhythm and timing has been “kind of the battle I’ve been fighting since I’ve been in the big leagues.”

His spray chart reflects his frustration. Keith takes pride in using the whole field, but at the same time he feels he isn’t pulling the ball as much as he’d like. That’s something he’s striving to change.

“It’s not something where I don’t want to pull the ball, it’s the fact that I haven’t been able to,” said Keith. “That’s one of my goals, to be able to pull the ball better. It’s about timing. It’s about comfort level. It’s about slowing the game down. The more I get comfortable, and the more I get confident that I’m going to be able to pull the ball… I just need to get back to my old approach. I need to just try to hit homers to center, versus thinking about catching up to pitches, or mechanics, or trying to get a hit to left or to right. The more confident I get, the more I’ll just go up there trying to hit the ball hard. That’s what will bring results.”

Which brings us to his Fenway Park home run. What did Keith see when he later looked at the swing on video?

“My hands were a little bit shorter to the ball,” he explained. “That allowed me to get to that ball inside and pull it in the air. Over the past couple of months, I’ve kind of been casting my hands, losing them away from my body and then coming through the zone. That forces me to be late and get jammed a lot. That’s why I’ve been working on being short to the ball.”

Just as importantly, he’s been working on regaining the confidence that made him a top 50 prospect on The Board coming into the season.

“For me, it’s not about the stats or data right now,” said Keith. “It’s a comfort-level thing. It’s about getting to the big leagues and slowing everything down. I’m working on getting there. I haven’t slowed it down completely yet to the point where I was in Double-A or Triple-A. But I’m definitely getting there. I think that’s going to be the difference-maker.”

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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9 days ago

Hitting is hard