DETROIT — Every compliment Tigers manager A.J. Hinch pays young catcher Jake Rogers has to come with a qualifier, for fear he’ll get a big head.
“I don’t like giving Jake too much credit,” Hinch admitted Sunday.
Still, Rogers has had quite a week. He homered in back-to-back games Wednesday and Thursday, and hit his first Major League triple. On Friday, he became the first Major League catcher in four years to tag out a runner trying to steal second base. But Saturday was the capper.
Rogers hadn’t pitched since before high school. But with the Tigers having used four pitchers to cover Saturday’s first six innings, and a bullpen game looming on Sunday, Rogers got a heads-up in the fifth inning to get his arm ready.
“Everybody kind of saw me talk to A.J. and then leave and then go grab my infield glove, so they were kind of curious,” Rogers said. “I walked in the dugout, sat down and [Michael] Fulmer kind of looked at me and was like, ‘You pitching?’
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m gonna go in the seventh, maybe the eighth.’ He was like, ‘All right, don’t screw it up.’ And I said, ‘Man, I couldn’t be more nervous right now, so I don’t think that’s really helping me.’”
Despite the inexperience, the call made sense. Rogers has a strong arm from behind the plate, getting into the 80 mph range trying to pick off a runner at first base earlier in the week.
Rogers took the mound for the eighth inning trying to walk a velocity tightrope between throwing hard enough for game speed but not hard enough to stress his arm or freak out his manager.
“I was trying to throw it slow and I just couldn’t throw strikes with it,” he said. “And then finally, I was like, ‘I’ve got to throw a little harder.’ And A.J. didn’t like that.”
Sure enough, Statcast showed Rogers’ velocity climb from the mid- to upper 60s for Leury García’s infield single and Danny Mendick’s walk, to 71 mph for Zack Collins’ RBI double off the right-field wall, to 78 mph for Brian Goodwin’s comebacker, then into the 80s against Yasmani Grandal and Andrew Vaughn.
“Collins took me off the wall. He even looked [at] me mid-pitch and just kind of shook his head and smiled,” Rogers said. “And I said, ‘Ground ball, please.’”
Though Rogers suggested that the velocity jump was why he didn’t get to pitch the ninth, Hinch said he didn’t want Rogers to wear himself out on the mound before catching Sunday. Plus, he had infielder Harold Castro available, having used him to pitch an inning earlier in the season. So when Castro took the mound for the ninth, Rogers took his spot at third base.
Still, the entire scene highlighted the relationship that the former catcher turned manager has with his young catcher.
“I have fun with Jake. I have a good rapport with him. I can relate to him, and I think vice versa,” Hinch said. “I’ve just tried to share my experiences as a player and then as a manager and my expectations behind the plate. I pride myself as a manager having a close-knit relationship with my catchers, partly because of my background, but also because a huge extension of the manager and the pitching coach is that catcher behind the plate. I trust him and I spend a lot of time with him and I’m highly invested. …
“But Jake is a personality that you can poke fun at and use as an example. He will give it right back, which is a staple of the type of culture that I like to have.”
Considering Rogers came up through the Tigers’ system catching top pitching prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, it’s not surprising that getting a chance to pitch himself was a highlight.
“I always wanted to do it,” he said. “I always knew I could throw strikes. That’s what really kind of made me mad [with the walk to Mendick]. I think I threw out a swear word on the mound. I hope TV didn’t get it. Sorry, Mom, if they did.
“But it was pretty cool to have that pitching experience, have a little fun with it. It’s not [the] best that we’re down 10 or whatever. We want to win, but at the same time, I was just wanting to go out there and have fun and enjoy it and soak it all in. I don’t know if I’ll get to do it again or not.”