Detroit — There has been a plot twist in the Jake Rogers story.
He’s not the prospect with frustratingly untapped potential any more. He’s not the guy even a supreme motivator and communicator like AJ Hinch couldn’t reach early on this spring. By the game, Rogers is carving his niche as not only a dependable defensive catcher, but as an impactful one, a player who can produce at the plate as well as behind it.
“I love the story as it is now,” Hinch said. “And it’ll get better if he can continue this. He can’t get too comfortable or fall back in any of those areas. But the work he’s put in and the way he’s gone about it has been impressive.
“It has gained the respect of the pitching staff and it has gained the respect of me.”
His performance Wednesday night showed what a weapon he can be. He hit a 423-foot home run over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center field. He also drew two walks and scored two runs. He created the first Tigers run in the third inning with his legs, advancing to third on a fly ball to right with one out and scoring on a sacrifice fly.
But it was behind the plate where did his best work. He coaxed and cajoled starter Casey Mize through six innings on a night Mize admittedly did not have his best stuff. Rogers bailed him out of a long sixth inning by throwing out Taylor Trammell trying to steal second.
Rogers has thrown out five of the six runners who have tried to steal on him this season.
The flash play, though, came in the eighth. Lefty Gregory Soto was brought in with two outs and the go-ahead run at first to face Trammell, who bats left-handed. Soto completely ignored the runner, Jake Fraley, and he easily stole second to get into scoring position.
Soto’s next pitch bounced to the backstop. Rogers, though, pounced on the long carom and threw a bullet to third base to get Fraley. Fraley was stunned. He looked back at Rogers in utter disbelief.
“I’ve been playing against Jake a long time,” Rogers said. “We had a big rivalry, LSU (Fraley) and Tulane. All through college. He’s a good guy. We’ve been playing against each other forever. I’m sure he’s gotten a few bags on me, but I’ve gotten him a bunch, too.”
Rogers’ transformation certainly hasn’t been as sudden as it seems from the outside. But it’s clear that something has clicked and he’s performing like the “catcher of the future” the Tigers thought they had traded for in 2017.
“Not getting called up last year was an eye-opening experience for Jake,” Hinch said. “Being passed over, as a player you have to take that personally and take account of what you have to do to make yourself better and be open to change and whatever adjustments you have to make.”
There were times when Rogers might have relied too heavily on his athleticism and elite skills, at the expense of proper technique and fundamentals behind the plate. That was the emphasis this spring when Hinch, a former catcher, got his hands on him.
Hinch stressed to Rogers that as a catcher, defense was his top priority. He could not go into a slump behind the plate. He needed to pay attention to every detail. He needed to clean up his mechanics. He needed to really lock in on the data and game-planning. It wasn’t enough to be a great athlete behind the plate, he needed to be a polished, professional catcher.
“Fast forward to spring training and he’s in a competition (for a roster spot) and he loses out,” Hinch said. “There’s another defining moment for him to reassess what he needs to do to get better.”
When Rogers was passed over in 2020, after making his debut in 2019, he admitted that he let the frustration get to him. This time, he didn’t sulk or pout, he just went to work. And when he got called up in early May, he seemed, at 26, like a full-grown professional.
“I just come here and play,” he said. “If it’s make-or-break, it is what it is. I’m not a kid. I’m 26. I’m wanting to be up here and stay with these guys and help us win games. I don’t think it’s make-or-break.
“I’m just coming here to play and do my best.”
With veteran catchers Wilson Ramos and Grayson Greiner still working through injuries in Lakeland, both Rogers and Eric Haase are seizing the catcher spot. And Hinch has no problem with that.
“Jake has responded, which is what you ask out of players,” he said.