Wilmer Flores dropped out of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospect rankings in their latest update this week, and fell to fourth among Tigers prospects. A 6.15 ERA in seven starts created some concern among evaluators. And that’s all fine; even he acknowledges the struggles he has encountered in his second season at Double-A Erie.
“My stuff is not that good right now,” said Flores, who added his fastball velocity “is not what we expect it to be.”
But while others worry about rankings, he worries about getting outs, however he can find them. That process, no matter what it does to his prospect status, could be a one of the best things to happen to his Major League hopes.
For the first time as a pro, Flores is struggling. He’s finding ways to win for a prolonged stretch without his best stuff while he tries to fix whatever happened.
“That’s when you really find yourself, when things aren’t going exactly the way you want and you have to make adjustments,” Erie manager Gabe Alvarez said. “You learn about yourself and you learn a different process. You may find something that you can use for the rest of your career, not just to get you out of this little jam that you’re in right now.”
It’s a sudden bout of adversity for a 22-year-old who was a revelation as an undrafted free agent three years ago. But to hear the big right-hander discuss what he’s having to do, he’s up for the challenge.
“We’re working on it, to make the big leagues this year,” Flores said, reiterating the goal he set going into the season. “We’ll be prepared for that, for the big leagues, when we fix that.”
While Flores’ fastball ebbed and flowed last year, he could tune it up over 95 mph when he needed it. At his low point in mid-April, it was at 90-91 mph, topping out at 93. He has gained back a couple ticks, sitting at 93-94 mph in his last couple starts.
Cold weather wasn’t a factor, he said. He thrived under similar conditions at High-A West Michigan early last season before being promoted.
“We’re thinking it’s mechanical, because I feel good,” Flores said. “I don’t feel tired. My arm feels great. So we’re working on my delivery.”
In the meantime, he’s learning to mix his pitches differently in games. His curveball, a pitch that looked sharp a couple years ago but took a back seat to his slider and changeup last year, is a big part of his arsenal again, sometimes paired with the slider. He’s learning to keep hitters off-balance.
“I think the key has been trying to mix the pitches more, not just fastball, not just slider and curveball,” Flores said. “It’s a mix of everything.”
His strikeout rate is down to 7.5 per nine innings, compared with 11.1 K/9 for his career, but his called strikes are up. He had 11 of them over five innings of two-run ball two starts ago. Last week, he beat the same Richmond team that roughed him up for seven runs last month, allowing a run on four hits over five innings while getting 10 called strikes.
“He’s the same guy,” said catcher Dillon Dingler, whose return behind the plate after knee surgery has provided Flores some familiarity. “He’s got a lot of different pitches that he can throw for strikes, and he throws them really well. I think it’s just getting one [outing] under his belt where he feels really confident and can go from there. I see it already.”
Flores’ body language, which looked defeated at times in April, has markedly improved. Alvarez had never seen him frustrated before this, but has seen him gain determination.
“There’s a certain level of acceptance,” Alvarez said. “He accepted what’s going on and is like, ‘OK, from here on, let’s just work on getting better.’”
Once that pays off, Flores will be back on a path to Detroit.
“It’s always been the same process, working hard every day, focus more on my everyday and not the goal,” Flores said. “The goal is important, but not as important as what you’re doing day by day.”