Tigers’ Riley Greene looking to go from solid to super in sophomore season

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers center fielder Riley Greene had some big moments this offseason. Like catching a 50-inch redfish and massive hammer jack and red snapper some 60 to 70 miles off the Florida coast.

Earlier in the week, he and his buddy, Vaughn Grissom, the Atlanta Braves shortstop, were inducted into the Hagerty High School (Oviedo, Fla.) Sports Hall of Fame.

“Yeah, it was pretty cool to share that moment together,” he said.

About the only thing that didn’t go so well was his golf game.

“I’m working on it,” Greene said, laughing.

Actually, even though he swings a club right-handed and a bat left-handed, the game of golf may have provided a little insight into improving his mental approach to hitting.

“I spent the offseason just getting stronger and faster,” he said. “And focusing on different swing thoughts. I feel like that’s really helped me this offseason.”

Swing thoughts?

“Yeah, like in golf, they have that one thought in their head when they hop up to hit the ball,” he said. “It’s just like that. I’m just trying to get a good feel for things. I have the same swing, just a different thought.”

So, it’s a form of visualization. See your swing before you make the swing?

“Just a thought,” he said. “Just a mental key to get me going and keep me on the right path.”

Considering he missed the first two and half months recovering from a broken bone in his foot, Greene had a very solid rookie season last year. He slashed .253/.321/.362 with a 99 OPS-plus. He was worth three defensive runs saved in center field and filled the highlight shows with a batch of brilliant plays.

But, being solid isn’t going to cut it for this highly-skilled 22-year-old. His expectations and the club’s expectations are much higher than that. And, one way for him to take the next step offensively, as he said on Thursday, was to stop hitting so many darn ground balls.

Of all the balls he put in play last season, 56.8% of them were hit on the ground. And as former Tiger J.D. Martinez so famously said a bunch of years ago, “Ground balls suck.”

“That’s part of the swing thoughts I’ve been working on in batting-practice rounds,” Greene said. “Trying not to hit the ball on the ground. I feel like the stuff I’ve been working on has definitely helped.”

This is a tricky issue for hitters. The general thought is you need to steepen the launch angle of your swing to elevate the baseball. That can lead to holes in the swing, especially on pitches up in the strike zone.

Greene’s average launch angle last season was 2.8 degrees, a mostly level swing. And he doesn’t want to change that.

“I wouldn’t say elevate the ball,” he said. “I would say just try to get it off the ground. I never think ‘elevate.’ I think line drives. Line drives will go over the fence, too. If I think, ‘elevate,’ then I would drop (his back shoulder) and hit the ball straight up instead of driving it out there.”

Greene was on the back fields Thursday, four days ahead of the first full-squad workout Monday, taking swings in a hitting group that included Spencer Torkelson. There was no noticeable change in his swing mechanics, but he was catching more balls out front and driving them into the outfield and over the fence.

“The fastest way to improve that is to pick better pitches to hit,” manager AJ Hinch said. “You can’t create an optimal angle on the bat on every pitch. It’s hard, but you have to pick better pitches to hit.”

The biggest percentage of Greene’s ground balls came on pitches down in the zone, according to StatCast data, and also pitches that jammed him up and in. Seventy-one percent of the pitches he hit that were located down and away were hit on the ground.

“These guys know where they do their damage and where they get their hits and where they hit the ball the hardest,” Hinch said. “I think everybody spends four months (in the offseason) optimizing that and then we get out here and realize it’s a competition. All that work you’ve done becomes reactionary in the games.

“If it gets too robotic, it can lead a hitter down a bad path. I like that Riley is aware of it.”

Greene is also aware that the fences at Comerica Park are now just seven-feet high across the outfield, and the center-field wall is being moved in 10 feet. The changes, at least in part, were made to exploit Greene’s skills on both sides of the ball — though he’d prefer you don’t call it the house that Riley built.

“Please don’t do that,” he said, smiling. “It’s a change of scenery, but you still have to catch the ball and you still have to hit the ball. If more balls go out, cool. But, you still have to play the game the right way.”

Other than to stay healthy and win more games, Greene isn’t setting any goals for himself. At least none that he’s putting out there publicly.

“Just have fun,” he said. “Just work hard, play as hard as I can, and then I feel everything will take care of itself. I’m just going to show up every day with a good attitude, positive and play hard.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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