‘Extremely valuable’: ​​​​​​​Tigers think crash course in tougher pitching will pay off for Riley Greene

Detroit News

The minor-league season has been canceled, but the development of the Tigers’ prospects is still a critical aspect of the team’s rebuild. In this series, Lynn Henning will take a look at some of the key players. Today: Riley Greene. 

Sometime between the day he was drafted 14 months ago, and this spring, Riley Greene might have found himself telling a friend of this bizarre dream he had:

Yeah, it was nuts. I dreamed I was in Toledo, with mostly big-leaguers, and we were playing just intra-squad games every day  nothing against other teams. It was just a few of us kids and a bunch of more experienced guys. It wasn’t really the big leagues. Or the minor leagues. It was just these games that didn’t count. With this weird mix of guys. No travel.

Guess I better lay off the 11 o’clock pizza.

Greene is free to have his pizza. He’s also entitled to wonder, as he might wonder about the above real-life scene, if he in fact is living this dive into the occult known as 2020.

But he absolutely is.

Greene is 19 years old. He was last year’s first Tigers draft pick, fifth overall, an outfielder with a scalding left-handed bat, and with defense so fleet he can, and probably will, stick in center field.

He should be at Single A Lakeland baking in the sun and putting a sharp edge on his hitting skills ahead of a move, maybe next spring, to Double A Erie.

But he is in Toledo. Getting tested every other day for COVID-19. As are 29 other teammates who are part of – that weird dream again – a “taxi squad” designed to be a reserve bin for a 60-game big-league schedule that didn’t begin until late last month.

“Yeah, I’ve processed it, I think,” Greene said last week during a phone conversation. “I’m not going to lie: I’m actually having a lot of fun, doing what I love. Playing baseball every day. Getting my work in. Having a great time with the guys. Doing what I can to help.”

Greene is one of the top-tier Tigers prospects who made the taxi-squad cut. It puts boldface print on his status as a fast-track talent who is mixing it up with men much older and, for the most part, more seasoned.

The issue is this:

Will the Tigers’ taxi-squad laboratory at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field in fact hone Greene’s long-term development? There is no debate in the Tigers’ minds that, yes, he would be better off working at some Single A outpost while moving up the farm-chain in conventional fashion.

But there is no minor-league baseball during this pandemic year. The alternative would have been to leave Greene where most farm prospects are during this summer of 2020: working out on their own, in batting cages, taking cuts against live pitching where it might be scraped up, all while doing their own weight-lifting and conditioning, generally at their parents’ home.

More: Tigers waiting patiently for Miguel Cabrera to get his swing back in order

This is one weirdo, this borderline nightmare that is 2020’s reality. And for Greene it comes as a blindside, so out of sequence after he began last summer so well at two Single A stops: Connecticut, and then West Michigan.

“The one thing I’d say is a little more challenging (at Toledo’s camp) is the pitching,” Greene said, to no one’s surprise. “I mean, it doesn’t really compare to low A. These guys here can place a ball wherever they want. Their secondary and third pitches are so much better.

“They throw strikes on the first pitch, and in any count they want to throw a strike. It’s definitely more challenging on the pitching side. But I’m taking it in, learning a lot.”

The Tigers are betting on a dividend with Greene, Spencer Torkelson, and Dillon Dingler, who either were drafted in 2019 (Greene) or in the case of Torkelson and Dingler, with the Tigers’ first two picks in June’s sweepstakes.

They think exposure to tougher pitching can only help their Comerica Park timetable. That it would be better to develop them in a gradated manner, as minor-league rungs are designed to function, isn’t disputed.

But given baseball’s coronavirus realities, this should help, they say, at least in the case of Greene, Torkelson, and Dingler.

“I don’t know if some of these younger guys necessarily know how valuable this (Toledo) is,” said Mike Hessman, the Triple A Toledo batting coach who has been working with Greene alongside Jeff Branson, the Tigers’ roving minor-league hitting coach. “They’re seeing big-league pitchers, and good Double A and Triple A pitching. They’re able to get results and not have those results (stats) on the back of a baseball card.

“It’s extremely valuable. And there’s definitely upside.”

Ahead of the curve

Greene began his 2020 taxi-squad baptism seven weeks ago at Comerica Park, playing alongside the big-league boys as part of an overall 60-man roster crafted for MLB’s crimped 2020 season.

This also would have been part of Greene’s wild dream: playing baseball at 19 alongside Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Romine, and other entrenched big-leaguers.

Greene got his share of pointers in Detroit.

“Just from watching in the cage,” Greene said. “I noticed how Miguel Cabrera was going through his batting-practice routine, what he does to get ready for his games. Every swing was the same. Every single swing. He probably took 50, 60 swings, all exactly the same.

“So, I saw the part about having a routine, which was something new to me. I never had a routine when I was playing last year. Now that I’m picking one up, I’m feeling better about myself as I get ready for these scrimmages. It’s helping me a lot.”

Greene, of course, got an even heavier taste of sophisticated pitching during his July days at Comerica Park. It wasn’t only a matter of getting undressed by off-speed pitches of the brand he saw from Matthew Boyd, Ivan Nova, Michael Fulmer, Spencer Turnbull, and others, including left-hander Nick Ramirez, now at Toledo, who Greene says has been as tough on him as a Tower of London torture device.

What he has seen, in full light as a teenager, ultimately is what he’ll need to handle ahead of any future trip to Detroit.

And yet his mechanics have required little tinkering from coaches. Except at ignition.

“My timing was a little off,” Greene said. “I was a little late getting to the ball. But I feel like I’ve gotten better. I didn’t shorten my stride at all. Just a little earlier on the initial start of the swing.”

More: Desperate times, desperate measures: Tigers try to get Niko Goodrum back on track

Progress soon was easier to gauge, Greene said. He began to see how he could “fix things on my own” – in other words, adjust.

“Sometimes, when I saw a curveball, I’d kind of come up and out of my swing,” he said. “But you have to stay down on the curveball and stay square to it instead of hitting it where you kind of expect it to be.

“Now, I’m not pulling off pitches. I’m staying on all the pitches. I’m driving the ball to all places on the field. When I was pulling off pitches, I’d mis-hit them 90 percent of the time or hit a weak ground ball to the right side. Now, I’m hitting them to left field, center field, right – wherever.”

Hessman, the minor-league home run king (433, most all-time) who also played for the Tigers, says Greene’s issues were common for a hitter of any vintage, as well as correctable.

He had noticed during spring camp – for the few weeks it lasted – that Greene was “wanting to impress” and “working himself around the ball” as he took his cuts on TigerTown’s back fields at Lakeland, Florida.

“He was kind of cutting himself off a little bit,” Hessman said, explaining that a game plan custom-designed for Greene was crafted in tandem with Branson, and Kenny Graham, the Tigers’ first-year director of player development.

“We’ve run some ideas based on what we were seeing, some suggestions – different drills that could put him into a stronger position and allow him to work through the ball and stay through the ball: how to get the right trajectory, not as much topspin. And, also, how to beat the shift a few times.

“He ran into a two-strike home run today (Friday) that got out of the ballpark in a hurry.”

This isn’t to say hitting against the big boys is necessarily pure developmental protein.

Hessman concedes a drawback: Hitters each week are seeing the same batch of taxi-squad pitchers. You can only vary so often the arms when numbers are so restricted that even coaches like Hessman find themselves in the field, as he was one day last week when he played all four infield spots (“and had a putout at each of them,” Hessman said).

With hitters seeing a somewhat in-bred series of pitches, Hessman says the mission has been to vary looks as much as possible.

“A lot more random training stuff is being used,” he said. “Machine work. Live arms mixed in with the machines during batting practice. Angle-machine work, then using velocity that’s getting in on guys. We’re just trying to allow them to handle certain pitches and keep their bat in the zone.”

‘Great kid’ 

Defensively, Hessman agrees Greene is most comfortable and most effective in center field. But he fares just as nicely in left, or in right, either of which he can find himself playing from time to time.

While the moving around has more to do with the fact fielding two full scrimmage teams at Toledo is tough, there’s another plus in the view of Detroit’s staff.

“He’s getting reads off the bat everywhere,” Hessman said. “It’s going to help all of these guys to see balls at different angles.”

Greene says he is coping fine with coronavirus protocol: the testing, the limits on where he and his teammates can migrate before or after a day of workouts.

He wears his mask “everywhere” and lives solo at the same apartment complex as many of his teammates, including Torkelson.

Greene has his escapes: Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Outback, Chili’s, either for takeout, or, for a sit-down meal if there is seating that’s properly distanced or on a patio. Lunch is offered at each workout, so no worries there. Breakfast, too.

Greene, though, has his own breakfast routine – rigid. At his apartment.

“Bacon, egg, and cheese bagel,” said Greene, who is 6-foot-2 and who sticks at 209-210 pounds. “Every single morning. Every single day I’ve been here.”

He repeats that, for all the craziness, he is enjoying all of this. Hessman, too, can see that he does. It’s because they’re getting a kick out of Greene.

“Great kid – outstanding,” Hessman said, mentioning a moment from a game last week – one of those you-had-to-be-there exchanges. “We can talk with him, joke around with him, make sure it’s not all serious all the time.”

But then, Hessman said, and Greene agrees, it turns serious. Baseball-serious. They’re trying to get a top talent ready for showtime. Whenever that occurs. Details there have yet to be revealed, as another dream, for another night, takes shape.

Previous reports

►Tigers’ Jason Foley working on more than 100-mph fastball to earn big-league ticket

►Can Tigers’ Nick Quintana justify his second-round status after enduring ‘first-year jitters’?

►Hitting is Tigers prospect Bryant Packard’s ‘favorite thing to do,’ and it shows

►Tigers’ Parker Meadows finding his swing, even with no minor-league season

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