PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — There are many adjustments a professional baseball player has to make when they make the jump from the minors to the majors.
For 10-year veteran Robbie Grossman, some of the biggest pieces of advice when he was a rookie were the small things.
“It’s our job to try and guide them in the right direction with hints and tips about this life,” Grossman said. “It’s little things like, ‘do you know how to call down to get your bag from the bellman when you get to the hotel?'”
It’s those types of tips that Spencer Torkelson, Kody Clemens and the newest Tiger of the group, Riley Greene, have been learning on a daily basis. All three players were with the West Michigan Whitecaps within the past three years, but all at different times.
Torkelson, who has been with the Tigers since Opening Day, started his 2021 season with the Whitecaps. He played just 31 games with West Michigan before getting called up to Erie after hitting .312 with 5 home runs and 28 walks.
The 2020 No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft would continue to soar through the minors before ending the season in Toledo where he hit .238 but blasted 11 home runs and drew 23 walks in 147 at-bats.
Since coming to Detroit, Torkelson has battled some of the toughest challenges since his days back at Arizona State. In 2022, Torkelson is hitting just .192 with 63 strikeouts to 23 walks, while adding four home runs.
There have been blips of better hitting from Torkelson with some consecutive multiple-hit games and some big home runs, but overall, he admits he wants to hit the ball better. That’s where having his friends in Clemens and Greene at the MLB level has helped relieve some of the everyday stress.
The bond they formed through tough times in the minors is one that pushes them to be better daily, now playing in the same lineup.
“It’s been cool to share the minor league life with some of the guys like Riley, Kriedler, Dingler,” Torkelson said. “We all went through that grind together and sometimes it isn’t easy but we kept things light.”
He said although Grand Rapids was beautiful and he felt lucky to be based there, the team had to find ways to have fun when they were traveling to other places that you wouldn’t normally vacation to.
“Having a good core group of guys to do it with helped,” he said.
One of those guys is Riley Greene, who made his debut just last week due to a foot injury that happened during spring training. The former 2019 fifth overall pick debuted for the Whitecaps that same summer after being picked in June.
After missing 2020 due to COVID-19 canceling MiLB, he began to tear it up at the dish in 2021. Between both Erie and Toledo, Greene notched a .301 average, 24 home runs and 84 RBI in 124 games. Not to mention, multiple diving catches in centerfield finding their way to social media — promoting how stellar his defense is in the outfield.
After battling through rehab and trying to be mentally tough after missing out on the first two months of MLB baseball, Greene started with 10 hits in his first 35 at bats, while tallying eight walks to just six strikeouts. He has already earned the MLB Play of the Week with a diving catch in Arizona.
He notched a hit in his first MLB at-bat. So far, Greene is living up to his expectations.
“Having fun, when I’m struggling, I just go to that,” Greene said with a smile. “Have fun, whatever happens is going to happen. You put in the work before the regular season and you feel ready to go. But you know baseball is a game of failure, so you have to stay up and have as much fun as possible.”
That leaves Kody Clemens, a player who was less likely than Green and Torkelson to make his MLB debut this season. Part of that is due to Jonathan Schoop, who the Tigers re-signed to a two-year deal at the end of 2021, playing second base. The other is that his development took a little longer than the other two prospects.
Nevertheless, Clemens is here now, and after starting 0-for-17 wearing the Old English D, he’s had some impactful hits. None more so than his eventual game-winning three-run blast in the sixth inning against Arizona on June 25, giving the Tigers a 6-3 lead.
“I haven’t got as many at-bats but when my time comes, I have to be ready and go out there and perform,” Clemens said. “AJ (Hinch) left me in there against that tough lefty and I’m so happy he did. I got a good pitch to hit and got the barrel to it. It’s been a blast playing up here and I’m ready for any role I’m in.”
It was a moment Clemens waited on for a long time while grinding his way up the minor league ranks. He started in Lakeland in 2018 before getting the callup to West Michigan later that summer. He had a quiet season in 2019 before really picking it up in 2021. Clemens carried an average of .247 in Toledo but hit 18 home runs in 97 games, bolstering the idea that he deserved a shot in the big leagues. This season with the MudHens, Clemens continued to rake, hitting .316 with eight bombs in 45 games.
Now, the son of legendary pitcher Roger Clemens is writing a script of his own, battling the ups and downs of playing a role on a new team.
“We all know we can play here, so if we have a couple bad games we are there to pick each other up,” Clemens said. “Say things like, ‘man, you look good in the box,’ or ‘you look great out there, things are going to fall.’ Sometimes you get unlucky but it’s great to have each other.”
Regardless of what happens on these three players’ career paths, one thing is certain: They won’t stop grinding to achieve their ultimate goal of winning.
“There’s always support from everyone, including the veteran guys, but our young group really sticks together when things get tough,” Greene said. “Being here with Tork and Kody def makes you comfortable.”