Detroit – From the sound of it, Riley Greene hitting in the leadoff spot isn’t just an experiment or a one-off. He might be there a while.
“My goal with Riley and where he’s going to hit,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said before Saturday’s game. “I hope he hits in the leadoff spot for the next six-plus years or however long he can be here. I think it’s important that the better hitters get the most at-bats.”
Greene hit leadoff for the first time Friday night and got on base twice. He’s been on base in 10 of his first 11 games in the big leagues, getting hits in eight of them. He has a .417 on-base average with 11 hits and nine walks, striking out just seven times.
But he’s not exactly a prototypical leadoff hitter. Although it hadn’t manifested yet at this level (one extra base hit before Saturday), he’s not just a table-setter. And Hinch’s decision to move Greene to the top of his lineup wasn’t fraught with worry about losing RBI chances hitting him lower in the order.
“I also think it’s important long-term to build a lineup where that’s not a question,” Hinch said. “Where we can have potent guys all through the lineup where he’s simply getting on base or driving in runs as the bottom of the order is getting on base.”
Case in point, the ninth inning Friday. The Tigers cut the Royals lead to 3-1 and when Greene came to the plate with two outs, he represented the tying run.
“Having a dangerous hitter at the top of the order is something I’ve grown to really like and appreciate,” said Hinch, who for years in Houston had George Springer at the top of his lineup. “As this lineup matures and we get healthy and you start to see better and better offense out of us, you’re going to see Riley in those important at-bats like he got in the ninth last night.”
He came up in a big spot again in the ninth inning Saturday. Victor Reyes had just tied the score with a dramatic home run. Greene followed with his first big-league blast — a walk-off shot deep into the shrubs in center field.
“Yeah, I did it all last year so hitting leadoff, for me, it’s nothing different,” Greene said. “It just means more at-bats. Nothing changes. Just stick to the game plan.
Greene said before and after the game Saturday, he felt zero anxiety over not having a homer.
“When there are runners in scoring position, I want to score them so we can win,” he said. “But I’m just trying to stick with what I do and whatever happens, happens. But I definitely want to get those runs in when I have the opportunity to.”
It’s not like Greene had been slapping at pitches. He’s just been judicious when it comes to turning his big swings loose.
“If I’m ahead in the count, I am going to let it eat,” he said. “Because I feel I am good enough to where I will go back to my approach. I feel that’s big. Maybe I will hit a homer, maybe I will swing and miss. Who knows? But I trust myself to get back into my approach.”
Hinch wishes Greene never had to answer questions about that part of his game.
“We do the players a disservice when we start talking about what they’re not doing while they are doing other things that are positive,” Hinch said. “All of us fall into that trap. We want the perfect player, the perfect outcome. But we just want him to be a productive player.
“Power is a byproduct of a lot of different things. It’s up to us to let it play out how it’s going to play out. There are other guys in our lineup who are selling out for power and not having good at-bats. We have to be careful when we start nit-picking at trying to be perfect players.”
Hinch became sold on the idea of hitting Greene cleanup in San Francisco when he watched the rookie left-handed hitter get two hits off nasty lefty Carlos Rodon one day and another off lefty Alex Wood the next.
“One of the reasons I moved him up was because of his mental strength,” Hinch said. “He wasn’t fazed the least bit whether he hit fourth, fifth, second or first. The way he hung in against Carlos Rodon, that’s a very difficult at-bat against a shutdown lefty.
“All I know is, when he strolls up to the plate to start the game or in the bottom of the first, the pitcher better lock in.”