After taking the next step, Detroit Tigers’ Riley Greene is thinking ‘pure’ at the plate

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s easy to forget Riley Greene’s age.

“I’m 22 years old,” he said.

His childhood friends are graduating college and starting their careers. Others are staying in school to pursue postgraduate degrees. Best friends Randall and Samantha got married in Geneva, Florida, not far from his hometown in Oviedo, on the last Saturday in November.

“My friends are becoming adults,” Greene continued. “Maybe it’s time to… I mean, I feel like I’m an adult, like I’m not stupid, but it’s eye-opening to see all those things and them getting married. It’s a game-changer.”

Greene began his career with the Detroit Tigers straight out of high school as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft. He received a $6.18 million signing bonus but lived in the TigerTown dorms during his first spring training to “save some money” and cultivate relationships with his new friends in the organization.

He now enters his second season in the big leagues.

FROM THE PHILLIES: Tigers’ Matt Vierling, Nick Maton on mission to help cultivate championship culture

BIGGEST FANS: Venezuelans grew up watching Miguel Cabrera. They want to say thanks to country’s GOAT

Greene has all the potential to become baseball’s next superstar and the face of the franchise. The fearless center fielder blends MVP-caliber skills — namely an elite hit and power profile — with leadership qualities. One day, hopefully soon, he could drive the Tigers to the postseason.

“I hate losing. It sucks,” said Greene, who played 93 games as a rookie for the 96-loss Tigers last season. “Winning is a lot more fun. Our goal is to win. We’re all going to contribute to that, and we’re all going to help.”

The wedding ignited his transition into adulthood and shaped his mindset heading into the 2023 season. A few months before spring training, Greene officially served as a groomsman, but if you ask him, he was basically the backup best man. He was surrounded by his loved ones, both family and friends.

There’s an inseparable bond between Greene and Samantha — they grew up together as cousins. When Samantha started dating Randall, Greene was introduced to him — they clicked immediately and became best friends, too. The three of them communicate every day.

Greene, who didn’t think he would cry, pulled his cousin aside before the wedding. He told Samantha to look at him if she couldn’t stop crying on her way down the aisle, and if that happened, he would do something funny to make her smile again.

What happened next put life in perspective.

“Once she walked out, I started bawling,” Greene said. “I was like, ‘Don’t look at me.’ She was smiling.”

A ‘full-tilt’ offseason in Oviedo

Three of Greene’s friends — Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Zach Eflin (age 28), Baltimore Orioles first baseman Ryan Mountcastle (26) and Atlanta Braves shortstop prospect Vaughn Grissom (22) — took the same path from Hagerty High School in Oviedo to professional baseball.

They’re all connected through Jered Goodwin.

“For me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at without him,” Greene said.

“He’s like the pulse of us,” Eflin said. “He’s the heartbeat of us. He’s probably the biggest factor in all of our careers.”

EL MAGO: Getting to know Javier Báez, from his Lamborghini to his incredible farm in Puerto Rico

Goodwin, the senior director of scouting operations at Perfect Game, was formerly the baseball coach at Hagerty High. In the offseason, Goodwin hosts the four MLB players for six weeks of workouts at the high school. The schedule begins in January and ends in mid-February.

“He went full-tilt,” Goodwin said. “In my opinion, it’s the hardest he’s worked and the best he’s worked. It was really impressive to watch him take that next step in his development, and that led to a lot of conversations.”

The city of Oviedo, about 20 miles from Orlando, has small-town vibes while serving as home to roughly 40,000 people. It’s a place that means the world to Greene, who spent his offseason visiting elementary schools and former coaches, watching football at everyone’s favorite sports restaurant, fishing with his friends and playing a big role in Randall and Samantha’s wedding.

Greene also spent a lot of time planning for Year 2 with the Tigers.

He talked about leadership. He talked about his left-handed swing. He talked about his development. He radiated confidence when talking about his most important goal: Winning in the big leagues.

“That kid wants to win,” Goodwin said. “He wants to win in Detroit.”

HIS 2022 CAMPAIGN: Examining Riley Greene’s rookie season, Super Two status and future with Tigers

Last season, Greene hit .253 with five home runs, 36 walks and 120 strikeouts in 93 big-league games. He fractured his foot in spring training — keeping him off the Opening Day roster — and didn’t make his MLB debut until June 18. His arrival sparked the Tigers’ miserable offense for a time, and then he endured a month-long slump.

Escaping the slump, a product of swinging at pitches inside the strike zone, foreshadowed future success.

Still, Greene needs to be better for the Tigers to win.

He wants to be great.

“I don’t know if he’s ever really dealt with any failure,” Mountcastle said. “In the minor leagues, he was a beast, and that’s why he made it up here at 21 years old. It’s a little bit harder up here. This offseason, he seemed even more eager to get better. It wouldn’t shock me if he goes out this year and makes an All-Star team.”

Boosting the backspin

All the talk about leadership and winning was backed up by Greene’s actions during the workouts at his old stomping grounds. The way he approached his preparation for spring training and the regular season influenced the group.

Greene studied videos of his sweet swing, crafted by his father years ago, and trusted the advice of an analytically savvy Goodwin.

Sure, there was a 448-foot home run off superstar Shohei Ohtani last season, prefaced by his 431-foot walk-off homer into Comerica Park’s center-field shrubs against the Kansas City Royals. But Greene also had a glaring hole in his game last season: Too many ground balls — 56.8% of his balls in play, to be exact — while struggling to elevate the ball. It’s why he produced just five homers despite a hard-hit rate (45.2%) that put him in the 77th percentile in 2022.

RILEY’S BUDDY: How Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson adjusted his mindset to find his confidence

Greene and Goodwin looked at the data, watched videos and formulated their hypothesis. They believe hitting the ball with topspin was to blame for the inflated ground-ball rate. This year, it’s the same swing but a different way of thinking about the swing.

The new thought: “Pure.”

Greene compares the concept to golfers who “have that one thought before they hop up to the ball.” For him, the word “pure” is a mental cue as he steps into the batter’s box and prepares to swing his bat.

“It’s all about ball flight,” Greene said. “My goal in the cage and during (batting practice) is to get pure backspin. No topspin. I’ll get sidespin if I hit the ball the other way (to left field), which I’m cool with, but I do not want to topspin the ball. … It’s going to happen in the game, obviously, but you want to practice the right way to minimize hitting ground balls in the game.”

In 2021, Greene hit 24 home runs in the minor leagues while elevating pitches in almost every location within the strike zone. In 2022, Greene elevated pitches in the middle of the zone, plus middle-up, but struggled to elevate pitches everywhere else, including the inside corners. His power numbers plummeted.

During workouts, Goodwin kept throwing pitches at Greene’s front leg.

“And I’m back-spinning them right on the foul pole,” Greene said. “He’s like, ‘There you go. That’s what it’s supposed to be like.'”

Mountcastle and Grissom gravitated toward Greene’s obsession with topspin, driven by his obsession with winning. The three hitters in the group collaborated more than ever before, trading in light-hearted jokes for feedback on attacking weaknesses.

MEADOWS TELLS ALL: Tigers’ Austin Meadows describes ‘anxiety monster’ last year, his ‘huge step forward’

Mountcastle, who would hit first in batting practice, reminded Greene to hunt specific pitches in specific hot zones and take chances at home runs early in the count. If the opportunity isn’t there, then focus on working deep in the count and putting the ball in play to get on base. It’s an approach that propelled Mountcastle to 55 home runs over the past two seasons, albeit with a .253 batting average.

“Some of those inside pitches, you can tend to hit them like a tennis forehand and topspin it,” Mountcastle said, “instead of extending through the ball, keeping the hands tight and finishing high to get that true backspin, carry and loft on the ball.”

Two of the new hitting coaches from the Tigers visited Hagerty High in the last week of the offseason to watch a workout. Greene told Goodwin and his friends to replicate what they had been doing for the past five weeks.

He wanted the Tigers to see the authentic collaboration.

“He’s always been that contagious personality because of how hard he works and that leadership by example,” Goodwin said. “But when you start to see the leadership because of the effort, the athleticism, the intangibles, and you put that into a plan, there are guys in the locker room that are going to jump on that plan with you. That’s what he did more this year than any other year.”

This spring, Greene has improved his grounder rate slightly: He entered the Tigers’ final spring training game with a 51.4% ground-ball rate.

‘He’s a man, and he acts like it’

Greene’s quiet leadership skills appeared at a young age.

After the fifth grade, Grissom moved to Oviedo and met Greene in the summer. His earliest memory of their relationship goes back to Opening Day in the Babe Ruth League, when Grissom couldn’t find his mother at the complex. Greene, without being asked, dropped everything to help him find her.

MEADOWS BROS: Tigers brothers Austin, Parker Meadows arrive for epic spring training they won’t forget

In the sixth grade, Grissom and Greene were in gym class together. Their interaction on one of the first days of school sparked a lifelong friendship.

“First time in a locker room,” Grissom said. “We had lockers right next to each other. He’s like, ‘Hey, man, I’ll cover you if you cover me.’ I’m like, ‘Deal, and I’m Vaughn Grissom, nice to meet you.’ It’s just little stories like that.”

Greene was always the best player on his youth teams, and by the time he settled into high school, he realized his potential. He handled the local fame by maintaining what Goodwin described as a “30-year-old soul” and sticking to a mature work ethic and low-key personality.

His values haven’t changed.

But he’s growing up.

“I don’t feel like there’s any ‘kid’ in him anymore,” said Eflin, the only pitcher and the eldest member in the quartet. “He’s a man, and he acts like it.”

JEFF SEIDEL: How Tigers’ Mason Englert climbed out of depression from deaths, panic attacks

Greene has continued to lead by example.

His vocal leadership, however, has evolved in the clubhouse. Some of his teammates are looking to him and 23-year-old Spencer Torkelson for guidance. That means Greene’s biggest development in the offseason, his transition into adulthood, has translated to the Tigers in Lakeland.

“Probably growing up in life is more important than even growing up in baseball,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s a young guy trying to find his way. I see him very comfortable but not content, which is probably where the life maturation meets the baseball stuff. But great progress in both.”

It all started at the wedding in late November.

Greene stood up to deliver a toast honoring the newlyweds at the reception. He had typed out his speech in the “Notes” app on his iPhone beforehand but ditched the script in the moment. He ad-libbed from the heart and, once again, felt a rush of emotions. As a man, the wedding day changed him.

“For me, that was when he was like, ‘This is real, and this is my job,'” Goodwin said. “As weird as that is, like one instance of it happening, it was such a big moment in his life. It was a crazy offseason after that as far as determination and long-term goals.”

How would Greene, feeling like an adult these days, describe what Goodwin noticed at the wedding?

It’s bigger than baseball.

“I feel like it’s taking the next step in life,” he said.

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

Articles You May Like

The Detroit Tigers aren’t afraid to say it: Postseason. Why you shouldn’t be, either.
Mud Hens shutout in morning matchup
The hottest pitching prospects right now — 1 for each team
Hens late rally not enough
Pennsylvania Lottery Online Plays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *