Tigers' Kerry Carpenter went from part-time job at DICKS to minor league home run leader

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You won't find any Tigers hitters pacing the majors this season. Of course you won't. The club's leader in home runs, Jonathan Schoop, ranks outside the top 100 big-league players in the same category. But if you dip into the minors...

"It’s amazing," said Kerry Carpenter. "It’s been a different experience. I’ve never had this kind of success at the professional level."

That would be Kerry Carpenter of the Double-A Erie Seawolves and perhaps soon of the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, 19th-round draft pick of the Tigers in 2019. With 22 home runs this season, Carpenter is tied for first in the minor leagues. He is mashing the ball wherever he goes, pushing his way into the Tigers' future one bomb after another.

"It’s wild. It’s like being greater than I ever imagined," Carpenter said this week on the Road to Detroit podcast. "The swing change I made was to try to be as great as I could possibly be, to maximize my full potential. And to actually do it this year, it’s been surreal."

The swing change came last offseason. Carpenter was coming off a solid year in Double-A, but not one that left him satisfied. He got to talking with fellow Tigers minor leaguer Jacob Robson, who told Carpenter he wasn't getting the most out of his left-handed swing. Eventually Carpenter listened, got with Robson's swing coach and discovered more power -- and that has been "the difference-maker," he said.

Slugging in the minors promises nothing in the majors. The Tigers' own hitting coach, Mike Hessman, is Minor League Baseball's all-time home run leader and topped out with 14 homers in the bigs. Carpenter, 24, isn't knocking on the door of Detroit just because he's plowing through pitchers in Double-A. He has more than four times as many strikeouts this season as walks.

Then again, here's a smattering of big-league sluggers who were once single-season home run leaders in the minors: four-time All-Star Giancarlo Stanton (2008), three-time All-Star Mike Moustakas (2010), two-time All-Star Joey Gallo (2013), four-time All-Star Kris Bryant (2016) and All-Star Jared Walsh (2018). If Carpenter keeps this up, there's reason to believe his bat can thrive in The Show.

Now, this is Carpenter's vision. His ultimate goal is to win a World Series in Detroit. But these dreams didn't belong to him at first. They were planted in his brain by his mom and his sister, who saw Carpenter's potential before he saw it himself. He didn't really even like baseball until his junior year of high school in Florida, wasn't really great at it until his senior year. And by then, he said, "everyone was done recruiting." His mom and his sister pushed him to pursue it anyway.

"They were just like, ‘Hey, you really like this game, but you could be really good if you loved it and you put the work in. You could play in college and you could achieve crazy dreams.’ So they pushed me toward that and I started working hard and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I’ve gotten really good. I just want to maximize my full potential now,'" Carpenter said. "And at that point, my love of it started."

So Carpenter attended St. John's River State College, a junior college in Northeast Florida. He played well enough there to earn a scholarship to Virginia Tech, where he played well enough again to land on the radar of MLB teams. He heard frequently from the Tigers leading up to the 2019 draft, and eventually they invited him to a pre-draft workout. But so did the Yankees.

"And then teams like the Rockies and a few others got in touch with me on draft day, but it was pretty much the Tigers and Yankees when it came down to it," he said.

In the end it was the Tigers, who promptly watched Carpenter tear up Rookie Ball. He was ready to start climbing the ladder in 2020 before the minor league season was wiped out by the pandemic. When the MLB season ended that year, the Tigers stopped paying their minor leaguers and Carpenter, like anyone else, said he "needed to make some money." So he took a part-time job at DICKS Sporting Goods. He went from swinging bats to selling bats.

"I was like, I’ve been out of work. Thankfully the Tigers paid us throughout the MLB season, but when that was over I was like, 'Alright, I gotta do something. I gotta give myself a schedule. I was taking classes and I worked there for that offseason," he said.

It wasn't exactly his calling. Carpenter laughed and said customers would ask him where to find certain products and "sometimes I wouldn’t even know the answer. So yeah, I was probably not the best worker there."

Two years later, he's one of the best power hitters in the minors. He enters Wednesday hitting .311 with a 1.027 OPS. He has 48 RBI in 60 games. He ranks second in the minors with a .662 slugging percentage. He has work to do to reach the majors, but the work he's done has him on the right path. Toledo is next. Getting the call to Detroit, said Carpenter, "would be one of the coolest days of my life."

"When you get to play against the best of the best, that’s when it’s the most fun," he said. "That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win a World Series and we’re trying to do that in Detroit. So it’s going to be an amazing feeling and I’m just going to be grateful whenever that day comes. I can’t wait to call my mom and let her know."