Many experts who study baseball will say that the jump to Double-A is one of the most daunting for a player. The same holds true when competing in affiliated ball for the first time. In his first pro season with the Brooklyn Cyclones, former Louisville third baseman Blake Tiberi is facing on-field struggles for the first time and continues to search for his rhythm in the minor leagues.
Unlike many players who attended a school in a major conference, Tiberi was not an immediate starter. A member of the University of Louisville, Tiberi sat behind infielder Sutton Whiting as a redshirt freshman and studied the way he conducted himself on the field.
“I looked up to Sut. We still keep in contact. He is one of my best buds. The main thing that he taught me was baseball IQ and helped me develop as a player,” Tiberi said.
In preparation for his first collegiate season, Tiberi competed in the New England Collegiate Baseball League with the Vermont Mountaineers and earned selection to the 2014 NECBL All-Star Game. Like the Cape Cod League, future draft prospects compete against each other and use wood bats for the first time in organized baseball.
“The level of competition is real high at this level”, Tiberi said. “The Cape is a little more prestigious with top-level talent. I give a lot of credit to both those leagues for helping me get to this point in my career.”
Playing for Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell, Tiberi became a full-time starter as a junior last spring and built strong connections with teammates Kyle Funkhouser and Nick Solak, each of whom later played against Tiberi in the New York-Penn League.
“I lived with Nick for two years back in school and we also played together at Vermont and last year we played against each other at the Cape. I lived with Funk the year he got drafted in the first round. He’s talked to me about philosophy and what guys are trying to do on the mount for the most part.”
Tiberi took their guidance and advice into account and batted .340/.387/.553 with 10 home runs and 244 at-bats in his lone season as Louisville’s everyday third baseman, displaying power for the first time and credits McDonnell for providing him with the opportunity to achieve extended success.
“He has taught me a lot,” Tiberi says. “I came in there as a freshman and he just taught me things that I still implement into my game today, especially the mental aspect.”
Selected by the New York Mets in the third round of the 2016 draft, Tiberi was one of seven Louisville players taken within the first 115 picks and joined the Brooklyn Cyclones at the end of June. Tiberi faced the pressures of living up to heightened expectations and fell into poor habits at the plate as he attempted to break out of a season-long slump. In his first 31 games with Brooklyn, Tiberi hit just .221 with eight RBI and a .269 slugging percentage.
Cyclones manager Tom Gamboa attributes Tiberi’s early shortcomings to his difficulty timing pitches in the batter’s box and a need to force the issue in an attempt to return to past form.
“It is strictly a mechanical flaw. Hitting coach Sean Ratliff and I looked at his tapes in college and mechanically right now he is lifting his elbow too early and it is causing a loop in his swing. A lot of pitchers are pounding him with fastballs and he cannot get extended, so his timing is very late,” Gamboa explains.
Funkhouser faced Tiberi during an early July series when the Connecticut Tigers visited Brooklyn and notes that the professional baseball setting is a challenging adjustment for recently drafted players because of elements they never encountered prior to their pro debuts.
“I was actually talking to Blake about it and he told me that ‘it is completely different facing a Latin pitcher, a high school pitcher, or a college pitcher with three different styles’. He said this game will humble you real fast and that it is very competitive,” Funkhouser states.
Featuring a level swing and the ability to hit to all fields, Tiberi possesses the tools on paper to develop into an above-average hitter with an adequate glove and acceptable range at third base.
Unfortunately for Tiberi, those skills had not translated themselves to the pro level and his struggles may stem from a combination of fatigue and mechanical flaws. With less than one month remaining in the New York-Penn League season, Tiberi has time to rediscover his form and should benefit from added experience.