Florida State League 'grind,' competition force Tigers' Kody Clemens to adjust

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Kody Clemens has 11 home runs for the Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Jupiter, Fla. — The numbers for Kody Clemens this season in Lakeland are at a significant downtick from his hot summer last year after being drafted by the Detroit Tigers, and certainly a far cry from his days starring for the Texas Longhorns.

But digging into the High-A Florida State League some indicates the second baseman’s first full pro campaign might not be cause for alarm: In Clemens’ worst year yet, he’s been an average hitter with pretty good pop.

His regression to the mean could indicate the ceiling is near, but Clemens believes he’s been a victim of the tough Florida State League, where the average FSL hitter entered Sunday’s slate with a .242 batting average, hitting home runs every 56 at-bats.

Clemens, the youngest of four sons of legendary pitcher Roger Clemens, was hitting .238 with his 11 home runs coming once every 37 at-bats. 

On Thursday, before the second rainout in three days and fourth in August’s first 15 days, the 23-year-old offered up his experiences from the FSL, where five of the league’s 12 teams average less than 1,000 fans per game, including Lakeland at 838.

Kody Cemens

“At the beginning of the year, all the north is Double-A, so they’ll have all their prospects in the Florida State League because they don’t want their arms to get hurt up north,” Clemens said. “For the most part, most of them kind of stay here all year. So the good arms you face all the time. 

“It’s hot. I don’t complain about that because I’m from Texas and I’ve played in it a lot. Me and Brock (Deatherage) talk about it, the atmosphere is kind of tough to play in. There’s not really many fans down here and you’ve got to get yourself fired up to play the game.

“It’s just a grind every day. The competition is getting better as you move up, and you’ve just got to adjust and adapt to where you’re at. We’ve been figuring it out, and we’re trying to get it going so we can get this playoff push.”

Clemens is turning it on as the push heats up. He combined for six hits Friday and Saturday since talking to The Detroit News, as Lakeland entered Sunday three games back of a likely wild-card playoff berth -- or 3.5 games back of catching Dunedin for the second half North Division title -- with 17 games to play.

There are also clear ways Clemens believes he can get his future numbers back to more of last season’s style, when he rolled through the Midwest League, batting .302 with four home runs in a 41-game stop at West Michigan, where he started his pro career. Clemens was a third-round draft pick last summer after winning Big 12 Player of the Year honors and leading the Longhorns to the College World Series.

This season, the left-handed hitter has been heavily shifted by the defense and offered inside off-speed pitches, often getting Clemens to roll over for deep groundouts in the right-field grass.

Kody and Kacy Clemens

“He’s been streaky this year,” Lakeland manager Andrew Graham said. “When he’s on, he hits the ball hard. If the teams weren’t playing the shift on him, he’d be hitting really well.”

Clemens' 11 home runs lead the Flying Tigers, who deal with Comerica Park-like dimensions at their home Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Graham said Clemens gets pull-happy at times but has worked to use the opposite field, even hitting a few home runs to left field at home.

“He’s got power to all fields,” Graham said. “He’s just got to get more consistent with hitting the pitch where it’s pitched.”

The manager also added that Clemens’ double-play turns have improved throughout the season for the Flying Tigers, who need to catch Kody’s brother to have the season continue past the Sept. 1 regular-season finale.

Kacy Clemens plays first base for the Dunedin Blue Jays, giving Roger and his wife, Debra, a chance to see both sons play on trips to the Sunshine State.

“He loves following us around,” Kody Clemens said of Roger, a grandfather of twin 2-year-old boys from eldest son, Koby. “First time this year and it was actually really weird because I want (Kacy) to succeed, but at the same time, I don’t want him to do well against us. It’s kind of tough. It’s weird looking up, and he’s in the box against me. It’s cool. It was awesome. No one really gets to do that, or say they got to play against their brother in professional baseball. It’s kind of rare.”

The heavy air and extreme temps might not be an excuse for Clemens, but he said playing the most games he ever has in 90-plus degree temperatures has been a challenge.

“That’s the main part for me mentally just playing every day and trying to get my body ready,” he said. “I’ve never played this many games in a row, and I’m sure I’ll be prepared for that next year definitely.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.