McCosky: New team, new opportunity, same mission for ex-Tiger ‘dirtbag’ Kody Clemens

Detroit News

Detroit – I reached out to Kody Clemens on Friday, completely unaware, as was he, that in less than 24 hours he was going to be an ex-Tiger, traded quite suddenly to the Phillies on Saturday along with Gregory Soto.

He’d been on my mind for a bunch of reasons. Mainly, I was pegging him as a potential breakout player in 2023. His .145 batting average last season in just 127 sporadic plate appearances was a mirage, in my opinion.

“I fell into the role where I wasn’t playing every day,” he said. “The only thing that was positive was the power numbers. I’d like to think that if I was playing every day I would not be hitting .150.”

Clemens hit five home runs. The first was a game-winner in Arizona, hit against lefty reliever and former Tiger Joe Mantiply. Mantiply had never allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter in 96 big-league appearances until Clemens shellacked a hanging, 1-2 curveball.

His last homer was a grand slam in Seattle on the second to last day of the season.

In between he was worth four defensive runs saved defensively, a plus-2 at both third base and first base. He also made seven pitching appearances, highlighted by striking out Shohei Ohtani looking in Anaheim.

He made you wonder what he could do if he got more consistent playing time. Playing every day at Triple-A Toledo last year, he slashed .274/.327/.535 with 13 homers, 12 doubles and six triples. Useful.

Plus, Clemens, a left-handed pull hitter, should get a boost from the new ban on shifts. Teams next season will have to deploy two infielders on each side of second base and all four on the dirt. Clemens, who pulled the ball 58% of the time last season, had a weighted on-base average of .178 when shifted, .307 when not shifted.

It felt like things were lining up for him. He’d already been in talks with new hitting coach Michael Brdar about refining his two-strike approach and focusing on putting more balls in play.

“I’m looking at my two-strike approach,” he said. “Not that it will look exactly like his, but (Blue Jays) Bo Bichette, he has that big leg kick up to two strikes and then he puts his foot down and kind of rocks with two strikes.”

In the small sample last season, Clemens was 3 for 36 with 16 strikeouts in 0-2 counts. He was 2 for 45 with 21 strikeouts in 1-2 counts. He was 5 for 49 with 20 strikeouts when he was behind in counts. He is better than that.

“Talking to Michael, we’re trying to figure out how it’s going to look for me,” he said. “I need to have a better two-strike approach and put more balls in play.”

He will be having those discussions with the Phillies’ hitting department now. And instead of battling the likes of Ryan Kreidler, Tyler Nevin, Jermaine Palacios and Andy Ibanez for a roster spot in Lakeland next month, he will be in Clearwater competing against Edmundo Sosa, Dalton Guthrie, Scott Kingery and others for a utility spot on a Phillies team that won the National League pennant last season.

When we talked on Friday, Clemens was driving home after a long live batting practice session at his old high school (Houston Memorial). He’d just roughed up a 60-year-old, seven-time Cy Young Award winner named Roger Clemens.

“Our high school field isn’t that big so I can pop them out all the time,” Kody said, chuckling. “My dad was like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ But he’s amazing. He’s 60 years old, he had torn rotator cuff surgery about a year ago and he still throws a great BP.

“He’s still as competitive as ever.”

That Clemens competitive fire didn’t skip a generation. Neither did Roger’s mental toughness, which is what I really wanted to hit Kody with Friday. The most impressive thing about Clemens last season was how he dealt with the scattered and limited playing time, the back-and-forth to Toledo and the failure.

We watched such struggles take a significant mental toll on other rookies last year – Daz Cameron and Spencer Torkelson to name just two. Akil Baddoo, though in his second year, also needed a month  in the minor leagues to get his head back on straight.

Clemens, though frustrated, never cowered, never caved. His demeanor in the clubhouse never changed. I never once saw him act defeated or overwhelmed. You can’t fake that.

“I’m a very positive guy,” he said. “I know my skill set. I know I can hit. I know I can play defense. If you fail and keep thinking about your failure, you’re never going to succeed. Failure is good. You’re going to learn from it, build from it and grow from it.

“From my ups and downs, I look at it and I see what I can do to perform better. I will always have a positive mindset. It’s hard to do but I will try not to keep digging that hole. I don’t know if that’s what my pops instilled in me or not, but it’s the way I have to go about it. I will always believe in myself.”

Being traded had to be a shock. He saw himself as part of the nucleus of the Tigers’ next competitive team. By now, though, I’m guessing he’s over it and he’s scouting housing in Clearwater. Because the mission is the same. He’s got to go win a job.

“My focus is on spring training,” he said. “I know I have to perform when I show up. That’s exactly what I’m expecting to do. I have to be ready for spring and I’m super excited for the competition that’s ahead.”

The Phillies are getting more than a random, make-the-numbers-work, throw-in player here. They’re getting a dirtbag. And I mean that in the best sense of the word. He’s going to give you everything he’s got every day. He’s going to put some balls in the seats, get some big hits, play anywhere on the diamond you need him and play there well.

And don’t sleep on his 47-mph heater, either.

Trample your horizons, Kody Clemens.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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