Over the course of his brief career, Riley Greene has made a strong case as the stand alone top prospect for the Detroit Tigers. It’s not unanimous, as many might consider Spencer Torkelson to be the top prospect. However, that’s a good problem to have. Both are arguably top 10, if not top 5 prospects in the game right now. Greene, however, is just built a little different.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Tigers were a team void of any real excitement from the farm system. Then the three-headed pitching monster of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning appeared. As those three move out of the prospect eye, it’s time for the two-headed monster of Greene and Torkelson to stand centerstage, if only for a brief and fleeting moment before they, too, get a chance to show what they can do in Detroit.
Prospects fail all of the time, that’s a sad fact of this game. Top prospects can still be productive major leaguers and fall short of expectation. Prospects can also become perennial All-Stars, MVPs, and if a team is lucky World Series Champions. Which of these things does the future hold for Riley Greene?
The Detroit Tigers went with a high upside prep outfielder by selecting Greene with the fifth overall pick in 2019. There is an inherent risk with high school picks. They are more raw entering pro ball so there’s a lot more development time for things to go wrong. On the one hand, you have a chance to land a really elite talent before they’ve put it all together at the college level and made their presence obvious. However, the bust rate is somewhat alarming, especially among prep pitchers.
Someone forgot to tell Riley Greene that.
In his draft year Greene accumulated a total of 221 AB and climbed up three rungs in the organizational ladder, making it to the equivalent of what is now Low-A ball. His 2020 season was cancelled, but it didn’t stop him from putting on a show in spring camp that ignited the imaginations of Tigers faithful everywhere. And finally, in 2021 as a 20-year-old he continued climbing rungs with haste, mashing his way through the Double-A level in his first full season, and reaching Triple-A with a late season flourish.
He showed that he can do just about everything well on a baseball field. In a full season, his first of his professional career, Greene slashed .301/.387/.534 with 24 homers, 16 steals, and he even notched an amazing 8 triples. This did include hitting just .219 in 96 AB during his first attempt at Triple-A. The biggest statistical concern are strikeouts, as he posted strikeout rates slightly north of 27 percent in both Double-A and Triple-A. That said, he walked slightly over 11 percent of the time at both levels.
The basis of what Greene can do with a bat starts with his hands. They are extremely quick, making for some really nice bat speed. That is one aspect of where his power comes from. Bat speed is great, but there are a lot of players with good bat speed. What separates Greene from the pack is his to cover the zone with his barrel. He can adjust his body and use his hands to get that barrel to the baseball. Bake in some exceptional hand-eye coordination and you’ve got the start of one exciting hitting prospect.
Here you can see his swing at play as he hits the ball an estimated 412 feet off of former Tiger, Beau Burrows.
Watching a lot of Riley Greene right now. As special of a prospect as I’ve seen, and I can’t wait for him to get to Detroit. Smacked this homer off of old friend Beau Burrows. The building stopped it, but it was estimated to travel 412 feet. pic.twitter.com/xnVGq7jnTY
— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) December 29, 2021
That swing has all of the elements working in concert. The fast hands, the feel for barrel, the hand-eye coordination was all there. Which is awesome, even though that pitch was served on a platter begging to be hit out of the park. Watch what happens when Greene makes a swing decision in 3-2 count on a pitch well below the zone.
It was not accident that he drove that ball. Sure, he probably shouldn’t have swung at it. But the fact the he successfully did puts on display his ability to adjust at the plate. The photo quality gets a little rough here, but below is the point of contact on that homerun and the triple. The positions are almost identical except for the slight differences needed for his barrel to reach the ball at his ankles.
Adjustments to location is great, but that still would leave Greene susceptible to poor swings on offspeed unless he was specifically hunting for it. So, let’s take this another step further. When he identifies offspeed, he is able to keep his hands back and adjust to it without losing a ton of power out of the swing. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a really hard thing to do as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
Notice on that swing the timing between when his foot comes down from the load and when his hands start to swing. That spilt second pause is the difference between swinging early at an offspeed pitch and driving it down the line with some conviction. That also takes good pitch recognition skills to be able to do.
Boxes checked for hand speed, and feel for barrel. There’s still more that goes into generating power for Greene. He’s got loft, that’s another component. His lower half plays a big role too. In fact, his lower half is where a lot of the power comes from on the above swing where he kept his hands back on the offspeed pitch. Greene consistently adjusts his lower half mid-flight to set a strong base to swing from and it allows him to cover a lot of the plate and drive the ball with authority to all fields.
Take all of these ingredients and add one more. An advanced approach. He can draw walks, he can fight to stay alive. He looks like a professional hitter at the plate in every sense of the word. There’s swing and miss present, but he’s patient enough not to be jumping at bad pitches.
Conservative grading for Greene’s bat will likely put both his power and hit tools in the above average range.
For me, personally, those are both plus tools developing. The best hands I’ve ever seen form a hitting prospect are Tampa Bay’s phenom Wander Franco, no question. The second best are Riley Greene’s. There’s something special going on when he’s at the plate.
Added to his hitting abilities is his IQ as a runner, both on the bases and in the outfield. He stole a good amount of bases, but he’s not particularly fast. Greene is a below-average runner in terms of speed, but he’s a smart ballplayer and gets the most out of his athletic gifts. That means he’ll be able to chip in some steals and be efficient with his routes in the outfield. The speed to handle center field with any consistency just isn’t present, but he’s able to make up for it to a degree with his instincts and solid fundamentals.
It’s entirely possible that the first time some people heard Greene’s name was for defensive highlights during the second Spring Training of 2020. Greene gets solid jumps in the outfield and has a good enough arm to handle the outfield. It would play best in leftfield. He can also make the flashy play from time to time, which is a lot of fun.
While putting his strengths on display, it also showed one of his biggest weaknesses. His swing decisions aren’t always the best, especially when it comes to breaking balls. He is able to adjust sometimes, like on that triple. Other times he will swing and miss. Those breaking balls on the outer third are especially hard for him to read. Sometimes the inner edge, too. While some of that onus can be put on his age vs. the age of competition, it’s been a constant throughout his short career. The good news is that it doesn’t appear to be an issue of recognition. He is able to identify breaking balls, there’s just some seasoning needed in terms of handling them.
The strikeout rate is the biggest concern about his game. The breaking balls cause him issue, but so can velocity in the upper quadrants, particularly on the outer half. There are specific pitches in specific locations, which are not all that concerning. That said, his strikeout rates aren’t likely to drop an insane amount. At most, I think he could get under 25 percent, but he’s likely to live in that area throughout his career.
As mentioned earlier, Greene is not particularly fast. He’s a below average runner. All that means is that he will need to rely more on his smarts to get the most out of the tool. Something he’s displayed the ability to do, stealing 16 bases in 2021. Speed only declines, and while that’s not a concern for a 21-year-old like Greene, it’s worth keeping in mind.
Projected 2022 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
There isn’t much question here. He showed he could handle the Triple-A competition, and he isn’t likely to start in the MLB unless the new CBA’s service time rules change substantially. However, it is worth noting that the Tigers have just two quality starting outfielders in Robbie Grossman and Akil Baddoo. The fact that they haven’t made any short-term upgrades out there says they’re expecting Greene to lock up a spot as soon as they allow him to do so. In the meantime, the extra seasoning should allow him to get on a roll this spring and hit the ground running when his debut eventually arrives.