What Detroit Tigers prospect Kody Clemens learned in a Texas independent league
Detroit Tigers second baseman Kody Clemens was disappointed.
And for good reason.
Now 24 years old, the No. 79 overall pick in 2018 and son of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, was banking on positive results this past season. He climbed to Double-A Erie in 2019 but crumbled with a .170 batting average in 13 games.
He was supposed to get another chance in 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn't allow him the opportunity, as the minor-league season was canceled. Top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene got the luxury of summer camp and the alternate training site in Toledo; Clemens was left with nothing to measure his development.
That's until Clemens joined Team Texas in the Constellation Energy League. He got 103 plate appearances in 28 games, salvaging a difficult year. Despite losing a year of development in the Tigers' system, he thinks the independent league gave him a new perspective before he returned to the Tigers in the team's instructional league this October in Lakeland, Florida.
"I got to see those experienced guys," Clemens said Monday. "And see what I would need to handle in the future — Double-A, Triple-A, the big leagues. They know how to pitch up in the zone, down in the zone. Now I know exactly what I can handle.
"And I was doing pretty fine in that league, so that obviously gave me a lot of confidence."
Clemens faced a variety of pitchers, including Bud Norris (10 MLB seasons), 43-year-old Fernando Rodney (17 MLB seasons), Scott Kazmir (three-time All-Star), Brett Eibner (Miami Marlins) and Chase De Jong (Houston Astros).
Also, he was teammates with MLB vets Cameron Rupp (catcher) and Tommy Joseph (first base). An older brother, Kacy, was also on the team, which was managed by dad Roger and brother Koby. Infielder Trei Cruz, selected by the Tigers No. 73 overall in 2020, played 25 games in the league for the Eastern Reyes del Tigre.
Clemens finished with a .233 batting average, six doubles, one triple, four homers and 12 RBIs in 90 at-bats. He is the No. 19 prospect in the Tigers' organization, according to MLB Pipeline.
"The average age in that league was actually probably 28, or something like that," Clemens said. "It was a more experienced league. Down here, you've got a lot of flamethrowers, younger guys that throw 95-100 (mph). It's good for both sides of it. I got to see experienced, veteran guys who nibble the corners and throw cutters at 90-93."
During Clemens' second year as a professional in 2019, he hit .231 with 12 home runs and 63 RBIs. He had a .238 mark in High-A Lakeland for 115 games before struggling through 47 at-bats in 13 games in Erie. Teams started to implement the shift against him.
As a left-handed hitter, Clemens was good enough — .284 batting average, 34 homers, 123 RBIs in 176 games — to keep the defense honest in his three seasons at Texas. But life at the plate isn't so simple as a professional. Everyone is advanced, especially the Double-A pitchers.
"I rode with it the whole year," Clemens said about the shift. "This offseason, when I got to play in the Constellation League, I started to work on (hitting the opposite way). I know I can spread those guys out and make them go back to their regular spots."
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On Oct. 14, Clemens had a single to right field against the Toronto Blue Jays. He had a similar single in Friday's clash with the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Monday, again facing the Blue Jays, he drove a single up the middle. Clemens' two singles pulled to right field, each beating the shift in the process, were inside pitches — one a slider, the other a fastball. His single up the middle came on a first-pitch fastball.
Still, Clemens is trying to put an emphasis on hitting the ball to the left-center gap in instructional league games and intrasquad scrimmages. If he can do that, he should surge through the minors quickly.
"I had him for the majority of last year, he would hit right into the shift," said High-A Lakeland manager Andrew Graham, the Tigers' instructional league skipper this fall. "But today, he hits it with enough exit velocity to burn the shift. He's squaring up the baseball better.
"He played in the independent-ball league, so he's a little more advanced than some guys. He's looking good this camp. He's driving the ball out of the ballpark on the back fields."
Clemens must make strides at the plate in order to have a shot at the major leagues, but he knows the Tigers lack depth at second base. Before the 2020 season, they signed Jonathan Schoop to a one-year deal. They're expected to bring another player in on a short-term deal for 2021.
That keeps the door open for Clemens' emergence.
"That obviously feels really good in my position, that I'm working my butt off down here, trying to make it up and make an impression," Clemens said. "I'm doing everything I can, whether it's weight room, defensive work, hitting, to find every which way that I need to improve. Hopefully, it'll make me more consistent and make my way up the ladder. I'm just looking forward to the future."
Clemens' father, Roger, left him with some final advice before his departure for the instructional league in Lakeland.
"Not a lot of players got to do that," Roger told him. "You're going to be one step ahead of everybody else."