The minor-league season has been canceled, but the development of the Tigers’ prospects is still a critical aspect of the team’s rebuild. In this series, Lynn Henning will take a look at some of the key players. Today: Dillon Dingler.
Bill Freehan was one of those guys. And so was Lance Parrish. Brandon Inge had a chance – until he was moved to third base. And so did James McCann before the Tigers decided he came up short in too many categories.
Like most big-league clubs, the Tigers know that maybe once a decade or so you develop a home-grown, talented, long-term, All-Star-grade catcher.
They’re banking on Dillon Dingler being one of those gems.
Or, maybe that was clear in June when they collared Dingler with the first pick of the MLB Draft’s second round. When you snag a man at the 38th overall draft slot and pay him $1.95 million to sign and take a powder on his senior year at Ohio State, you’re all but shouting that here is a player who can help make or break a team’s roster re-do.
Anyone can guess what will decide Dingler’s inclusion, or exclusion, from the above list of celebrity catchers:
The bat he swings right-handed.
“If your eyes aren’t lying to you, he looks like he could do it,” said Parrish, who was almost identical to Dingler in height and weight (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) when Parrish joined the big-league Tigers in 1977. “He’s a big, strong guy who has a pretty good swing, so it depends how he’s able to work things out with our hitting (coaching) personnel.”
Parrish is a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila and has gotten a peek at Dingler and the rest of the Tigers’ pandemic-spurred taxi squad as it rehearses at Fifth Third Field in Toledo.
“Does he have bat-speed? Sure, he does,” Parrish said. “But for me, bat-speed isn’t the be-all and end-all to be a successful hitter. I think he can manipulate his swing to where he could be a .300 hitter and maybe generate into more of a power-hitter as time goes on.
“I like him. First and foremost, he fits the bill, physically, and then the people I talk to say great things about his work ethic – that he has definite leader qualities, that he’s a workaholic, very focused on what he wants to do and where he wants to go. And that’s especially important at catcher, where you want a take-charge guy who can lead by example.”
Back to the bat, since batting average and OPS will determine Dingler’s shelf-life in the big leagues. His swing, at the moment, is maybe a tad long but nothing that can’t be trimmed by a few milliseconds.
Dingler understands. He concedes he was “overmatched” in July when he showed up at Comerica Park. He had been tossed onto the Tigers’ 60-man taxi squad, which was assembled as an answer to COVID-19 and its toll on a chopped-down 2020 big-league schedule.
Things went about as expected for a man who hadn’t played in a competitive game since the week in March when he hit five home runs for the Buckeyes all before their season was lost to a pandemic.
He was gutted by seasoned pitchers. Days later, Dingler, along with other choice draft-picks like Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, and Casey Mize, headed for Toledo to join the 30 or so players the Tigers were to groom as big-league backups.
And this is where Dingler has been getting his professional baseball baptism. What should have been unfolding at West Michigan, or Connecticut, or some such Single A address, instead has been percolating in downtown Toledo alongside players who other than Torkelson already have had at least a taste of minor-league ball.
“It is a pretty big jump going from Big Ten ball to these guys,” Dingler said last week during a phone conversation. “These pitchers are top of the line, with really good stuff, really good velo (velocity). So, they (Tigers coaches) want us to go in there and focus on having good at-bats.
“Get some work in the cages, some one-on-one (intra-squad match-ups) – more or less go out there and compete. Rather than working on a lot of mechanics, the emphasis is on little reminders about what makes us good. With every day, every at-bat, I’m getting more and more comfortable.”
Athleticism in abundance
It has been fewer than 90 days since Dingler became part of the Tigers’ hitters-only 2020 draft. Presto: A man who hadn’t played a game since COVID-19 shut down college teams in March was plopped onto a squad loaded mostly with big-leaguers or near-big-leaguers.
“It was even tougher going to Detroit without having had much practice,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads the Tigers’ player development. “But now, at least, he’s getting more reps, more at-bats, and he’s got a better chance at evolving.
“He’s a very athletic guy. Very heady. And his throwing and catching look very good.”
In other words, better to check in on Dingler’s ways in 2021, when he will be sweating at some Tigers farm stop, swinging against pitching more in line with a prospect who on Sept. 17 turns 22.
If it means anything, and it probably should, his coach at Ohio State has seen his share of talent during years honing baseball players at Kent State, Ball State, and for the past decade at OSU.
Greg Beals will tell you, with high intensity, that the Tigers got it right in drafting Dingler. He saw Dingler hit those five home runs during the Buckeyes’ final week of games in March. He knew why Dingler was Baseball America’s preseason pick to be Big Ten Player of the Year. He understood as well why Dingler, as a sophomore, was voted team captain – as a testament to what teammates thought of man then 19. Beals appreciated, also, all the athleticism he had first seen when Dingler was a three-sport dazzler at Jackson High in Massillon, Ohio.
There was such versatility then – playing safety, wide receiver, and punting for the football team, as one example – that Beals never flinched when during Dingler’s freshman year the Buckeyes needed a bat in center field. Beals decided a pure catcher could make a one-season transfer to the outfield, given that OSU then had a junior flourishing behind the plate, Jacob Barnwell, who was on his way to being drafted by the Colorado Rockies.
“It’s always hard to say anyone is a surefire big-leaguer,” Beals said last week during a phone interview. “But Dillon Dingler is the complete package. I think you’re always going to have an adjustment period when you make it to the next level, whether it’s going from college ball to the minor leagues, or minor leagues to pro ball. But the thing that wins out during that adjustment period is athleticism.
“I only wish I’d have gotten to see Dillon play this whole season – and not necessarily for our program’s sake,” said Beals, whose Buckeyes’ season ended following a March 11 game against North Florida. “But because I wanted to see his evolution as a baseball player. Dillon, in my opinion, is an athlete learning how to be a great baseball player.
“When he was a three-sport athlete in high school, one of the things I said was: How good was this guy going to be when he focused on one sport?”
Athletes abound in baseball, especially in the minor leagues. But there is this qualifier – a bat – that defines whether they make it and stick on the big-league stage.
Dingler batted .340 in OSU’s 13 games in 2020, with a 1.104 OPS. His at-bats came against a typical early-season mixed bag: St. Joseph’s, Pitt, Indiana State, Georgia Tech, Stetson, Harvard, Lipscomb, Fairfield, and North Florida, against which Dingler on March 10 had three homers in a single game. A day later, OSU’s season ceased.
A year earlier, as a sophomore, Dinger in 49 games batted .291 with an .816 OPS. And he did it all while missing 18 games with a broken hamate bone in his wrist. Getting the hamate fully healed knocked him out of a summer at the Cape Cod League.
It made matters more complex for scouts who want to see top-gun college talent swinging wooded bats on the rough, tough Cape.
But the Tigers had taken enough notes through the years to stay hot on Dingler. Area scout Austin Cousino was chatting with Dingler as well as Beals, regularly. And when February and March showed that Dingler was on an upward arc with his bat, the Tigers bit.
Their view was in line with that of Baseball America’s scouts, who came to this consensus:
“Scouts believe in Dingler’s catch-and-throw skills and athleticism behind the plate … Dingler has big-league arm strength and threw out 50 percent (21 of 42) runners who attempted to steal against him … Offensively, Dingler has improved year over year and is beginning to tap into his above-average power potential … Some scouts believe he’s more of an ambush hitter who ran into his homers, but he’s always controlled the strike zone and knows how to work a count. With a full 2020 season, Dingler had the potential to go in the draft’s top two rounds. His everyday potential and big arm could keep him in that range even with a shortened season.”
And that’s how the Tigers saw Dingler: Not only as material ripe for grabbing in the top two rounds, but as the second round’s first prize.
‘Ultra-confident in Dillon Dingler’
Since he and his Toledo mates invaded Fifth Third Field six weeks ago, defense has been the menu special, Dingler said, at least as he works with the grayer-beard Tigers catchers: Jake Rogers, Eric Haase, Brady Policelli, and even Frank Schwindel, a first baseman who on occasion grabs a catcher’s mitt.
Supervising them are Tigers coaches and minor-league skippers: Tom Prince, Mike Hessman, Jeff Branson, Gene Roof, and Kenny Graham, the Tigers’ director of player development, as well as Alan Trammell, who, like Parrish, works as an assistant to the Tigers’ GM.
Minor-league catching guru Joe DePastino will be brought on once an extended instructional league begins for Tigers prospects sometime this autumn, which the Tigers hope will happen as they wait for clearance from Major League Baseball.
“We work every single day, trying different things, what I’m having success with, what’s most comfortable for me,” Dingler said, explaining what he’s gained watching, and talking about, the catching styles and techniques of Rogers, Policelli, and Haase.
“Framing, blocking – learning a lot of things there,” Dillard said. “I think the biggest thing, from the coaching staff, is they care about getting strike-calls and not letting baserunners advance. You’ve got to keep the ball in front of you as much as possible.
“I like how they stress that, if you’re doing those things in whatever way possible to get it done, they’ll let you be.”
Pitch-sequencing is part of the curriculum. A catcher has to know his pitcher in deep detail. He needs to be sage, also, in guessing what a hitter might be hunting – or chasing – in a certain count.
It’s at the heart of catcher science. And it’s not a skill best-honed when you see only a certain number of pitchers, which is the story on a taxi squad that has a tight roster and no options to play other teams.
“You learn about pitchers’ comfort levels, what pitches are go-tos in certain situations,” Dingler said. “You start mixing in what’s good for them with what gets guys out, and you have to get pretty creative there seeing the same guys all the time.”
He has noticed one particular plus since leaving Columbus, Ohio, for a summer decked in Tigers gear.
“Guys (pitchers) are usually around the plate,” Dingler said. “That makes my life easier. They’re usually hitting my glove.”
If the old “intangibles” tag means anything – a good bat tends to outstrip “intangibles” each and every time – Dillard’s in nice shape.
He was a classroom whiz at OSU (three-time OSU Scholar-Athlete, twice Big Ten All-Academic) where he was majoring in logistical management and gearing for a career in business had baseball not worked out.
But it has. For now. Beals doubts the Tigers scouts and analytics team missed. He chafes at ideas the Big Ten is some cheap valise compared with sunbelt conferences when it comes to the pitching Dingler saw.
And yet Beals knows all about big-league realities.
“He’s going to have to continue to develop as a hitter, no question – everyone does. He’s been able to hit because he’s been able to be on time,” Beals said, speaking of the split-second process by which pitches are identified and attacked. “He’ll need more rhythm in his swing, and tougher pitching is going to make that tough.
“But he’s such a good catcher, with an arm, that defense will buy him a couple of extra looks.”
Six or more months from now, a prospect’s profile will be fuller. By then minor-league games could be back on schedule and something approaching a normal spring camp might have signaled COVID-19’s demise.
Dingler will be working against farm talent – in a stepping-stone march toward Detroit. That’s the hope, anyway, for Dingler, the Tigers, and for a coach at Columbus.
“I have to compliment the Tigers organization on the homework they did,” Beals said. “This was a big draft for them. And I’m confident they got the guy they’re looking for.
“In fact, I am ultra-confident in Dillon Dingler.”
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