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Jeff Clement Interview
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Jeff Clement might be best known for the fact that he broke Drew Henson's all-time high school home-run record back in the summer of 2002. You can tell in talking with him that Clement would prefer to be known more as a winner, the type of player any good team would love to have on their roster, and the type of hitter that wants to be at the plate when a game matters the most. I spoke to Jeff recently about some of his approaches to hitting, how his defense behind the plate has progressed, and what he sees for the University of Southern California this season. Patrick Ebert is affiliated with both Perfect Game USA and Brewerfan.net, and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Ebert (PE): Since you were such a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school, a lot of people already know about your baseball accomplishments. What are some of the things you like to do outside of baseball?
Jeff Clement (JC): Fishing is right up there. When I was back home (Iowa) for this Christmas break I went up to Red Wing, Minnesota and did some fishing on the Mississippi River and did pretty well. I've been kayak fishing in the harbor a few times here in L.A. with a buddy of mine who used to play baseball here at USC. It's a lot different out here than what it is back home. When you're out in the ocean you have no idea what you're going to catch and how big it will be.
PE: I've read several of your comments from when you broke Drew Henson's all-time career home run record about how you would trade all of your home runs in for one state championship. Since you went on to win the state championship the summer after your senior year in high school, slugging a few more home runs along the way and even contributing a few key pitching performances, how do you feel about the home run record now?
JC: Looking back, at the time people were making a big deal about it and I didn't understand why. I didn't think it was a real big deal, I realized it was a nice achievement and a nice record to have, but at the same time it wasn't like I was going up to the plate thinking about that record. I was thinking about having a good at-bat and ultimately helping my team win. With that approach I think I was able to accomplish a lot more as an individual when I was thinking about the team first.
PE: I also noticed you hold the all-time record for walks among high school players. Having both the home run record and the walks record puts you in a distinguished group similar to Barry Bonds at the Major League level. Are you proud to hold that record as well?
JC: Yeah. It's never fun to walk, and it's not one of those things that you try to do when you go to the plate. But at the same time if you're not getting any pitches to hit, it beats getting yourself out and going back to the dugout thinking, "I should have laid off that pitch." I guess it's not something I have a lot of pride about, but at the same time you wouldn't achieve other things offensively if you didn't have that kind of (batting) eye.
PE: And similar to your comment before, it helps put your team in a better position to win as well.
JC: Yeah, exactly. At the high school level I stole a lot more bases, pitchers didn't hold as well and catchers didn't throw as well. Often times if I was walked I stole second base, and a base hit would help me score a run. Obviously the more runs you score the more ballgames you win. (However) it's not as easy getting a swipe (in college) as it was at the high school level.
PE: Entering the spring of 2002, several notable baseball publications, in particular both Perfect Game USA and Baseball America, had you ranked as one of the top high school players available for the 2002 draft, and many considered you a first-round pick. What were some of the things in your mind that caused you to fall to the 12th round?
JC: The biggest reason is that I didn't perform well enough to be a higher draft pick, period. If a team is going to invest in a player, obviously they're going to want to know what kind of player they're dealing with. Obviously I didn't perform well enough in the spring of 2002 to give teams the feeling that I was worth taking as a high draft choice. Looking back now, I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to come to USC and get a lot better in the past three years. Things always seem to work out, and it's usually not the way that you plan.
PE: Do you think it's harder for northern players to get noticed, particularly those that play in Iowa where the high school season doesn't even start until the summer?
JC: Yeah. It can't help. Obviously if you're Joe Mauer up in Minnesota and you're the kind of player he is, it doesn't really matter, because everyone knows how good you are and you're going to be a high draft pick. I think if you're playing in Southern California, Texas or Florida, or another warm weather state, you have more opportunities to be seen and being noticed. I'm not saying it's impossible to be noticed in a cold weather state. It's just not as ideal because you're not playing against the same competition and you're not getting the reps over the winter. It's 70 degrees every day out here (Southern California) this time of year, I can't imagine what people are doing back in the Midwest. Playing indoors I suppose. It's just a lot easier to get better out here.
PE: Were you ever close to signing with the Minnesota Twins?
JC: Not really. They didn't contact me too much until late in the summer. Their offers weren't really close to what it would have taken for me to sign and forego the opportunity to go to school here. It was never really a tough decision.
PE: How much did Perfect Game help you hone and display your skills, especially since you didn't have the advantage of playing all year long as players from southern states do?
JC: The reps are number one. I think we played about 20-25 PG Scout games in the spring and again in the fall (wood bat leagues), so that's 40-50 more games that I otherwise would not have played. Also you're playing with wood bats, and if you're fortunate enough to play professionally that's obviously what you're going to be using. You can only get better by using wood. You're also playing with and against better competition, with the guys that take the game serious enough to play in the spring and the fall. I also had the chance to go play in a couple of Perfect Game events in Florida in which you're playing against the best high school players in the nation. All of those things combined made the Perfect Game experience very helpful, not only with exposure but getting better as well.
PE: Are there any mechanical adjustments you have to make as a hitter making the switch to wood bats?
JC: A lot of people say there are, and I think it's a difficult transition for a lot of people. To be honest with you, I never really had a problem hitting with wood. I hit with wood in all of our practices here at USC, and it just makes it that much easier when you pick up the metal bat. I guess with wood you have to square it up (making contact with the ball) on the barrel, where with a metal bat you can get a little further down on the barrel or a little higher up and it's (the ball) still going to go. You can miss-hit a ball and it will still fly, with wood it will just break. However, if you hit a ball well with wood, if you have a good wood bat, it's going to jump off the bat just like it would with an aluminum bat. Mechanically I've never had any issues.
PE: While you always come across as a very humble, and team-oriented player, what are some of your personal goals for this season?
JC: I think personal goals are fine, but I really have not set up anything numbers-wise that I would like to achieve. I think by doing that you're just setting yourself up for failure. For me I'm just going to go in with the approach "game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch." It's sounds like a cliché, but it's true. Stepping up to the plate you want to get a good at-bat, and if you're keeping track of your good at-bats the statistics will follow. You'll put up better numbers if you go up there with the approach that "I'm going to have a good at-bat, no matter what happens." Baseball's a team game. If you're playing the game to win and play hard, that will take care of the personal stuff.
PE: Who is the best pitcher you have ever faced?
JC: At the Pan-Am games in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2003, the Cuban pitcher, and I don't remember what his name was, he was no doubt the best pitcher I have ever faced. On two days rest he threw a complete game, beating us three to one in the Gold medal game. He was throwing two-seamers, four-seamers, sliders, curve-balls and changeups, and he had command of everything. Just nasty stuff.
(Writer's note: The Cuban pitcher that Jeff Clement is referring to is Norge Vera).
PE: Who is the best pitcher you have caught outside of USC?
JC: That's a very good question. I would guess it would have to be one of the guys from Team USA the past two years. Last year the best and most consistent probably was Ricky Romero, from Cal State Fullerton. He has a really good breaking ball and spotted his fastball really well. Two years ago Huston Street (University of Texas, now in the Oakland A's organization) had the best control of anyone that I have caught, with a slider and fastball he would just paint the black on both sides of the plate. For a pure, live arm, Mike Pelfrey (Wichita State) has as good of an arm of anyone I've caught. Two years ago Justin Verlander (Old Dominion, now in the Detroit Tigers organization) touched 98 in one of the games I was catching, and that's probably the hardest pitch I have ever caught. Any one of those guys could be the best on any given day or night.
PE: Who are some hitters that you admire and possibly try to emulate?
JC: The guy that is the most fun to watch is Barry Bonds. He does not swing at anything that isn't over the plate. He won't do it. He has as good of an idea at the plate of anyone that I've ever seen in my lifetime without question. That inside fastball, high and inside, I don't think anyone else can get their hands through the ball that quickly and keep it fair, hit the ball out of the park, on a consistent basis like he does. I admire Lance Berkman, but that's more of a personal thing since I had the chance to meet and spend the weekend with him. I admire Derek Jeter as a player because he's such a leader and his team is always deep in the playoffs. He elevates his game to another level every October. While some guys get tight at the plate (in pressure situations), he gets looser, he knows how good he is and he goes and performs like no one else I've seen in October.
PE: The one question mark regarding you is your defense, although you did a great job last year throwing out baserunners. In what areas have you worked hard to improve upon and in what areas do you strive to get better at?
JC: I've worked hard at every aspect of my game. On defense, receiving and blocking, I think I've gotten better at those things between a mix of repetitions and from advice I receive from Jason Brown, the guy I go fishing with, who caught here at USC from 1992 to 1997 I believe. He just signed a contract with the Yankees. He's taught me more about catching, and put it in words that make the most sense to me, more than anyone else that I've worked with. Between getting all of the reps with better pitchers at this level and working with better pitchers the last two summers, and the advice I've received from Jason Brown and now Chad Kreuter, who played 19 years professionally, 14 in the big leagues as a catcher, has helped me a lot. Kreuter, who I'm not sure if he's a volunteer assistant coach or if he's the director of baseball operations (laughing), has been a big help to me this spring and fall, actually more as a hitter than as a catcher. He's done it for the last 20 years and he has so much experience. I learn something new every time I talk to him, he has so many stories, he talks about approach and I just feel so much better about the way I hit. This fall and so far in January I feel so much more comfortable at the plate and have a much better idea than what I've ever had before, and I have to say that he's been the biggest reason for that. We'll see how that translates in games.
PE: As a catcher, do you ever think that you sometimes out-smart yourself when trying to guess how pitchers will pitch to you?
JC: I think in the past I've struggled with that before, out-thinking myself, and that's another thing that Chad (Kreuter) has helped me with, being more loose and relaxed and realizing what pitches to look for and what I want to hit. I'm not focused as much on what the pitcher is doing as what I'm doing. I realize that if I'm on it and I feel good at the plate, it doesn't matter as much what the pitcher is going to come at me with because I feel I can react and adjust to anything he throws up there, rather than guessing. It's good to have an idea of what you're going to get. To sit up there and guess and let a pitch go by that maybe you could have driven because you're thinking something else is something I've run into too much in the past and something I feel I've gotten a lot better at just this last fall.
PE: Last year you began the season with a bout with mononucleosis and a strained wrist, which many people have pointed to as the reason for your slow start. Are you healthy going into 2005 and what can we expect from USC this season?
JC: Yes, I am healthy, I feel really good. I'm ready for the season to start. Our team has gelled really well this fall and through January this year, and we've got a lot of young guys that have worked hard that we count on to be productive as position players and pitchers. All of our position players are pretty much the same with the addition of a couple of new guys that are really good players. With the combination of the younger guys that are really talented and the other guys that are a year older, I think our lineup is going to be better and our defense is going to be better. We're counting on a lot of new pitchers, and the same thing from veteran pitchers, to come back and get better. I'm not going to make any predictions as to how much better we'll be, but I do think our team has gelled a lot better than what it has in the past, and we have guys that are willing to work hard and it seems as though everyone has the same goal in mind. I don't know how many more wins that will mean, but it's a lot of fun to show up to the park everyday.
PE: Thank you very much, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Best of luck to you and your team this year.
JC: Thanks, I appreciate it.
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