Hitting a baseball comes naturally to Riley Greene. That’s not to say the fifth-overall pick in this year’s draft doesn’t work on his craft — he does— but at the same time he likes to keep any tinkering to a minimum. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Prior to the Detroit Tigers’ calling his name on June 3, Greene had been labeled “the best pure hitter in the prep class” by Baseball America.
He hit the road running in pro ball. Greene scorched the Gulf Coast League to the tune of a 1.039 OPS in nine games, quickly earning a promotion to short-season Connecticut. While not nearly as prolific against New York-Penn League pitching — a .766 OPS in 24 games — he did show enough to get moved up to low-A West Michigan in early August. Playing against much-older competition in the Midwest League, Greene slashed .219/.278/.344 in 118 plate appearances.
When I talked to the 18-year-old Oviedo, Florida native in mid-August, he made it clear that his swing is already well-established.
“My dad has been doing baseball and softball lessons for 24 or 25 years, and he taught me to hit,” said Greene. “Growing up, most of my coaches never touched my swing. It was just my dad. He’s a simple A-to-B guy, not much movement, and that’s how I try to be.”
Greene told me his front foot is his timing mechanism, and that his setup at the plate has remained essentially the same. He “might be an inch taller with his body,” but that’s a matter of feel and comfort, not because of a calculated adjustment. He’ll maybe spread out at times, but “only by a centimeter or two.”
Greene has the raw strength to propel pitches long distances — at six-foot-three and 200 pounds he projects to hit for plus power — but clearing fences isn’t his main objective.
“I feel I have more of a contact swing,” Greene said. “I don’t really think it’s a power swing. I’ll get the barrel out every once in awhile and hit one far, but I’m just trying to hit line drives. I guess I’d call it a contact-on-top-line-drive kind of swing. My main focus is to let the ball get deep, and if it’s inside just react with my hands.”
His approach against professional pitching is the same as it was as an amateur.
“I was facing better arms in the summer-ball circuit than I am here,” Greene told me. “It was 95 to 100 [mph] and hammer curveballs. So my hitting philosophy is pretty much the same. Again, I’m just trying to be on time and think up-the-middle-back-side. That’s what I do. Hitting is a mental game. I feel that once you get the mechanics down, it’s mostly mental.”
Comping prospects to established big-leaguers is a common practice — Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper likened Greene to a young David Justice (!) — and the players themselves are frequently asked for own thoughts on the subject. Detroit’s first-round pick wasn’t having any of it.
“A lot of people ask who I compare myself to, and it’s really no one,” Greene told me. “I’m my own person. I just do my own thing; what comes naturally.”
Matt Gorski is a promising young hitter. He’s also very much a work-in-progress. Drafted in the second round this year by the Pirates out of Indiana University, the 21-year-old outfielder scuffled to the tune of a .643 OPS with short-season West Virginia. His collegiate track record had appealed to Pittsburgh. In three seasons with the Hoosiers, Gorski slashed .306/.378/.491, with fully half of his 24 home runs had come in his junior campaign. The tools are clearly there.
Drew Saylor is among those entrusted to turn that raw talent into professional production. Along with having been West Virginia’s manager this year, Saylor is Pittsburgh’s minor league hitting coordinator. He understands the adjustments the right-handed-hitting Gore needs to make as well as anyone. And while some of them are currently being addressed in instructional league, the process was already well under way.
When I recently asked Saylor for a snapshot of the youngster’s development priorities, he began by saying Gorski “hits the ball significantly hard; he had one of the upper-tier exit velocities coming out of college.” He proceeded to point out a mechanical imperfection, and the manner in which they’re correcting it.
“What we saw was a bit of a hip-slide,” Saylor explained. “’Gore’ wasn’t really giving himself an opportunity to get on plane with pitches — it was a steep entry point as he was hitting the baseball — and a as result there was some swing-and-miss, and a lot of ground balls in his profile. What we did was show him some video of the slide. Most importantly, we showed him how there’s not a real connection with his back elbow and his torso.
“We told him, ‘Hey, we feel that if you lower your center mass as you’re in your loading phase, your gather phase, that’s going to give your body time to get your elbow in a slot position. Once you do that you’re going to be able to read pitches better, and on top of that you’re going to be able to move your swing-arc up to where you can get to those fastballs inside. You’ll be able to get the ball up in the air more to the pull side. Basically, we started with the objective and got to the subjective. We were able to show him, ‘Hey, if you can do this, all these other dominoes should — in theory — start to fall.’”
We’ll hear more from Saylor on the subject of hitting, including how it’s being taught in the Pirates organization, in the weeks to come.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
At the outset of spring training I asked a number of baseball executives about the growth of hitting analytics. More specifically, I wanted their thoughts on whether hitting analytics will ever catch up to the advancements being made in pitching analytics. As the saying goes, “Time flies.” I haven’t shared any of those perspectives to date, but I do plan to present at least some of them in the weeks to come. I’ll start here with Arizona Diamondbacks Executive Vice President & General Manager Mike Hazen.
“I’m not sure it’s going to get to the level we’ve seen with pitching,” Hazen told me. “The biggest separator is that one person has the ball and one person is reacting. To some degree there’s a natural limit there. So, there’s probably a ceiling to it, but at the same time, if your swing is out of whack and you have to go out there and hit against Clayton Kershaw, versus if your swing is in a very good, consistent place and you have to go out and hit Clayton Kershaw… [the latter] puts you in a better spot. I don’t think when hitters get hot it’s all random. There is some degree of randomness to it, but having a consistency to your swing can only help. “
All ten pitchers who appeared in Thursday’s Royals-White Sox game recorded at least one strikeout. How uncommon is that? Surprisingly — at least to me — it’s not uncommon at all. According to FanGraphs number-cruncher Jeff Zimmerman, since 1974 there have been over 200 games in which 10 or more pitchers have appeared in a game with every one of them logging at least one punch-out. A notable near-miss came on July 7 of last year in a 16-inning game between the Diamondbacks and Padres; of the 19 pitchers to see action, only one failed to register a K.
A clue in yesterday’s New York Times crossword puzzle was: “One of 23 for Matt Stairs (an MLB record).” Do you know the answer? If not, it can be found after following section.
Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Randy Romero slashed .376/.418/.495 this year in the Dominican Summer League. The 20-year-old (as of Aug 10) outfielder from Mexicali, Mexico stole 35 bases in 36 attempts.
Israel Puello, an 18-year-old right-hander in the Philadelphia Phillies system, posted a 1.92 ERA over 15 starts covering 65-and-two-thirds innings in the Dominican Summer League. A native of Santiago, Dominican Republic, Puello was born on 10-10-2000.
Luke Heimlich is 8-7 with a 4.58 ERA in 118 innings with Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos in the Mexican League. The 23-year-old left-hander went 36-13 with the Oregon Beavers from 2015-2018.
Seiya Suzuki, a 25-year-old outfielder for the Hiroshima Carp, leads NPB’s Central League in batting average (.337) and OBP (.452). The right-handed hitter has 27 home runs and more walks (96) than strikeouts (80).
Pierce Johnson has a 1.16 ERA in 54 relief appearances with NPB’s Hanshin Tigers. The 28-year-old former Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants right-hander has fanned 82 batters and allowed 33 hits in 54-and-two-thirds innings.
The answer to the crossword puzzle clue is “pinch-hit home runs”.
Per Jim Allen of The Kyodo News, Randy Messenger has announced his retirement. The 38-year-old Hanshin Tigers right-hander’s 98 wins are fifth-most by a foreign-registered player in Japanese baseball history. The top five are: Kuo Yuen-chih (Kaku Genji) 117, Kuo Tai-yuan (Kaku Taigen) 106, Joe Stanka 100, Gene Baque 100, and Messenger 98.
This was Messenger’s 10th season in NPB. Prior to playing Japan he pitched for the Florida Marlins, Seattle Mariners, and San Francisco Giants from 2005-2009.
Perusing RIP Baseball, I learned that former Orioles, Padres, and Cubs pitcher Tom Phoebus passed away earlier this month at the age of 77. The 5-foot-8 righty had double-digit-win seasons for Baltimore from 1967-1969, with an April 1968 no-hitter against the Red Sox standing out as the signature moment of his seven-year career. Phoebus notably also threw a four-hit shutout in his MLB debut, which came with the Orioles on September 15, 1966.
Boston’s Jackie Bradley Jr. is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game, not only because of his excellent range, but also because of his strong arm. How he ended up playing that position, rather than pitching, was explained in Alex Speier’s new book, Homegrown: How The Red Sox Built a Champion From The Ground Up.
Bradley, who grew up in Prince George, Virginia, was a catcher at a young age. In time, he became a shortstop and a pitcher. Then, when he was in eighth grade, his coach made a decision that shaped his future.
As Speier explained, Bradley’s team was about to play against a juggernaut on a field that lacked that an outfield fence. Looking out at “the endless expanse of outfielder grass,” and knowing that his best pitcher was also a terrific all-around athlete, his coach, Donnie Brittingham, had a thought: Could Bradley play center?
“The answer was immediate and dazzling,” wrote Speier. Quoting Brittingham, [Bradley] ran down everything. Nothing — nothing — got past him.”
Bradley fell in love with the position. As legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Minor League Baseball posted an attendance increase of over one million fans this year. Specifics, including which leagues and teams posted the best numbers, can be found here, courtesy of our friends at MiLB.com.
Brian O’Neill of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how Pirates owner Bob Nutting has taught us all a valuable lesson about enjoying baseball without putting very much money into it.
At FiveThirtyEight, Travis Sawchik explored the idea that player development off the field could be rendering farm systems irrelevant.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Per Rochester Red Wings broadcaster Josh Whetzel, the Tacoma Raniers used 89 players this season. The Rainiers are Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate.
This past Tuesday, T.J. Zeuch became the 20th different pitcher to start a game for the Toronto Blue Jays this year. Only the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics (24) have used more starters in a single season in MLB history. (per Blue Jays broadcaster Ben Wagner.)
Bruce Bochy, whose managerial career has spanned the 1995-2019 seasons, had a record of 1995-2019 following the Giants loss to Pittsburgh this past Monday. Ten managers have reached the 2,000-win mark — Bochy is three short of that number heading into today — and all are in the Hall of Fame.
Ned Yost’s .474 winning percentage is lowest among the 61 MLB managers who have been at the helm for 2,000-or-more games. Yost’s teams — one of which captured a World Series title — have gone 1,199-1,332.
Eddie Yost had a .406 OBP from 1950-1960 and made one All-Star team over that 11-year span. The first nine of those seasons were with the Washington Senators, the last two with the Detroit Tigers. Yost had a .425 OBP in his 1,311 plate appearances with the Motown nine.
Miller Huggins had a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage in all 13 of his big-league seasons. He led the NL with a .432 OBP in 1913 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Don Kessinger, a six-time All-Star shortstop with the Chicago Cubs in a career that spanned the 1964-1979 seasons, averaged 22.2 points per game as small forward at the University of Mississippi from 1962-1964. His grandson, Grae Kessinger, was a second-round pick by the Houston Astros out of Ole Miss this year.
On September 13, 1964, the St. Cardinals scored in every inning while beating the Chicago Cubs 15-2 at Wrigley Field. Mike Shannon-struck balls plated runners in the third, fourth, sixth, and ninth frames.
In the first game of a September 16, 1936 doubleheader, Mike Ryba pitched four innings of relief for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Philadelphia Phillies. In the second game, Ryba came in to catch the last two innings. Overall, Ryba had 240 pitching appearances and was behind the plate in 10 games.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.