When Will Rhymes made his big-league debut this summer, it represented a win for the underdog—the undersized underdog. The Tigers rookie is 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, and he came into professional baseball as a senior sign who was drafted in the 27th round. He proceeded to hit well in the minor leagues, topping the .300 mark three times in six years, but he was never all that highly regarded as a prospect.
After being called up to Detroit in late July, Rhymes did what he has always done: show that he can hit. In 213 plate appearances, the 27-year-old mighty mite hit .304/.350/.414. He even displayed a little pop, hitting his first big-league home run off Zack Greinke.
Rhymes talked about his road to The Show and what it feels like to be there shortly after his call up when the Tigers visited Fenway Park.
David Laurila: What is your baseball background?
Will Rhymes: I grew up in Houston and played at Lamar High School with Jeff Niemann, who is one of my best friends. I actually got to face him when we played the Rays this year. Then I went to college at William and Mary and played for four years. I also played in the Cape Cod League. Then I got drafted by the Tigers. That’s about it, really.
DL: At what point did you feel that you had a realistic shot at playing professional baseball?
WR: It probably wasn’t until I got to play on Cape Cod after my junior year [at William and Mary] that I realized maybe I had a chance. I had a really good summer and it was against guys who were kind of the top prospects and knew that they were going to get drafted. Ryan Braun was on my team, along with a bunch of other guys who were supposed to go in the first round. I hung with them that year, so that had me thinking I might have a chance. That was mainly from my performance, though, because I didn’t hear anything from anybody. There was really no interaction with the scouts or anything like that.
DL: Being from Houston, how did you end up at William and Mary?
WR: That‘s a good question. They recruited me, but I’m not entirely sure how they got word of me to begin with. They ended up getting me to go there on a recruiting visit, and I kind of liked the area, so I signed [a letter of intent] with them. That happened pretty early.
But I primarily went there for academics, because at the time, coming out of high school, I didn’t think that playing professionally was going to be a possibility, or at least it wasn’t very likely. A lot of that was because of my size. Basically, I was trying to use baseball to help me get into a school that was really good, so academics were a big part of the decision of where to go. I stayed all the way through my senior year and graduated with a degree in biology, pre-med.
DL: Being a senior sign, I assume that you received a pretty small signing bonus?
WR: Indeed. But it’s still cool when you first come out. You’re not really making any money, but what else are you going to be doing? You just graduated from college and you’re basically going to continue to live that lifestyle—one where you don’t have too many responsibilities. You’re just playing baseball. So for me, it was fun. It was an opportunity that I was happy to have.
DL: Coming up through the minor leagues, was there ever a voice in your head saying, “I’m hitting .300, but I’m also 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, so maybe I’m never going to get that big-league opportunity?”
WR: Yeah, there were a lot of times when… you know, you can only control the things that you can control, so I just tried to hit well and play my game. But yes, there were times when I was frustrated, obviously. That kind of comes with the territory in this game, regardless of your size.
DL: Why are you a good hitter?
WR: I don’t know. I think that I have a really good swing, and I know that I’ve worked really hard to have a good swing, mechanically. I think that I get everything I can out of my body with it. I obviously don’t have the advantage of being big and strong, so I have to use good technique; I try to use my legs, and stuff like that.
So, I think that my swing has a lot to do with it, but I also think that I have pretty good eye-hand coordination. I’ve always been a pretty good hitter, even when I was little, and all of that can’t just be mechanical. I work hard at hitting, but some of it just comes natural to me.
DL: How would you assess your plate discipline at this point in your career?
WR: I think that I have pretty good plate discipline. I usually walk right around the same number of times that I strike out, so I’m probably all right plate-discipline wise. That said, I’m not a guy who goes up there to walk. If I see a good pitch to hit, I plan on hitting it. Teams aren’t going to pitch around me, so I have to be able hit the baseball.
DL: What does it feel like to be in the big leagues?
WR: When I got called up, it was awesome. My family was there, so it was a happy… it was just a blur. And the experience has been great. I mean, this is the place you want to play. There’s nothing like playing in the big leagues, and it’s great be wearing a Tigers uniform, so this is a great experience. That’s not much of an answer, but I don’t really know how else to put it.
DL: Outside of making your big-league debut, what have the biggest highlights been thus far?
WR: I would have to say that it was probably hitting the triple off of [David] Price, when we played Tampa Bay. That was big, in part because it gave me a big confidence boost. Getting a hit off of Niemann was pretty big, too. I hadn’t got to face him since we played inter-squads in high school.
Jeff and I went out to dinner the first night I was there, in Tampa. I had been looking forward to this for a long time, so getting the hit off of him… to be honest, I was laughing, running down to first base. He wouldn’t look at me. But we both enjoyed that match-up.
DL: It should be noted that Jeff Niemann is a foot taller and well over 100 pounds heavier than you.
WR: He is, and I got to face him in the big leagues. Like I said, it was a great experience. Just being here is a great experience. A really great experience.
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