Detroit Tigers rookie Riley Greene is leadoff hitter of present and future

Detroit Free Press

Riley Greene swung at a fastball on the inside edge, hustled out of the batter’s box and made his way to first base Saturday evening. Upon touching the bag, he pointed to the sky in unison with the fans at Comerica Park. The ball had landed in the shrubs. For his first career home run, the rookie launched a 432-foot no-doubter to straightaway center field.

It was also a walk-off homer.

“He just gets good pitches and good at-bats,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s in a good place selectivity-wise. He didn’t miss that last one. You don’t see that a lot. In my short time here, not many guys can go out to those bushes.”

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Greene played hero in Saturday’s 4-3 win, and maybe that’s exactly what he is and will continue to be for the Detroit Tigers. He already appears to be the best hitter in the lineup at age 21. His presence has greatly impacted the overall production — in 64 games without him, the Tigers averaged 2.6 runs a game; in 12 with him, they’ve averaged 4.8. Nothing has fazed him through his first 12 games.

He is the best thing the Tigers have going for them right now.

“I hope he hits in the leadoff spot for the next six-plus years, or however long he’s going to be here,” Hinch said before Saturday’s game. “It’s important that the best hitters get the most at-bats. I also think it’s important for the long term to build a lineup where that’s not a question.”

Leading off Saturday, Greene cranked a mistake from Royals left-hander Kris Bubic. He sent the ball 413 feet to straightaway center and thought he had the first home run of his career. Instead, it landed just inside the fence — it would have been gone in 22 ballparks — and so he picked up his first triple and then scored on Javier Báez’s ensuing sacrifice fly.

Because of that first hit, he wasn’t so sure about his last hit.

“I didn’t really know if it was going to go because of the hit in the first inning,” Greene said. “I barreled that one up, and I was like, ‘How didn’t that get out?’ But I hit it good. I was running decently hard down the line, just in case, but once I saw it go out, it was awesome. The adrenaline rush going through me, I didn’t know what to do.”

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Greene scored three of the Tigers’ four runs.

That included crossing home plate after he walked on six pitches in the fifth inning. To go with a .302 batting average, he has a .434 on-base percentage — with 10 times compared to just eight strikeouts.

“He’s like a machine to get on base,” Báez said.

For the success, Greene credits his approach at the plate. He never felt anxious about getting his first home run out of the way. Knowing it would eventually happen, he focused on quality plate appearances. He has reached base in 11 of his 12 games.

What motivated Hinch to put Greene in the leadoff spot took place Tuesday in San Francisco. The Tigers matched up against Giants left-hander Carlos Rodon, who is again one of the best pitchers in baseball. Greene handled Rodon’s nasty arsenal and collected a pair of hits.

“I love it,” Greene said. “I led off all last year (in the minors). I was comfortable in it, and I feel comfortable in it now.”

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In his second game as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, Greene showcased all his talents with the bat. Even Greene’s lone batted out Saturday was scorched, as he sent a ball up the middle with a 104.1 mph exit velocity; shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. was positioned on the first-base side of second and fielded it, denying Greene of a hit on a ball that had an expected batting average of .490. Later, Greene should’ve had another walk, but home plate umpire CB Bucknor rung him up on a full-count pitch below the strike zone to end the sixth inning.

Greene was the only player to get five plate appearances.

He made his final one count.

That’s another reason why he’s the Tigers’ leadoff hitter, now and in the future.

“Having a dangerous hitter at the top of the order is something I’ve grown to really appreciate,” Hinch said. “As this lineup matures, and as we get healthy and you start to see better offense out of us, you’re going to see Riley at the top getting that fifth at-bat like last night.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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