Tigers pull surprise with 'elite talent' Clark at No. 3

July 10th, 2023

The city of Franklin, Indiana, located just outside Indianapolis, boasts around 25,000 residents and a deep basketball history, like a lot of places in the Hoosier State. It now has a professional baseball star, too.

Max Clark grew up playing basketball like a lot of kids in Indiana, before giving it up his sophomore year. By then, his baseball potential was already becoming evident. Even with shorter baseball seasons up north, he became one of the top-ranked high school players in the country, an athletic, multi-tooled player who can run, hit, catch and throw.

On Sunday, about 800 people came to downtown Franklin for a watch party. Another 50 friends and family were at a smaller party for him at home, ready for his name to be called. And just as the 2023 MLB Draft was beginning, Clark got a call from his agent, Sam Samardzija: They wouldn’t be waiting long. The Tigers were taking him third overall.

“To be completely frank with you, I did not know how it was going to go down until 10 minutes prior to when I was selected,” Clark said on a Zoom call with reporters. “Obviously, we had a ton of great conversations leading up from February until July 9, but up until those last 10 minutes, I genuinely did not know.”

Few really knew. The Tigers, from all public indications, were focused on college hitters who could develop quickly. They had one of the best available to them at No. 3. Instead, they threw one of the first curveballs of the Draft by taking the first high schooler.

Clark was the first Draft pick of the new-look Tigers front office, from president of baseball operations Scott Harris to assistant GM Rob Metzler to amateur scouting director Mark Conner. Together, they went with the upside and swung big.

“We think Max is an elite talent,” Harris said. “He was the best player on our board at that pick, and we are thrilled that he got to our pick. We think Max is a five-tool player. I think that label gets thrown around way too much in our industry. We think Max has all five.”

They followed him up by selecting shortstop Kevin McGonigle from Monsignor Bonner HS (Pa.) at No. 37 and second baseman Max Anderson from the University of Nebraska at No. 45.

The Tigers loved what they saw from Clark in high school and summer ball. He won Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Indiana for three straight seasons and was named Gatorade National Player of the Year this spring. His .646 batting average and .808 on-base percentage sound like video-game stats, bolstered by 52 walks in 28 games. He hit six home runs and stole 35 bases to go along with 33 RBIs and 45 runs scored. He won a gold medal for Team USA at the U-18 Baseball World Cup last summer, providing a home run to beat Canada and three hits to beat Chinese Taipei in the gold-medal game.

“He can impact the game on all sides of the ball,” Conner said. “Offensively with the hit tool, emerging power, the range and speed that he plays with on defense and the arm that he has. He’s a very exciting player.”

Moreover, the Tigers loved what they saw and heard from Clark when he worked out privately at Comerica Park last month. Just as he fit athletically in the spacious outfield, he fit in with Tigers personnel, scouting and player development officials alike.

“It was very, very personal. It was very man-to-man,” Clark said. “We all got to learn a lot about each other, the kind of philosophy of the Tigers and how everything was going to go down if it went our way.”

Said Harris: “We wanted to put Max in different environments and see how he would interact with different people. … We wanted to see what type of person we were getting when he was out of his most comfortable environment, because every one of these players we take -- Max included -- will face adversity in the Minor Leagues. They will face adversity in the Major Leagues.”

That’s part of the player development aspect that the Tigers have tried to pair with scouting in their collaborative Draft plan. Just as big as that was something Detroit quietly noticed along the way.

On his way to dominating his senior season, Clark had made a swing change.

“Last year, Max had a pretty flat [swing] path. If you saw the results of his swings, it ended up being a lot of ground balls,” Conner said. “He used the opposite field probably a little bit more than he did this year. He changed his hand [placement] and a little bit of the base in his stance.”

It was slight, but for the Tigers’ purposes, it was big.

“That helped his bat path,” Harris said, “but it also showed us that this is a guy who has a chance to make the necessary adjustments at each level throughout the organization, so that when he gets to Detroit, he is capable of hitting different types of pitching. That’s really hard to forecast in our jobs.”