Denzel Clarke's Success A Credit To Continued Development
Denzel Clarke knows he has a long way to go, but he also recognizes just how far he’s come.
The 21-year-old outfielder at Cal State Northridge has been an incredibly fast-rising draft prospect ahead of this July’s selection process, and as exciting as it is for him to see the work he’s put in come to fruition, he’s also looking forward to seeing just how much more he has in the tank.
“My goal is turning from an athlete into a baseball player,” Clarke said. “I’m going to keep learning the game and continuing to grow, because that transition from athlete to baseball player is really starting to show itself and I’m really starting to flourish as a baseball player.
“There are still a lot of times when the athlete will come out over the baseball player, and I know with more experience, with more time, and more quality reps, I’m really going to transform into the baseball player I know I can be, who’s also a really good athlete. That’s something that excites me.”
Clarke first picked up a baseball when he was 10, but the young native of Pickering, Ont., didn’t begin seeing the competitive side of the game until six years later. It wasn’t long after that he got his first opportunity with the Canadian Junior National Team—with whom he spent multiple years representing his country, including being named the top defensive player at the 2017 U18 World Cup on his home soil in Thunder Bay—and his baseball education really began.
“There were times when even in high school, obviously they weren’t dumb questions because I was still learning, but I was 16 years old and asking, ‘What does RBI mean? What does RISP stand for?’ ” Clarke said. “Obviously I understood it when I was seeing it in the game, but I still had to learn and I had to grow.
“I’m the type of player who just needed a lot of time to develop and learn. I’m slowly getting there still. Still a long way to go, but it’s been awesome.”
After revamping his swing mechanics following his freshman season with the Matadors, Clarke started 2020 with a .400/.529/.775 slash line with three home runs, four doubles and five stolen bases in 15 games before the pandemic halted play. This season at Cal State Northridge, the 21-year-old put himself into top-five-round draft discussions with a .324/.445/.570 mark, adding eight homers, 11 doubles, and 15 swiped bags over 38 games.
“If I get my name called, it’s awesome,” Clarke said of the draft. “I love working, I love competing, and it just so happens that I stumbled across baseball with my cousins when I was 10 years old, and this is the sport I ended up playing. I’ve fallen in love with it, and no matter where it takes me I’m just going to keep loving it and keep growing in it.”
For the 133rd-ranked draft prospect, Baseball America grades Clarke as having plus raw power and run tools, above-average defense and below-average tools with his hitting ability and his arm. Clarke himself broke down the tool set that has aided in his rise, and that he believes will continue to help him along his way, ranking his tools in the order that he sees them right now.
“Obviously everything still needs to develop, and I’m nowhere near where I’m going to be when it’s all said and done, with how hard I’m going to work and how far I’m willing to go,” he said. “I have to push myself. But to rank my tools, I would put fielding as tool No. 1, hitting second, running third, power fourth, and then throwing. All can improve though, so I’m excited.”
Clarke sees a brighter future than the present for both his arm and his power, with strength gains beginning to play out on the field, and much more to come.
“Being 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable in my own body,” Clarke said. “But when everything really syncs itself up, that’s when my arm really plays. So it’s about continuing to have control of my own body. When I’m getting behind balls around the outfield and playing the game hard, that’s when my arm plays. It’s got some carry to it, and I can be pretty spot on with my throws.”
“Everything plays into my power tool,” Clarke said. “Thankfully I have the God-given body that is 6’5”, 220, and the power’s going to come. What I’ve been working on is excelling as a hitter, and then I know the ball will fly out of the park. The stronger I get, the bigger I get, the ball is naturally going to be hit harder. So as I grow into my body that’s going to come. I’m excited to see how far that tool progresses.”
There’s no one whom Clarke offers more credit to for his ability to run than his mother, Donna. An incredible athlete herself, Clarke’s mom competed in the 1984 Olympics when she was just 19 years old, finishing 17th in the heptathlon. She won four national championships, was a Canadian record-holder, and is an inductee of the Mississauga, Ont., Hall of Fame.
Clarke admits he might never be as fast as she was in her prime, but he is grateful for the ability she passed on to him.
“Rumor has it I ran straight out of my mom’s womb at the hospital,” Clarke said. “She’s been a part of my journey forever, and obviously she can touch on a lot of things athletically, but being able to run is something that’s been there from Day one thanks to her. And no matter what sport I was going to choose, running was obviously going to be integral for it. She’s been a huge factor in that.
“And my running really plays when I’m tracking down balls in the gaps, and my baserunning has improved this year. I’m stealing a lot of bases and continuing to work on that. Strength plays into that as well, but that’s a tool I’m excited to have. Not a lot of guys are blessed with that. I’m thankful and I’m going to keep working on it.”
“My mom and I always spend time planning,” Clarke said. “And going into last year we took a step back and spent time looking for what would be the game changer—what is going to take me to the next level? Obviously it was my hitting. My defense is improving, my speed and athleticism were already there, but the thing that’s going to take me to the next level is my hitting. So we spent time working on that, finding people to help me with that, and it was a huge transformation last year.”
Clarke worked with several coaches and found a way to break down his swing mechanics and build them back up in a way he was comfortable with and that has propelled him to his more recent successes.
“The main thing I’ve been working on is getting to a balanced position when I hit and making sure my head is as still as possible, so I’m able to see the ball a long time, track it a long time, and get my best swing on it,” Clarke said. “One of the main things that I was struggling with early on was my balance would sometimes be inconsistent. My leg kick would cause some inconsistencies, so I went to a two-strike approach and simplified everything and was able to work from there, having my foot down and ready to attack the baseball. It helped me find more barrels, and I got into a groove, and I was able to slowly scale back from there.”
“Growing up, through high school and getting to play with Team Canada from 16 to 18, I had a good start, a really good foundation in terms of outfielding knowledge and drills,” Clarke said. “I was taking decent routes, I obviously had the speed, I had the range to track down some balls, but it’s like baserunning and speed—the more you learn the game, the more you learn what’s correct and what’s not, and that’s something that really helped my fielding to keep improving.”