Is there a more pleasing tribute to an everyday baseball player than that label long-stitched to the jersey of Bryant Packard?
“He’s a pure hitter.”
That has been his reputation, before and after he played at East Carolina, just as it has been in the short, COVID-interrupted time he has been with the Tigers since they drafted him in 2019, in round five.
He isn’t changing any minds in his first week with Single-A West Michigan.
Packard, 23, and a left-handed masher, is hitting .333 in the Whitecaps’ first five games. He has a double as part of his five hits, which are accompanied by five walks and five strikeouts.
He is batting seventh in manager Brayan Pena’s lineup. His position is left field, even though some occasional work in right field, and at first base, are in Pena’s and the Tigers’ plans.
This portrait of a player who can be trusted to hit, at probably any level, is based on his college work as well as his cumulative minor-league numbers. No question, those stats from the Tigers farm are limited, due to a pandemic that wiped out 2020’s season, and leaves Packard with these career digits: 44 games, .300 batting average, .408 on-base average, .420 slugging percentage.
It also must be remembered that Packard’s numbers reflect a tough, final week stint (2-for-17) at then-high-A Lakeland in 2019. The promotion was Packard’s penalty for hitting with such fire at first Single A Connecticut and then-low-A West Michigan just weeks after the Tigers had hauled him from East Carolina.
Lance Parrish was West Michigan’s manager in 2019 and saw instantly why Packard earned that rare regard as a guy who simply has a knack for bashing pitches.
“He’s just a pure hitter,” Parrish said last summer when Parrish, who now works as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila, was asked to describe Packard. “He’s a Lou Whitaker in my mind, in that he shows up and knows how to hit. He’s got a pretty swing, he drives the ball to all fields, and he’s got very good bat control.”
This essentially is the view his new manager, Pena, has taken in sizing up Packard, which includes managing him at Connecticut in 2019.
“He grinds,” Pena said Sunday after the Whitecaps’ game at Fort Wayne had been rained out. “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t want to give in to a pitcher, regardless of the situation.
“I had him in Connecticut, and I’ve seen the same thing here, everything I love to see, and it’s still working.
“One of the things I really enjoy is his approach. He keeps it very simple. He’s one of those guys who sees the ball. He trusts his swing. And he’s got a great baseball IQ, which is another thing we respect and like about him.”
Pena can use back-to-back games last week as an example. Packard was 3-for-4 in Thursday’s whipping of Fort Wayne. He followed with a three-walk effort Friday, also against Fort Wayne.
“That goes back to the fact he doesn’t want to give in to pitchers,” Pena said, speaking of Packard’s mettle in drawing those three walks. “He just goes out there and grinds every single time.”
Packard is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. He was born in Seattle, but grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, which also is home to East Carolina University. He batted .358, with a .994 OPS in 2019, even after he lost time with a wrist injury, all of which confirmed why he was going in the early turns of June’s draft.
The Tigers snagged him in the fifth round and paid Packard $386,600, quite the potential bargain for a player who, in Baseball America’s scouting report, is — yes, that term again — described as a “pure hitter.”
Neither, though, has Packard escaped that lone, longtime knock: He is at best rated as a mediocre defender with an arm that won’t be a great ally.
He is destined, the Tigers acknowledge, to play either a corner outfield post, or perhaps to try that golden-oldie relocation for players who aren’t fleet enough to handle outfield defense: first base.
Pena, like Parrish, says Packard’s low marks on defense seem out of whack, as though there must be some kind of compensation offered for his excellent bat.
“I like him in left,” Pena said Sunday. “It’s a work in progress, but he understands how we pitch guys — and like how to move quickly if a guy (opposing batter) is late with a fastball. He makes the adjustment.
“We give him analytics cards, but, again, he’s got that great baseball IQ. So, I’m very comfortable with him in left field. I’ll tell you what — don’t be surprised if he gets pretty (steady) out there, because he works so hard on his defense, every single day.”
Pena concedes, in the same critique, that, yes, the Whitecaps will move him to right field when it might be handy, all as Pena balances an outfield that bears the brunt of the Tigers’ top outfield prospects: Riley Greene, Daniel Cabrera, Parker Meadows, and Packard.
And, yes, he will indeed play some first base. Pena understands that a certain manager in Detroit happens to love players who can handle multiple tasks.
“I’ll tell you man, AJ Hinch wants our players to play different positions that opens opportunities for them to be in the lineup,” Pena said. “Packard’s a good athlete. We’re working on getting him some right field, some work at first base, and see where he goes.
“But we’re rooting for him. And we’re serious.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
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