How Tom de Blok went from good reliever to even better starting pitcher

You hear the story somewhat frequently, about a struggling starting pitcher who converted to relief and suddenly found a new gear, a whole new level of success. It's happened in recent years with guys like Wade Davis, or Andrew Miller. But for 21-year-old Tigers prospect Tom de Blok with the West Michigan Whitecaps, the reverse has been true. He went from reliable bullpen arm to a starting role, and he's starting to turn some heads with his performances.

As a reliever, de Blok threw 16 2/3 innings out of the bullpen to start the 2017 season, with a 1.62 ERA and a 3.45 FIP that suggested he might be getting lucky. He was only striking out 5.4 batters per nine innings, and walking 2.2 batters per nine innings.

After a brief trip down to Short Season A ball with the Connecticut affiliate, where he made one start, he returned to the West Michigan Whitecaps with a new assignment: fill a spot in the starting rotation, a spot recently vacated when prospect Austin Sodders was promoted to the Advanced A team.

On Sunday, he made his fourth start for the Whitecaps and tossed seven innings of shutout baseball, taking a perfect game through 4 1/3 innings, as he helped the team lock down their franchise record-tying 19th shutout of the season.

"It's just ... going into a game differently, I think, you get to start your own game, go over the scouting reports really good, it's just a different approach -- as a starter, you really try to eat those innings, get ahead in the count, and I think that's been working pretty good for me," says de Blok, and the numbers would agree -- it's been working very well for him.

In 22 2/3 IP as a starter with West Michigan, de Blok has allowed one solitary earned run. Even more impressive? He's only allowed one walk, and bumped his strikeout rate up to 10.7 K/9 -- essentially double his rate as a reliever -- leading to an absurd 27-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He explains, "As a reliever, I was more of a two-pitch guy, throwing my fastball and my slider," but as anyone knows, a starting pitcher needs more than two pitches if he intends to survive. "Since I've been starting, I've been mixing in the changeup a lot more," says de Blok, and he's also started mixing in a curveball to go along with both a four-seam and two-seam fastball.

The changeup is the pitch he's most focused on right now, though, and he is quick to credit Whitecaps pitching coach Jorge Cordova for the added weapon: "I learned that pitch from Jorge -- he really does a good job helping me out with that, and it's been coming together pretty good so far."

While he considers his fastball and slider his most comfortable pitches, "I'm really excited to get that changeup in there -- it's kind of a split-change, and whenever it goes well, it's pretty good. If that comes out good, then I've got three good pitches."

His other superior skill, which is obvious when looking at his 71 percent strike-throwing rate, is his command. You don't put together a 27-to-1 K/BB ratio on accident, and here again, de Blok credits his pitching coach. Prior to Sunday's brilliant performance, "I was kind of struggling in the pen with getting the ball down, and, as Jorge does ... he showed me, and my next pitch was down, then all the other pitches were down. That's the kind of guy he is, he lets you feel the motion -- he's really good."

Whatever it is that Cordova is showing de Blok, it's working, because he continues to pound the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, and mixes in enough well-located offspeed pitches that he keeps batters off-balance -- more often than not, they strike out. In his first three innings of Sunday's game, he had already racked up five strikeouts, and would end the day with a total of eight. Not bad for a kid who's just now learning how to build a starter's repertoire.

Like all prospects, de Blok is hoping to climb the ladder on his way to the Big Show and move up as high as he can, but he has more immediate goals right now. "Obviously, I want to be at as high a level as possible, but I can't really set a goal where," he says, so for now it's all about "developing that third pitch, really, getting that changeup together -- hopefully by the end of the season, I've got those three good pitches."

From two-pitch bullpen arm to multi-pitch starter with a 27-to-1 K/BB ratio in the span of less than a year. If he keeps this up, de Blok will be moving through the system faster than he probably ever thought possible.
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