DETROIT — The Tigers’ offense showed signs of life Tuesday with help from Riley Greene. His defense, meanwhile, continues to kill hopes of extra-base hits in the depths of Comerica Park.
The stare on Alex Bregman’s face after Greene’s latest diving grab spoke volumes to the quality of the catch. The center fielder was nowhere in the neighborhood of the All-Star’s drive as it soared toward the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field. Nearly 40 yards later, Greene had it in his glove as he skidded along the warning track, belly-first, and quickly picked himself up.
“I was in the grass most of the time,” Greene said after the Tigers’ 6-3 loss to the Astros. “I kind of just slid my way into the track.”
What looked like a seventh-inning RBI triple nearly ended up an 8-4-3 double play as Greene fired the ball back into the infield in an attempt to double up Yordan Alvarez at first base.
Alvarez, who was well past second base when Greene made his catch, barely made it back ahead of Harold Castro’s relay throw, keeping himself alive for Yuli Gurriel’s home run two batters later.
The catch made little difference in the final outcome, but it was yet another example of why a healthy Greene in center is a sight worth watching, now and in the years to come.
“He never gives up on a play,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He will sell out to the final second, even diving backwards. It’s one thing to dive on these ones coming in or going straight across, but as he’s diving and the ball’s getting farther away from him, these are such hard plays that he’s making. The pitching staff appreciates it. Obviously, we as a coaching staff dream of players like this that never give up on a play until the last second.”
While defensive highlights don’t necessarily indicate a player’s overall defensive contribution — Austin Jackson was an elite center fielder early in his Detroit career while rarely diving for balls — Tuesday’s catch was a microcosm of how Greene has turned himself into an above-average defensive center fielder. While he entered Tuesday with 1 out above average according to Statcast, Bregman’s drive played right into his skill set. He’s at plus-3 on balls behind him, and plus-2 on balls behind him and to his left.
A huge part of that is his jump, which ranks in the top 19 percent of Major League outfielders, according to Statcast. On average, he gets a foot better jump than the average outfielder. Much of that comes from an elite reaction time, with a smaller contribution from his burst.
“His first step has gotten better since he’s been here,” Hinch said, citing his work with coaches George Lombard and Gary Jones. “We talk about it all the time, the early work to get off the ball. The positioning matters. But he’s got to sell out from the very beginning.
“I know we see the dive at the end as the sellout, but actually the beginning of the play is what gives him an opportunity to make the play at the end. He’s got some natural feel for that, obviously, but his awareness to start the play at 100 percent and finish the play at the right angle has been impressive.”
In Tuesday’s case, Greene was playing Bregman to the pull side, where much of his power goes.
“I was playing a couple steps towards left field,” Greene said. “I saw him hit it, and I was just trying to get to it. It kind of hung up there a little bit and I got to it.”
Though Greene’s route efficiency surprisingly rates below average, leading him to cover slightly more ground than necessary to make a catch, his commitment to a route off the bat makes up for it. On Bregman’s ball, Greene had to cover 107 feet, according to Statcast, and ended up traveling 110 feet, not including the skid onto the warning track. Statcast rated the play as a 50-percent catch probability.
“I just had to cover a lot of ground to catch this one,” Greene said. “I wouldn’t say it was tough. I just had to run pretty far to get it.”
Greene went 1-for-3 with an RBI single off Astros starter and Detroit native Hunter Brown, but his catch is what will be remembered. After the hard skid onto the warning track, he’ll remember it, too, when he wakes up Wednesday — but it helps to be 21 years old.