Keith cruises through debut at near-elite speed

March 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- So many of us can relate to what Colt Keith was feeling Thursday morning, mind racing, unable to get back to sleep, staring at the time, knowing the alarm would go off soon. But we don’t have our Major League debut weighing on our minds.

The Tigers infielder gave up and got up. He eventually caught the first bus from the team hotel to the ballpark, arriving at Guaranteed Rate Field around 8:30 a.m. for a 3:10 p.m. game.

“Not that I want to get it over with,” he said a few hours later. “I’m just excited to get out there and start playing instead of sitting around.”

Those were the nerves of a 22-year-old debuting amidst the pageantry and frenzy of Opening Day. His only experience playing in a stadium that big was his appearance in the Futures Game last summer at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. “How do they fit so many people in here?” he wondered as he looked around.

His manager’s simple advice was to embrace the nerves.

“I hope he's nervous,” A.J. Hinch said a day earlier. “I hope he's a little hyper. I hope he's a little bit energized by the fact that he's walking into a big league stadium and playing in the big leagues for the first time. This is not a theory anymore. This is not a dream. This is actually happening. I think he should soak it all in. And once he gets through a couple firsts, whether it's the starting lineup, the national anthem, the first at-bat, the first ground ball, the first double play, the first bad call behind the plate, things will settle in and his routine will stay intact.”

That’s what Keith did. In a tough matchup against hard-throwing lefty Garrett Crochet, the left-handed hitter focused on staying on time for the fastball. He felt good about his first swing on a 96 mph cutter, but got it just enough off the end of the bat to line out to Andrew Benintendi in left field.

By the time Keith stepped back to the plate in the fourth inning, Crochet had recovered from a sac fly and was rolling, striking out three consecutive Tigers ahead of him. Crochet put Keith in a 1-2 count, spotting one 97 mph fastball at the bottom of the zone and getting Keith to foul off another. He was set up for a strikeout, but Keith had a surprise for him.

“He got me to two strikes and threw me a dirty slider,” Keith said, “and I just tried to put it in play. I wasn’t going to give up on it. I saw it and I was like, ‘Ohhhh, here we go, please hit his glove and bounce off or something.’ And it did exactly that, and I had probably my fastest time to first all year.”

It wasn’t just fast; it was nearly elite. While the ball deflected to second baseman Nicky Lopez, Keith bolted down the first-base line, reaching a sprint speed of 29.2 feet per second according to Statcast (30.0 is considered elite). His home-to-first time of 4.03 seconds was the fastest of anybody in the game, and one of the top times across the Majors on Thursday. Lopez had no chance.

“I told you guys I could run,” joked Keith, who worked with a track coach a couple offseasons ago. “No one would believe me.”

While Keith’s parents, fiancé and agent went crazy in the stands, the Tigers made sure to get the ball. Keith, meanwhile, could get his breath back.

“After I got up and had my first at-bat, I kind of settled in and it felt like just any other game,” said Keith, Detroit's No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “It was just awesome for all the hard work and everything to pay off today. There’s a lot more work to do and more goals down the road.”

By the end, as the Tigers finished out their 1-0 win, Keith was zoned in.

“I feel like in the past I could’ve been nervous, like, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know if I want the ball hit to me,’” he said. “But today I was so happy to be there, so locked in, I was like, ‘Hit the ball to me. I’m going to get this out for our pitchers.’

“When you have pitching like that, you don’t stress too much on defense. It was fun; I’m just glad we got the win.”