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: Kody Clemens.
Baseball parks, those smaller ballfields that are a sweet slice of Americana, were mostly deserted this summer of 2020, particularly if they were home to a minor-league team.
But at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas, southwest of Houston, a clever stage-play unfurled.
There you might have seen the Sugar Land Skeeters playing the Eastern Tiger Kings. Or, on another night, it could have been a blood-and-guts tangle between the Sugar Land Lightning Sloths and the one gang that somehow missed out on the four-team Constellation Energy League’s colorful monikers: Team Texas.
It was for Team Texas that Kody Clemens played, moonlighting as a 24-year-old Tigers prospect and second baseman who, like most minor-leaguers, had been sent home in March as COVID-19 ripped apart Major League Baseball’s farm teams.
Clemens played in 28 games. He got 100 at-bats against pitchers who were well beyond sandlot arms. He batted .233, with five home runs, a triple, six doubles, and a .747 OPS. He struck out 20 times and had nine walks.
He did this against old-timers like Fernando Rodney, staying sharp in his 28th year of professional ball. There were younger guys with big-league resumes, as well as a couple dozen men who, like Clemens, would have been playing at Double A or Triple A in 2020 had coronavirus not made a hash of 2020’s minor-league calendar.
Mixed into this swirl of pandemic-punched athletes, reeling from a vacation they in no way wanted, were mostly Independent League players, some on the fringe of pitching big-league ball.
“It was awesome,” Clemens said during a phone chat last week, from Houston, where he is bunking at the home of his parents, who include a famed baseball father, Roger Clemens. “I was just happy we were able to see quality pitching.”
No kidding. Big-league prospects, position prospects, will tell you in a nanosecond the heaviest loss from 2020 was having no shot at sharpening their hitting against legitimate pitchers — in games.
Clemens two years ago drew an $800,000 investment from the Tigers after they made him the first pick of the 2018 draft’s third round. The Tigers thought a player who had ripped into Big 12 pitching in 2018 as if it were a grilled T-bone would be a fine piece for a farm system hungry for bats. In the view of Tigers scouts, here was a guy who had been a batting-order bomb for the University of Texas and whose size (6-foot-1) and genetics could fairly quickly make him a lineup regular at Comerica Park.
Clemens was fine during a summer-debut at Single-A West Michigan two summers ago (.302 average, .864 OPS) then had a mostly constructive summer last year at Single-A Lakeland (.238, .725) before getting a late and fairly forgettable 13-game cameo at Double-A Erie.
This was all happening a year after Clemens was Big 12 Conference Player of the Year, thanks to 24 homers, a .351 average and a fat 1.170 OPS.
Erie was supposed to have been his first stop in 2020. Until, anyway, a beast called COVID-19 showed up. Clemens had been rocking along at March’s spring camp at Lakeland, Florida, tidying up for his next ticket to Erie, when the pandemic exploded and head-for-home orders came.
For the next three months at Houston, he stuck to a script common to most farmhands after minor-league ball was zapped in 2020. Clemens worked out at the gym, hit against machines and whatever pitching he could muster (including some work against Dad), and tried not to get mad or despondent when he wasn’t drafted as one of the Tigers’ 60-man taxi-teamers once the big-league season re-started.
But his dad and others had an idea. The Sugar Land Skeeters were an Independent League team. There were lots of guys who needed that kind of outlet.
The four-team Constellation Energy League was hatched. Minor-leaguers aching for work, ex-big-leaguers who didn’t cut the taxi-team rosters, Independent League players hoping still to get a look from the big boys — there were enough players and enough will, as well as enough financing to print shirts and garb. The Skeeters merged with other sidelined talent, from across baseball’s terrain. Soon, a 28-game schedule was stitched together.
Clemens saw big talent. And some big names. There were games in which pitchers like Scott Kazmir, nearly as ancient as Rodney, the ex-Tigers reliever, were tossing innings, as well as graybeards like Robbie Ross, Brett Eibner, and Bud Norris.
Clemens was doing nicely, batting .298 well into the season before a string of late 0-fers dropped his numbers. Still, there was a nice finale: A home run in his final game.
How this summer factors into Clemens’ status heading into a five-week Instructional League at Lakeland, Florida, just announced by the Tigers, and beginning Oct. 1, is unknown — by all parties.
To play second base steadily in the big leagues requires more of a bat than Clemens has shown. At least in terms of batting average. The power is there, but OPS — the best statistical determinant of a player’s all-around offense — is incumbent to some extent on batting average that needs to beat anything shown at Lakeland, Erie, or even Team Texas.
“He’s going to have to make more contact to use that power,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers player-development chief. “But you can say that about a lot of guys.”
As for any plus Clemens got from 28 games in the Constellation Energy League, Littlefield was reserved.
“I think, in general, he got at-bats and playing time and that gives him a little bit of a leg-up on other guys. I know we had a couple of scouts go over there, just to see what was happening. Some of the pitching was Double A-ish, Triple A-ish.”
Littlefield added: “He was certainly liked by our amateur people (scouts). He’s a competitive guy with some power, and a left-handed hitter. So, I think for him, using that power at contact will be the continual key he’ll have to work on.”
The issue is this: 158 strikeouts in 649 minor-league at-bats. That’s a whiff rate of 24%, which isn’t going to hold up as a big-league regular. Not at second base. Even this summer, Clemens was striking out at a 22% clip. So, there are habits that need to change, fairly quickly, if Comerica Park is in his future, including getting much better against left-handed pitching.
It might also help if Clemens gets a second full season of farm ball. The minors’ first year, it’s commonly agreed, is all about adjusting to baseball being a full-time job. That most of his 2019 first full shift happened at Lakeland was worth noting.
Lakeland and the Florida State League are regarded much the way Marines look at Parris Island, South Carolina. The words “hot” and “rigorous” take on a different connotation at these summer-in-the-South venues.
“The main thing is how tough he is,” said Andrew Graham, who managed Clemens last year at Lakeland. “He never asked for a day off. And he had 11 homers. If I put him in Erie’s (Double A) ballpark, he’d have had 20.”
That included a single game when Clemens hit four drives to the warning track — two against the fence — at Lakeland. All four ended up as put-outs.
”If he were playing at Wrigley (Field), Camden (Yards), or New York (Yankee Stadium),” Graham said, “he’d have had four homers in that game.”
Clemens’ background carries its share of intrigue, quite apart from his family name. He was drafted by the Astros in the 35th round out of Houston Memorial High in 2015. He opted for the Longhorns and was progressing neatly until his sophomore season when an infielder needed Tommy John surgery.
He worked the next season as a designated hitter before shifting full-throttle to 2018, his junior year, when he exploded and charmed Tigers scouts.
Detroit wasn’t the only team chasing. The Red Sox had talked with him about signing with them as a potential second-rounder. They offered him money beneath the slot MLB approved as a second-round ceiling.
Clemens wasn’t interested.
“But don’t you want to be a Red Sock?” the Boston scout responded.
“Not at that price,” Clemens said, which freed him for the third round and cash more in tune with what was needed to keep him from a senior year with the Longhorns.
As for the Tigers, Clemens had no hang-ups with the team or with the town.
“My dad said Detroit had the best fans in the game,” Clemens said, quoting his celebrity father, who had spent many of his 24 years in the big leagues at either Tiger Stadium or Comerica Park.
How, or even if, his hitting can evolve and make him a serious subject for future Tigers rosters will be the everyday debate as Clemens heads for his five-week stay in Lakeland.
There has been the usual timeline hitters tend to experience with their swings: a drop in his hands, an opening of his stance, a toe-tap that gave way to a modified leg-kick, and so on.
What must happen, no matter how much tinkering takes place, is for his bat to land against those increasingly tough pitches.
But the Tigers knew all of this when they drafted him. They understood those early years on the farm might be less thrilling than watching him pulverize Big 12 pitching.
It’s what happens next — and probably needs to happen soon — that will decide if the super-sophisticated art known as hitting is anything yet another prospect, drafted with high hopes, can adequately grasp.
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Lynn is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.