There’s a reason Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch made starting catcher Wilson Ramos the designated hitter Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins. It’s the same reason why Ramos was absent from Sunday’s clash with the Cleveland Indians.
And Hinch’s usage of backup catcher Grayson Greiner goes beyond giving Ramos a break — Greiner’s defense, game planning and relationships with his batterymates warrant more than an occasional appearance.
The decisions involve the development of Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize, the top two pitching prospects in the organization. Skubal, 24, started Sunday; Mize, 23, started Tuesday. Each time, the 28-year-old Greiner crouched behind the plate.
“Sometimes you just create this rhythm between a pitcher and a catcher, and it works,” Hinch said Sunday. “We’ll see if it continues. I’m sure at some point I’ll have Ramos catch Skubal and Mize, and I’ll have Greiner catch one of the more veteran pitchers. But that chemistry started to build in spring training, so I continued it.”
Last season, Skubal pitched two of his eight games with Greiner as his catcher. Mize tossed three of his seven games to Greiner. Oftentimes, Skubal, Mize and Greiner are seen in discussion together when the three aren’t playing.
“Different parts of the games, I put myself in the pitcher’s shoes,” Skubal said about those conversations on the bench. “What pitch would I throw here? Or what pitch would you think about throwing here? Just those little things to build that chemistry and talk baseball.”
“It really happened over the spring,” Hinch said Monday. “I didn’t come in with any preconceived notion.”
Mize earned additional reps with Greiner toward the end of camp as well.
The Tigers signed Ramos to a one-year, $2 million contract this winter, picking the offense-first catcher instead of former Tiger Alex Avila, a defense-first catcher and general manager Al Avila’s son. Alex Avila ended up with the Washington Nationals.
So far, Ramos is struggling with receiving pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. He has a tough time adjusting to sharp movement, especially low in the strike zone. This makes trying to catch splitters from both prospects a difficult task.
To establish themselves in the majors, Skubal and Mize must grow under a catcher they can depend on defensively. Hinch upon naming Greiner the backup described him as “one of the smartest game planners we have” and explained trust is “developed quickly” with the pitchers.
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“Really smart, does his homework,” Mize said of Greiner. “I feel confident in him back there because I know that he knows the hitters better than I do. The confidence in that is great, and he’s a big body back there, too. With runners in scoring position, I feel comfortable burying the ball because I know he’s going to block it. The confidence level is really high with Grayson.”
Skubal added: “I’m very comfortable about what he calls. We’re on the same page for the most part.”
Don’t mistake Greiner’s activity with Skubal and Mize as a personal catcher situation. There will likely be at least a couple of games where the 33-year-old Ramos catches them, Hinch said. Whenever right-hander Matt Manning makes his debut this season, the Tigers could have three prospects in the starting rotation.
And Greiner is unlikely to start three games per week.
More so, Hinch doesn’t want to make personal catchers a part of his long-term plan.
“Let’s say you’re in Game 7 of the World Series and you have a personal catcher, and you’re losing an MVP caliber catcher behind the plate,” Hinch said. “Does that make you feel very good? I mean, you can’t predict every scenario, so I’d like all our players to be available so I can play the best matchup.”
New lineup configuration
Facing Twins left-hander J.A. Happ on Tuesday, Hinch rolled out a fresh lineup. He penned utility player Niko Goodrum as the leadoff hitter. Robbie Grossman — typically at the top of the order — slid down to sixth in the lineup.
“I see him getting a lot of at-bats against left-handed pitching,” Hinch said about Goodrum. “If you look at his history, he’s had complete comfort hitting right-handed. I mean, right-handed, he’s been a pretty productive player.”
As a left-handed hitter, Goodrum has a career .205 batting average, 29 home runs and 97 RBIs in 795 at-bats, with 293 strikeouts and 82 walks. From the right side, he hits .323 with four home runs and 21 RBIs in 254 at-bats, with 60 strikeouts and 26 walks.
Last season, Goodrum had a 38.6% strikeout rate.
Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo has homered in back-to-back games to start his MLB career, but Hinch isn’t giving him another start quite yet. Because Baddoo is a left-handed hitter, his manager went with righty JaCoby Jones.
“This is our first look at a lefty, so this is the lineup I’m going with,” Hinch said, “but this is a perfect example of how guys need to check the board every day to see where they’re hitting.”