Tigers prospect Dillon Dingler gets back in swing of things after bout with COVID-19

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Somewhere from the moment he left Toledo the week of Sept. 20 and headed home to North Canton, Ohio, symptoms showed up.

Fever. Chills. A diminished sense of taste.

Then, the diagnosis: COVID-19 had blindsided another Tigers prospect, and another of the millions who have been slammed by a hundred-year pandemic.

Dillon Dingler wasn’t leaving North Canton. Not for 10 days, when he would be isolated at his parents’ home.

Nor was he leaving that week for a trip to Lakeland, Florida, and five weeks of instructional camp at the TigerTown baseball factory.

A season that already had once been quashed last spring in the waning weeks of his junior year at Ohio State, was again getting shut down for a man and right-handed batting catcher who a few days earlier (Sept. 17) turned 22.

“I have yet to know who I got it from,” Dingler said, speaking of his coronavirus bout during a Friday phone conversation. “It could have been from another place, maybe even a gas station.

“None of my friends I was with got it. None of my teammates or my family did. Nobody got it except me.

“I never truly understood where I got it.”

He was in isolation for 10 days, watching big-league playoff baseball, taking in movies here and there, or reading when he wasn’t watching whatever. He didn’t feel overly ill. Didn’t lose any weight. And other than risking death by boredom, there wasn’t any undue misery.

But he was done with baseball — formally, anyway, in 2020.

That, he concedes, is what hurt most: missing those five weeks in Lakeland. And not only because a 35-day baseball seminar would be so enriching for a man who last June was the Tigers’ second pick in this year’s MLB Draft.

Dingler wanted to get acquainted with the other “kids” in the Tigers system. There would be the guys drafted this year — Daniel Cabrera, Trei Cruz, Gage Workman, and Colt Keith. There would be dozens of others who, like him, are all hoping to climb that stepladder known as the minors and someday make it to Detroit. Or to another big-league venue.

Summer school

Some of the guys he already knew. That came courtesy of Dingler’s place on a 60-man summer squad, split between Detroit and Toledo, with his venue Fifth Third Field along with this year’s first-overall pick, Spencer Torkelson, as well as Tigers hot-ticket prospect Riley Greene, and later, Parker Meadows.

There, he got a taste of what big-league pitching is like.

Quite the tutorial it was.

Dingler saw hard stuff. And soft stuff. And pitches that moved at speeds and gyrations he had never seen during those years at Ohio State, where he was captain, and an all-around artisan of such skill that Buckeyes coach Greg Beals even used him in center field.

The Tigers weren’t bothered that a broken hamate bone crimped part of Dingler’s sophomore season and ruined his shot at playing summer ball at the Cape Cod League where college baseball’s hotshots tend to congregate for a wood-bat experience against America’s best amateurs.

They liked how he hit pretty much at any point during his OSU days: .816 OPS his sophomore season, followed by a 13-game cameo in 2020, with an 1.164 OPS and five home runs in his final week of work, which crashed when COVID shut down the Big Ten and all of college baseball.

Tigers scouts were so impressed with his overall game, and his 6-foot-3, 220-pound superstructure, they drafted him 38th overall and handed him $1.95 million to say farewell to his senior year at OSU.

Then they tossed him to baseball’s wolfpack — a big-league environment in July at Comerica Park, followed by eight weeks at Toledo. All before he had played a single minor-league game.

His bat was turned into ash by too many pitches, even when he did make contact. But the lessons were less discouraging than was the upside of spending two months with big-leaguers or big-league-destined talent.

“I enjoyed every second,” Dingler said Friday. “A big, big learning experience, especially learning a lot from guys about their routines. What’s the norm? And how some of the young — and older — guys had gotten to their particular place.”

He mentioned that “from every single coach down there I learned a lot” and that his biggest takeaway probably dealt with his position: catcher.

“I took a big leap in learning pitchers,” said Dingler, who was a three-sport dazzler at Jackson High, in Massillon, Ohio, with football but one example of his flexibility as he punted, played safety, and worked at wide receiver.

“I’ve always known that the key at my position was to know your staff, and that goes beyond what a pitcher offers on the mound. You need to know who they are as a person, what their mentality is.”

He appreciates that instructional camp “was probably more for fine-tuning” after his Toledo stint. And for all the mundane routine in place at the Tigers’ taxi-squad stop — check in, get COVID-tested, work on drills, play an intra-squad game, go home, avoid crowds, do it all over again the next day — he felt blessed.

For one enduring reason.

“I was fortunate to have been playing when a lot of other guys weren’t playing,” he said, talking about thousands of prospects who, minus their minor-league schedules, were left to work out on their own.

Bat to basics

What couldn’t be measured at all accurately the past summer, Dingler agrees, is where he sits, offensively.

A man that would have been playing with the Gulf Coast League kids at Lakeland, or more likely would have graduated to Single-A ball at Connecticut, or West Michigan, was instead mixing it up with seasoned talents and pitchers who weren’t going to take it easy on Dingler or his bat.

His athleticism and size make him an ideal fit as a long-term catcher. Maybe more likely as a long-haul back-up catcher.

That all hinges on his hitting. If the bat comes around, the Tigers will have wagered well on taking him 38th overall and looking at Dingler as a potential starter, or even, star.

What he took from the past summer was a basic reminder that, in terms of hitting, this was no place to experiment. Nuanced work is better left for back-to-normal seasons on the farm where he can duel against same-level pitching.

“One of the biggest things I learned, offensively, this year was that I don’t need to change anything swing to swing,” Dingler said. “If your swing’s good enough to get you there, trust in it. It’s consistency you want in every swing, which means getting a lot of reps, looking at a lot of video — doing small little drills, ingraining muscle-memory into a certain move.

“And the biggest thing of all — keeping a good mentality going to the (batter’s) box. Swinging at what you want to swing at. Don’t let the pitcher have the upper hand in that aspect.

“The game is hard enough as it is.”

There was one act, mechanically, he was able to tweak at Toledo.

“I was getting rotational with my swing,” he said. “It was cutting me off a little big — I wasn’t getting extended through the middle. I learned quickly you don’t have to generate power. It will come from good, clean moves. If you make good contact, the power follows.”

Dingler is digging his healthy body and old strength levels two months after the COVID interlude. He’s back living on the outskirts of OSU’s campus, in Columbus, and works out at a nearby gym. Several times a week he heads for the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Development complex in nearby Hilliard for more body-polishing, hitting in cages, and overall grooming.

The Tigers are satisfied.

“Obviously, in a crazy year like this it would have been great to have had him at instructional,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development, “but he was able to get tremendous experience at Toledo — a lot more than most guys.”

The printout from Dingler’s time on the 60-man squad was, Littlefield says, more than satisfactory.

“Very impressive,” he said. “He came in under challenging circumstances, not having played in a while, then probably was surprised that he would be working with the best players in the world (at Detroit and Toledo). But he showed improvement in every aspect.

“He’s just such a good athlete. He fought his way through it. Naturally, there were some challenging times against quality major-league pitching. But, overall, you saw a lot of progress.”

What happens next is, of course, all up to a marauding world virus. And, more likely, to how rapidly vaccines arrive in 2021.

If best-case scenarios evolve, the Tigers — and Dingler — hope for something approximating a normal spring camp, whenever it convenes. And, most of all, a regular minor-league schedule, even if it begins a bit later than customary.

Dingler only wants what all big-league prospects crave in December of this most anguished year: a chance to play games, a return to more normal rhythms and seasons.

“I believe I handled it well,” he says of his early-autumn COVID crisis. “But I wasn’t nearly as affected as some. My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones.”

Or jobs.

Full-time jobs. Pay-the-rent, buy-the-groceries jobs.

“I’m working back into that,” he said. “But compared with others, this wasn’t too tough.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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