Clemens awarded for breakout season

Clemens awarded for breakout season

Considering the way the year started for Koby Clemens, he was happy just to be playing in 2009. To lead his league in anything, let alone several offensive categories would be icing on the cake. To win an award for his efforts? Probably didn't even cross his mind.

Yet here it is, the end of 2009, and Clemens is getting the MiLBY for Best Class A Advanced Hitter. Say what you want about the Astros' eighth-round pick of the 2005 Draft, that he's a product of a hitting league and a very friendly ballpark, but it's difficult to look past the fact that he finished the season with the most RBIs in all of the Minor Leagues, won the California League batting title with a .345 average and led the Class A Advanced circuit in RBIs (121), doubles (45), slugging percentage (.636) and OPS (1.055).

That he did it in basically four months makes it even more astounding. At the end of April, Roger's oldest son had picked up just 44 at-bats and was hitting .227 with eight RBIs. After converting to catcher, he found it difficult to find playing time with 2008 first-round pick Jason Castro getting the bulk of the starts behind the plate for Lancaster. He'd pinch-hit, DH and maybe start at catcher once per week. In other words, it was no way to find an offensive rhythm.

"One of the bigger things was that I started getting more consistent playing time," said Clemens, without a hint of complaint. "At the time, Castro was there, I was the backup to begin with. I was getting pinch-hit stuff, then I started to DH every day. When Castro moved up, I started to catch and mixed in a little left field. Got more comfortable when I started getting more playing time. That made all the difference in the world."

Wherever he was defensively, Clemens showed that his best position in 2009 was in the batter's box. He started getting on track slowly, hitting .311/.394/.426 in May. June saw him drive in 26 runs and hit .329. Then came July, when the then-22-year-old went off, hitting .395 with nine homers and 39 RBIs. He slugged .807 that month. In August, Clemens "cooled" off, managing to hit .375 with seven more homers and 31 RBIs and a .702 SLG. After picking two more in a brief stop at Double-A, he ended up leading the Minors with 123 RBIs.

Critics will say that Clemens is a product of his environment. Not only is the California League friendly for hitters, but his home park in Lancaster is one of the best hitting parks in all of Minor League Baseball. Clemens doesn't deny this, but there are two things that should be pointed out. While Clemens excelled at home, he wasn't exactly a slouch on the road (.338/.412/.610). Secondly, everyone else in the Cal League had the same advantage and none of them drove in over 120 runs or slugged over .600.

"It's almost a perfect storm hitting scenario, especially with the team we had," Clemens said. "The lineup we had every day made it much more fun. We were putting up eight to 10 runs a game.

"It's a higher elevation and on some nights, the wind was blowing out. It is a big field, but when the wind is blowing out, it plays similar to a Rockies kind of stadium. You still have to hit the ball, have good at-bats. You can't change anything with your swing because of the park."

Clemens is very excited to get a crack at a new park in 2010, one closer to his Houston home. That would be Corpus Christi, the Astros' affiliate in the Double-A Texas League. The five-game stint he got last season whetted his appetite for the new level, even though he knows it might be a little crazy with his family around a lot more.

"I'm real excited to move up and get home on Texas grounds with a full season in Corpus next year," said Clemens, who said the trip from his home to the Hooks' home park is about three hours. "My dad traveled out there to Lancaster quite a bit, but it'll be a circus when they come down to Corpus.

"I'm anxious to get up there and play a full 140 games. It looks like we'll have a pretty good team assembled. I'm counting down to Spring Training to start playing again. I'm really looking forward to it."

Clemens is the first to admit that his development has come a little slowly. He wasn't surprised when the Astros didn't put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft as a result, noting that he was placed on the Triple-A roster, meaning he could be taken only in the Major League phase. Having had just the one breakout year, in the California League, and without a true defensive home, he realized it was going to be unlikely that he'd be taken.

"My first two years were pretty average years," Clemens acknowledged. "I made some strides, but had some downfalls. This is by far the best year I've had. It puts me on the radar, I think. I always knew I was capable of doing something like this, I guess it took me a few years to figure things out and get confident with it."

Even though Clemens now has four-and-a-half years of pro ball under his belt, the fact remains he'll play all of 2010 at just 23 years of age. Many of his teammates at Lancaster, perhaps considered more of a "prospect" than Clemens because of his service time, were actually more or less the same age as their more experienced teammate.

"I feel old and young at the same time," Clemens joked. "I've been around the block a few times in the Minors, but I'm the same age as those guys. It's the best of both worlds."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.