‘A work in progress’: Greene navigating ups, downs at highest level

Detroit Tigers

WASHINGTON — Riley Greene uses his hands when he talks, showing release points of opposing pitchers or expressing relief when recounting Javier Báez charging at him Friday night after Greene couldn’t find a fly ball at Nationals Park.

He’s upbeat, just 22, moving through the Major Leagues as an anchor to what the Tigers hope is coming soon. Greene’s possible and needed ascension should parallel the one Detroit hopes arrives as the Miguel Cabrera era closes for an organization without a winning record since 2016 and without a postseason appearance since being swept in the division series in 2014.

The start of Greene’s second season shows dynamic splits. Through March and April, he had more strikeouts than hits. His OPS wallowed at .620.

A reversal came in May. His OPS coming into Saturday leaped to 1.094 for the month. He struck out 12 times and picked up 23 hits. Greene dragged his average from .234 to .296 in 15 games, capitalizing on the swift pivots still allowed by smaller samples in the first quarter of a season.

So, which player is he? Neither, yet.

“He’s made a ton more contact, and strength of contact has been really good,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said pregame Saturday. “His timing’s been a lot better. His production’s been a ton better. He’s settled in the season. Players go through these little stretches where they don’t produce the way they normally do, but it doesn’t define them. And Riley’s a good example of that. They also get incredibly hot, and that doesn’t define how they’re going to be the rest of their career, either. It’s all a work in progress.”

Saturday delivered an ongoing aspect of the work during the Tigers’ 5-2 loss to the Nationals. Left-hander Patrick Corbin started for Washington, and Greene was the lone left-handed bat in the starting lineup to face him. Corbin’s velocity is down and his ERA is up since he helped the Nationals to the 2019 World Series title, beating the Hinch-helmed Houston Astros. But Corbin remains effective against left-handed hitters: lefties hold a .647 OPS against Corbin this season and a sub-.300 on-base percentage against him in his career.

Greene carries predictable splits: a .626 OPS this season versus lefties, and .829 vs. righties coming in. The historical math converged for each when Corbin used sliders and fastballs to grind up Greene in three at-bats.

The first was swift. Corbin threw four sliders down and away from Greene in the first inning. He swung at three, none of which were in the strike zone, reaching hard toward the other batter’s box and out on his front foot.

Corbin’s pattern was emphatic. Sliders down and away. It became the pitch to hunt next time for Greene.

Except Corbin zipped a down-the-middle sinker for strike one in the next at-bat in the third, followed by a second sinker, and a slider away, then he came back with a four-seamer. Greene lofted a shallow fly to left field and reached on an error after making jammed contact on the sixth pitch, a slider that hung inside.

Corbin reverted in the third at-bat against Greene in the sixth. Four consecutive sliders produced another swinging strikeout.

“I didn’t see him well,” Greene said. “At all.”

Asked if Corbin hid his release point because of his leg kick or about other tactical possibilities, Greene skipped a detailed breakdown in favor of a stark truth.

“I’ll be honest, I have no clue,” Greene said. “I just did not see him well at all. I was trying to find a spot to look. It was just tough.

“He started me off all sliders. I was like, ‘All right, next AB I’ll look for the slider.’ And he goes all fastball. I’m like, ‘All right. I’m going to stay on the fastball.’ He goes all sliders again. He mixed it up super well.”

The clearest pitch for Greene to hit was the first in his second at-bat. The Tigers wanted to swing at anything up from Corbin, which that 92-mph sinker with limited depth was. Instead, Greene took it, an outcome he can live with.

“Because I stuck to my approach,” Greene said. “I stuck to, I want the slider. If he goes three fastballs down the middle, I don’t swing, I’m cool with that just because I stuck to my approach.”

Hinch lamented Greene chasing in his at-bats after the game. Prior, he made the big picture clear and simple as the 22-year-old grapples with the inherent failures in baseball, ones often amplified when someone is new at the highest level.

“I’ve said this over and over: he’s part of our future, he’s part of our present,” Hinch said.

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