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BYB 2021 Detroit Tigers prospects #20: Kody Clemens’ bat is the key to a major league role

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He’ll need to show strides made during the lost season to keep his development on track.

Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

College bats with power and strong baseball bloodlines are attractive assets to teams in the MLB Draft. In Kody Clemens, the Detroit Tigers got both.

Clemens came into the Tigers system as a second base only prospect out of the University of Texas. With solid power potential and a hard nosed style of play, he combines several features that were attractive to the Tigers right from the start. Those impressions were only confirmed when Clemens exploded onto the scene in his draft year in 2018. As a result, the Tigers snatched him up with the first pick in the third round.

Background

By now it’s not secret who his last name means he’s related to. The only surprise might be that Kody is not a pitcher like his father, Roger. The Tigers were the second team to draft the infielder, the first being his father’s old team the Houston Astros, who offered the younger Clemens a “getting to know you” late round pick in 2015. After deciding to go to college he had a pretty decorated career that included being Big 12 Player of the Year, a Golden Spikes finalist, and a unanimous first-team All-American.

The Tigers started Clemens off in West Michigan at the Single-A level following his selection in the 2018 draft. In 174 plate appearances, Clemens mashed his way to an excellent 147 wRC+ with stellar strikeout-to-walk numbers, and got a look at the Advanced-A level late in the year. His hitting stats dipped in 2019, but ultimately he handled the Florida State League as well and was still promoted to Double-A. He only managed 13 games with the Erie SeaWolves before the season ended, and was due back in 2020 before COVID ruined the plan.

Instead, Clemens spent his time in 2020 playing in the Constellation Energy League, and Independent League in Texas, trying to stay sharp and in a competitive mode. However, that level of the game just isn’t comparable to full season affiliated ball, and now, like most players, the lost year has them in a bit of a tricky position entering 2021. Clemens has held his own with quality at-bats in spring camp, and hopefully that can springboard him to a strong season in 2021.

Strengths

If it wasn’t clear by his 2020 performance, Clemens’ bat is his biggest strength. He swings from the left side, which makes things even sweeter. He’ll run into some home runs, and has at least average raw power, but the swing he showed in 2019 will be geared more towards gap power. That’s not to say there wasn’t a change, because it’s been awhile. But we can investigate a bit from Spring Training.

So here’s a double from 2019.

And now a triple from Spring Training this year.

This is a sample size of two swings, making for a pretty rough comparison, but at least the two pitches are similarly located. With that disclaimer out of the way, it looks like his swing path is slightly more compact in the 2021 swing. Clemens hits from an open stance, with strong wrists and good enough bat speed to drive pitches on the outer third the opposite way with some authority. If he’s gotten a bit quicker to the ball, that could help him do a number of things, including catching a few more pitches out front and lifting them out of the ballpark. So all of this is to say there might be more home run power there than in years past as Clemens gets more familiar with the caliber of stuff he’s facing.

Clemens combines good plate discipline with good enough hands to foul off some tough pitches and work counts. Putting that discipline to work hunting more pitches he can drive will be a key part of the refinements needed to get him to the major leagues. He has drawn walks close to, if not above, 10 percent at every level he’s played at with sustained playing time.

His final strength is his defense, despite a profile sorely limited by a mediocre throwing arm. Some might frown upon his defense considering he’s solely a second baseman, but he plays the position well. Some of that comes from ability, as he can make all the plays with solid hands. But his hustle shouldn’t get lost in the fray. Clemens plays hard, heads up defense, and that is an asset in and of itself.

Weaknesses

Truly Clemens’ hit tool is the biggest weakness, particularly as his lack of other standout traits put all the pressure on him in the batter’s box. He got exposed a bit at the higher levels, as evidence by lower batting averages, and raised strikeout rates in Erie in 2019, but adjustments can be made. If I’m right about the swing path, there’s one refinement right there. Still, he’ll always have the strikeout element to his game and may prove unable to adapt to consistently well commanded breaking pitches and changeups in the upper levels. If he can’t, there isn’t much to fall back on, making this a bit of a brittle profile overall.

Clemens has a mediocre tool kit outside the batter’s box, with his arm limiting him to second base, or possibly left field. While he has solid hands and actions at the keystone, that profile puts a cap on his defensive value, and increases pressure on his bat to get him to the show. He’s a fringe average runner, so there isn’t a lot of value to be gleaned from that element of his game either.

Hence the clearest legitimate path that Clemens has is as a platoon-type who can provide some left-handed power off the bench when he isn’t starting. Being pigeon-holed to second base means there isn’t a true utility role in his future, so he’ll need to hit enough to earn a full time role as a second baseman. That looks like a tall order for him. Realistically, his likely ceiling is as a part-time player who hits right-handed pitching well and has to be protected from tough lefties to get the best out of him. It’s an admittedly narrow path to a big league role, but if Clemens can learn to maximize his power while working counts and generally becoming a pain to pitchers, he should ultimately find his way to some kind of part-time role.

Projected 2021 Team: Triple A Toledo Mud Hens

I’ll be honest, if you asked me this question before I started researching Clemens I would’ve said Erie. It just makes sense, as Clemens ended there in 2019 with his performance leaving much to be desired. However, Jason Beck of MLB.com reported differently and we’re inclined to agree with him here. Once again, with so many of the clubs prospects largely out of sight in 2020, there’s no way to ascertain how they may have fared in their development. Clemens appears to have made enough improvements that the Tigers believe him ready for the Triple-A level, and so we’ll see how that goes.