Phoenix — You would have been within your rights to wonder why Tigers skipper AJ Hinch decided to place left-handed-hitting rookie Riley Greene in the clean-up spot Sunday against a crafty veteran lefty like Dallas Keuchel.
Prepare to get a big-league lesson in lineup construction.
“I wanted (Javier) Baez in the two-spot with Keuchel so if they want to roll around a third time through the order, I was going to make sure he got to Baez,” Hinch said.
Baez is hitting .365 and slugging .635 against left-handed pitching.
“It would be very easy for Torey (Lovullo, Arizona manager) to stop it at Riley if I had Riley hitting second and Javy hitting behind him,” Hinch said. “So if he wants to get to Riley with a lefty, he’s going to have to go through Javy and Miggy.”
Cabrera, hitting third Sunday, is hitting lefties at a .364 clip.
By moving Baez and Cabrera up in the order, he’s put them in position to get extra at-bats against a lefty or force Lovullo to make a tough decision in the middle of the game. He’s also put Greene in position to have a big at-bat later in the game potentially against a right-handed reliever.
Greene has now hit second, sixth, fifth and fourth in his first week in the big leagues. Not that it matters to him at all.
“I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Try not to swing on at one bad pitch.”
Greene drew a pair of walks and knocked in a run with a ground out in the ninth. The strategy worked, too, in the sense that Baez came up with two on and two out in the fourth inning.
Lovullo stayed with Keuchel, giving the Tigers the matchup they wanted. But Keuchel got Baez to bounce into a force out.
This series has been a good early test for Greene, largely because of Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom, one of the best game-planners in baseball.
“You mean because Brent Strom is a genius?” Hinch said.
Hinch would know. Strom was his pitching coach in Houston.
“I just know they are hitting their spots and they are nibbling on the corners and throwing good pitches,” said Greene, who was 1-for-9 in the first two games. “I’ve missed some pitches I know I could hit, just not swinging at them. They’re just throwing good pitches and I need to be able to adjust to that and not just look for one pitch.”
Against two very different right-handed starters, Merritt Kelly and Zach Davies, Greene has seen varying sequences, pitching him soft away, then jamming him hard inside and going away again. He’s broken a couple of bats, looking out over the plate and swinging at cutters or fastballs on his hands.
“With most young hitters, they’re going to test you first with fastballs,” Hinch said. “What you see with good teams, smart teams and smart game-planners is they don’t double up often. You don’t see the same pitch twice. They aren’t going to stay in one area unless you have a blatant hole that you can’t hit.
“I do see them crowding him a little bit and then showing him soft stuff away and testing him on chase pitches.”
The lessons from this series, seeing a master game-planner’s plan for you over three games, should have value going forward. And not just for Greene.
“I will take the game plan Strommy had and study it pretty hard on all of our hitters,” Hinch said. “Just because I have so much respect for what he does and how he attacks a lineup. I’ll make sure our players know about it.
“But with Riley, it’s all a learning curve on how specific pitchers are going to attack him.”
Lesson three came Sunday against Keuchel.
The catch, Day 2
There was still considerable buzz in the clubhouse before the game Sunday about the catch Greene made in the sixth inning Saturday night, taking extra bases away from Buddy Kennedy.
Leading off the inning, Kennedy hit the ball in the right-center gap with an exit velocity of 99.8 mph. It had an expected batting average of .470, according to Statcast. Greene got a good jump, tracked it and caught it with a full-layout, Superman dive.
“I knew he had a chance,” Hinch said. “Because he got off the ball really well at the right angle, at the right pace. He didn’t need any extra time to read the ball. He chose a path and he went right at it. He cut the distance.
“If he takes a deeper route, he doesn’t get it. If he takes a shallower route, he doesn’t get it. It was full commitment from contact. His first step is the reason he got to it.”
Greene’s first step, which is born out of his relentless pre-pitch preparation, is what will make him an elite defender at the big-league level.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say I’m the fastest guy out there,” Greene said. “I’m quick, but not like fast, fast. So I feel like getting the best jump I can get and taking the best route I can is really big for me. I’m not going to kill them with speed out there.”
Around the horn
The Tigers are expected to sign right-handed pitcher Drew Hutchison sometime this week. Starting July 1, they will play 19 games in 17 days leading into the All-Star break. Even with Michael Pineda expected back off the injured list next week, the Tigers’ rotation is paper-thin. It will be the fourth time in two years the club has signed Hutchison after designating him for assignment, the third time this season.
… The Tigers activated outfielder Daz Cameron off the COVID injured list and optioned him to Triple-A Toledo.