Henning: Kody Clemens looking like third-round steal for Tigers

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Kody Clemens

Roger Clemens was in town last week and Lance Parrish didn’t mind, even if in 32 plate-appearances during his big-league days against Clemens, Parrish’s at-bats were on a par with most guys who took their shot against The Rocket.

Parrish batted .194 against Clemens with 16 strikeouts and, not incidentally, two home runs.

But it was a third party that brought them back together last week. Kody Clemens is Roger’s son. And it’s Kody who is the new second baseman at Single A West Michigan, where Parrish is manager.

“He’s a ballplayer,” Parrish said of the younger Clemens, who that day took some early batting practice against his dad.

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“How good will he be? I don’t know. He’ s got good tools, good baseball instincts, and he’s swinging the bat well right now. He does a lot of things well. He’s been an asset since he’s been here. He’s a good guy. Everyone likes him, and he’s been an upgrade, defensively. He moves around better than I thought.

“He’s made some big plays for us.”

Clemens joined the Tigers by way of June’s draft when Detroit made a left-handed slugger from the University of Texas the third round’s first pick.

Tigers scouts liked that past season's .351 batting average. They liked at least as much his .444 on-base average, and absolutely they loved a .726 slugging percentage, which came by way of 24 home runs, 15 doubles, and three triples in 65 games.

Clemens is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, and in May turned 22. He had a rough three-game stretch extending into the weekend (0-for-11), but is batting .272 for the Whitecaps, with an .848 OPS courtesy of those gifts he showed at Texas: .375 on-base, .456 slugging. He has four home runs in 32 games, with seven doubles, a triple, and significantly, 18 unintentional walks.

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“He’s got a pretty decent eye at the plate,” Parrish said. “He’s human, he’ll chase a bad pitch every now and then. But he’s just as apt to hit the ball to left field as to pull it – he’s a foul-pole-to-foul-pole guy.”

As the skipper mentioned, there have been some strikeouts – 21.

But almost all players, particularly hitters, shifting from college baseball to the minors more regularly see a daily staple of good pitching they didn't always confront in even a baseball conference as sophisticated as the Big 12.

Bruce Fields, the Tigers' roving minor-league batting coach, says conference quality can only do so much to prep a player for professional realities.

“Being exposed to high-level pitching helps, obviously it will,” Fields said Saturday. “But it’s still up to the individual player making the adjustments.

“I watched him when he first came to West Michigan, and he can hit. I like what he does at the plate. He’s got bad intentions.”

Fields chuckled. The “bad” descriptor means only that Clemens gorges on his at-bats. He is a slasher who, in the fashion of one-time Tigers mauler Gary Sheffield, wants to crush pitches.

Parrish has seen it. So had the Longhorns, who this year voted Clemens their most valuable player.

“He’s made some big plays for us,” Whitecaps manager Lance Parrish said of Kody Clemens.

“He’s a competitor, he plays hard, he does a lot of things right,” Parrish said. “He’s got some pop. He’s getting them into the seats occasionally, and I like him. I just like what I see.”

That includes defense.

Clemens’ label out of Texas is that glovework might be an issue, as Baseball America’s scouting report implied when it said Clemens “can play a fringe-average second base.”

 Parrish has a different view. In great part because of range.

“That’s the thing I’m impressed with,” Parrish said. “Anyone can make plays that are right at 'em. That’s pretty basic. But he’s been showing good range to his left and to his right.  

“He’s not afraid to get dirty. He gets after it. He’s diving for balls, getting down to 'em, popping up, and making good plays.”

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Dave Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president for player development, notices those Clemens mentions on Parrish’s daily reports. He also has heard raves from West Michigan hitting coach Mariano Duncan.

“You usually hear a lot more about the bat,” Littlefield said, speaking of Clemens’ reviews. “But he’s got good range. He’s been very solid for us. He’s doing well. We’re very happy with him.”

The Tigers like another hitter who in his early days has been ripping pitches: Brock Deatherage, an outfielder from North Carolina State the Tigers got in June’s 10th round.

Deatherage is batting .291 in 37 games at West Michigan, with a .787 OPS and two home runs.

The book on Deatherage as he left N.C. State was there would be a lot of athleticism, and a lot of strikeouts. Indeed, he has 40 whiffs, but Deatherage softens it with a .354 on-base average.

He is 6-1, 175, and bats left-handed.

“He’s legit,” Parrish said. “And a very good outfielder. He runs really well. He can hit. The big deficiency right now is that he needs to learn the strike zone. He’s swinging at too many pitches up.

“You hope in time he learns how to lay off. He’s very aggressive, so anywhere in the strike zone he’s hacking. He just needs to become more disciplined.”

Whether that's achievable is something the farm will confirm, either way. For now, a player's learning curve is as high as his big-league club's ultimate hopes.

lynn.henning@Detroit News.com

Twitter @Lynn_Henning