Jays Journal writer Chris Henderson had the pleasure of chatting with Kacy Clemens earlier this week, a talented prospect who spent last season between Lansing and Dunedin, and a young man with a name that is recognized in every corner of baseball.
All of 24 years old, Kacy Clemens has a ton of experience in the game of baseball, and it’s clear that he loves every minute of it.
The Houston, Texas native was once one of the more highly rated high school pitching prospects in the country, but injury issues sent him on another path. Despite the fact that it may be a longer journey to navigate, Clemens has made steady progress through his career as a minor leaguer, showing the Blue Jays organization plenty of progress in 2018, and reason to believe in his future as a potential big league first baseman.
Our own Chris Henderson had the chance to sit down with Clemens earlier this week, and had a chance to chat about his past, present, and his future in professional baseball. Below is a transcript of that conversation.
Chris: If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with a little bit of background on you for some of our readers who may not be terribly familiar with your career. According to your bio(graphy), you were drafted as a pitcher by the Astros in the 35th round of the 2013 draft, but went on to play in college instead. You were then drafted by the Blue Jays in the 8th round in 2017. Could you share with us the story of what landed you in college baseball, and how you feel about that decision in hindsight?
Kacy: Actually it was kind of a crazy situation. I was a senior in high school and I had been getting some good recruiting going, and was finally like, on a big enough stage to be getting talking about getting drafted. I was actually more of a pitcher than I was a hitter. I played both, but I was getting looked at in the early, first to third rounds as a pitcher out of high school, after the All-American games and such.
I had played really well in those, that was in my junior summer, and then my senior year baseball came around and I ended up tearing my labrum in my right shoulder in the playoffs. So obviously that got out and dropped my draft stock a lot, so I ended up getting drafted in the later rounds. I believe it was the 35th round by the Astros. It was kind of a courtesy pick, I came in, “we understand your situation. We’d love to still have you, but if you want to go, you know, rehab and go to college, you can do that.”
So I decided to go to college and go to Texas, and absolutely, today that’s the best decision that I’ve made was to go to college, because I really grew into the player and person that I am today. And actually during my Freshman fall, the only thing that I could do in “fall ball” was take ground balls for a couple months, because I couldn’t swing or throw. So I took 150-200 ground balls a day, and I got really good defensively at first base, and that’s how I earned my starting job as a Freshman. As a really, almost like a defensive star at first. So then, obviously the jump from high school to college baseball was big as far as pitching, so I struggled hitting early on without having any time to get into it in the fall.
So then after my Freshman year, I had started every game at first, then they wanted to see me back on the mound in my sophomore year, and I earned the “Saturday starter” for the weekend rotation and I wasn’t a hitter at all. I was a complete pitcher only.
I started on Saturdays, pitched okay, was getting through the ups and downs of coming back from the surgery. And then at the end of the year I strained my arm again, so they shut me down and after that it was my junior year, my draft year, and I’m like, ‘man, I really don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’ve hit one year, I’ve pitched one year. I don’t know if I want to continue to try and pitch because I’m not sure if my arm can hold up now’. So I just said, you know what, I’m going to put everything into hitting and see what I can do there.
I hit really well, I had a chance to get drafted my Jr. year, decided to go back for my senior year to play with my brother one more year and see if we could win a championship and that was one of my best decisions also because I played really well that year, and I was blessed to get drafted by the Blue Jays in the eighth round after that.
Chris: In doing some research I noticed a tweet you sent out last year that was a re-creation of a photo from your childhood that had you and your Dad (Roger Clemens) in Blue Jays gear in Dunedin. I know you were only 3-4 years old when your Dad played in Toronto, but do you have any memories of that period of your life, or was that too early?
Kacy: I do have some. I don’t remember many of the Fenway days at all because I was too young for that, but the couple years that my Dad spent in Toronto, I do remember the Skydome and I remember after the games he would take us out on the field, when the lights were still on but the games were over and everybody had left, and we would go out to centre field and he would flip us some whiffle balls and we would try to hit them over the centre field wall just to say we had hit a home run.
I do remember, I mean, I loved spring training. Dunedin was awesome because we used to always go to Disney World and Universal so those were some of my favourite memories from my childhood.
Chris: Sticking with your childhood for a minute, after your Dad played in Toronto your family moved to New York and he played with the Yankees during a pretty significant period of their franchise history. There were a lot of legends on those teams, and I’m curious if there was anyone in particular that you idolized as a child growing up around all of that, or any players in particular that took you under their wing?
Kacy: Yeah, I mean obviously Andy Pettitte was one of my Dad’s best friends so I hung out with Josh and Jared Pettitte a lot, they were Kody and I’s good buddies. And then other than that, the superstar for us was Derek Jeter, and Jorge (Posada), and Mariano Rivera. Those guys were so cool to us. Dad was just Dad, but those guys were awesome, you know?
As far as, I mean, we were never star struck by those guys just because we had been around them and had lived in the clubhouse, so it was just cool. They used to joke around with us and play games with us, and just treat us like normal kids.
Chris: That experience must have been unbelievable, I’m definitely jealous over here. Okay, moving on to more about your playing career. You started last season with the Lansing Lugnuts in Low-A, and you were quickly promoted to High-A in Dunedin. Obviously there was a step up in competition, but what differences did you notice between the two levels, and the two cities?
Kacy: Definitely the weather was different (laughs). When I started in Lansing we were playing in the snow, and then when I got to Dunedin we were playing in 100 degrees and 100% humidity. Going from bundling up to wearing the least amount of clothes possible.
As far as competition goes, you’re going to see velocity at almost every level now, it’s just the difference is guys can control their off-speed a little bit better. They know how to pitch better as far as controlling the zone, getting hitters off balance, stuff like that. I mean, the Florida State League is just a tough league to hit in. You’ve got big ball parks, tough weather, it’s a grind but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting promoted to Dunedin and trying to win ball games for that team too. So just trying to get better every day and see if I can get promoted to the next level.
Chris: Did having to face the next level of competition change your personal approach at all or was it just a matter of making adjustments and getting used to that level?
Kacy: I think the biggest thing for me about full-season ball, however many games there are, is that you can create that habit when you play every single day. You know, if you get into a little rut, or a slump and you try to get out of it, you gotta make sure you’re doing the right things to get out of it rather than trying to put more pressure (on yourself), or press to get out of it, cause you can create bad habits, start trying too hard, stuff like that, and get out of your game.
That’s something that I probably did a little bit this year that I’ll focus on next year if I get in a little rut. Just remember that it’s a long year and just stick with what you do best.
Chris: Looking over your stats from last season, I noticed that you made three appearances at third base, and played nine innings in total over there. I’m curious if that was something that was born out of necessity, or if it’s something you’re working on and hope to add to your resume.
Kacy: They were just late-game, you know, we were getting beat pretty good and had to throw a position player in there to pitch, and I ended up moving over to third base because I’d played there in high school. But no, I’d love to, I’m obviously best at first base and that’s where I feel most comfortable and have put in the most time and work, but I don’t think there is any problem with me trying to play out at third or wherever they want to play me. I just want to continue to excel and continue to get promoted, so I guess at this point I’ll do whatever it takes.
Chris: Makes sense to me. Is that (positional flexibility) something that’s a focus with guys as they’re working their way through the minor league system?
Kacy: It just depends. Some guys, the super high profile prospects, they’re gonna probably stay at their one position, the guys that get drafted, you know, super high and are big prospects. But I feel like a lot of the baseball players nowadays, you never know what’s going to happen in the big leagues. Whether somebody’s going to get hurt, or someone’s going to get traded, etc, so having an extra position or two in your repertoire can’t hurt. If you can hit they’re going to find somewhere to put you, so the more positions you can play, I feel like the better chance you have to make it in the lineup somewhere.
Chris: I found many reports of your plus-ability defensively at first base, and that it’s something that you have worked hard at since moving to that position. How do you see the value of first baseman changing as the game continues to evolve? Do you feel that first basemen get enough credit for what they bring to the table?
Kacy: I take huge pride in my defensive ability at first base. I think a lot of people overlook first baseman and just say, ‘he can hit, let’s just throw him at first base’, but I’m a big believer in the fact that a good first baseman can make a bad infield look good, and a bad first baseman can make a really good infield look bad.
I’m also biased because I’m a first baseman, but I hope that people don’t just think about first base as being a spot that you can put a big guy that’s not very athletic, and who just hits well over there. I like to take pride in my first base. But I do agree that now it’s a position that if you can hit over there, you’re gonna stay over there for a long time.
“I’m a big believer in the fact that a good first baseman can make a bad infield look good, and a bad first baseman can make a really good infield look bad.”
Chris: While doing some research I noticed that your brother Koby had played in Dunedin during his minor league career. Did he have any advice for your about the community or the organization when you learned you had been promoted there?
Kacy: Yeah it was definitely cool. Before I got called up, or as soon as I got called up, I called and talked to him about it and asked what it’s like, and he said, ‘it’s going to be hot and it’s going to be a grind, but just have fun playing and enjoy the big league spring training parks and facilities. It’s a tough league to hit in, but just try to keep your head down and keep doing what you’re doing. I had been there before to watch him play there, but I had forgot about the fact that he had been there before I got called up.
Chris: I’m curious, do you know anything or have any updates for us about the new facilities that are being built in Dunedin?
Kacy: (laugh) I’m actually as curious as you are, I have no idea. I’m assuming that I’ll probably start off in Dunedin again this upcoming spring, and I’m not sure if we’re going to have a field or how that’s going to work or what.
I’m sure the field will be somewhat set up until the big leaguers get up to Toronto because I don’t think they’re going to want them playing on anything that’s not “playable”, but I’m sure they’ll have a solution one way or another.
Chris: You’ve had the chance to play with a lot of talented teammates during your short minor league career so far. Who is one guy that doesn’t get enough attention or credit, and that fans should know more about?
Kacy: I guess one of the guys I played with this year that had an awesome year is Brock Lundquist. I played with him in Lansing and then I got called up a little bit before he did, and then he finally got called up to Dunedin and did awesome in both spots. He hit for power and average in both leagues and I think he had 17 or 18 homers. He’s one of my best friends that I’ve gotten to know in the organization, and he’ll be well known soon enough.
Chris: I don’t want to ask you too much about your family, but I am curious about a few things. How do you feel growing up in such a significant baseball family affected you, and do you think it was all positive, or were there some negatives to having a big league star as a father?
Kacy: I think it was all positives. Of course a lot of things come with the fact that my last name is Clemens, but in my opinion it’s a total blessing. My Dad has provided such an amazing lifestyle for all of us, his kids and our family, I mean, everybody in our family. As far as, you get a lot of media and people that are watching you, so if you do stub your toe here or there, it’s front page news. But I mean, that comes with it.
I think as far as growing up and having him as a baseball Dad, he’s been awesome because he’s never ever once told me once that I have to play baseball, or that I have to pitch, or I have to do this or that. He just said I’m here if you want me, I’ve got an encyclopedia in my brain and if you want to pick at it, let me know.
We fell in love with the game and of course I tell people this all the time, when I was growing up and I was little, like when we were in Toronto like we were talking about earlier, I thought there was two things you did in life. You were either a player or a fan, and I just knew I wanted to be a player. I didn’t want to watch. I wanted to play. And that’s when I fell in love with the game.
But, having him by my side for everything, it’s a little different now because, I mean, he spent what seems like a month in the minor leagues, so it’s kinda difficult when he says, ‘just keep grinding through it, grinding through it’, and I’m like, ‘Well Dad, you were in the big leagues as soon as you got drafted, so you don’t even know what a bus ride feels like’. (laughs).
So that’s a little bit different, but no, he knows so much about the game and he’s so knowledgeable. Even just the smallest things that regular people wouldn’t think about, he knows the game within the game, within the game, within the game. So that’s what makes Kody and I, and Koby, my oldest brother, that’s that baseball IQ that everybody talks about that we are fortunate to have because we grew up with him teaching us everything he knows.
Chris: Looking ahead to the 2019 season, what kind of goals do you have for yourself? I know you’ll want to win and things like that, but what do you hope to personally accomplish?
Kacy: I haven’t really thought about anything like awards or anything that I want to win or anything like that, but I just want to be consistent. I want to show up every day and use my routine to get myself as ready as I can be for every single game.
The thing that helps me play well is when games are important, because minor league ball is a little bit different now because games are more about development and things like that as opposed to winning at all costs. So coming from college and at Texas, where it’s obviously win at all costs, my mentality had to change a little bit coming into minor league ball.
I would say I want my numbers to be better than they ended up last year. I would like to do what I did in Lansing and try to hold that steam all year long. Because once my environment changed and I got to High-A I kinda slowed down a little bit. So just keeping my routine, keeping my head down, and just putting together a full season that I know I can produce, that’s probably my goal.
Chris: If you weren’t playing baseball for a living, what do you think you would be doing with your time?
Kacy: That’s a really good question. I have thought about that, and I got a Finance degree from the University of Texas so obviously I have interest in the stock market and the business side of things. I don’t know if I would get a job with an investment banking firm, or if I’d want to work those 70 hour work weeks, or if I’d maybe start my own company or something like that.
I don’t know, I like doing fun things so maybe I would get into acting or something like that. I like performing.
Chris: Last question for you: What is the best piece of baseball advice you’ve ever received, and who passed it along?
Kacy: I like all the Yogi quotes that my Dad tells me, like ‘it’s 90% mental and the other half physical’.
I think as far as the best genuine advice was just to be yourself, don’t try and be anybody else, because at the end of the day you’re good enough. Don’t try and do things that other people do. That’s what my Dad always told us, because what you have to offer is what you have to offer, so just give the best of that.
I want to genuinely thank Kacy for taking the time to chat with me, and for sharing so many great stories with our readers. He was generous with his time, courteous and respectful, and spoke like a man several years his senior. I have no doubt that he has a bright future in baseball, and hopefully he’ll continue to get opportunities within the Blue Jays organization in 2019, and for several years to come. Everyone here at Jays Journal wishes him well on what’s left of the offseason, and on the 2019 campaign ahead.