Defensive missteps taking a toll on Tigers catcher Eric Haase

Detroit News

St. Petersburg, Fla. — These are frustrating times for Tigers’ catcher Eric Haase, but probably not for the reasons you think.

He’s fighting through a very odd stretch, both at the plate and behind the plate.

Since coming off the injured list (stiff back) on Aug. 27, he’s 11 for 62 (.177) with just two home runs and 16 strikeouts. And yet, the average exit velocity on balls he puts in play is a 90.7 mph — top 25 percentile in baseball. His 47% hard-hit rate is also in the top 20 percentile.

He’s hitting the ball hard and not getting a lot of results. He turned on a pitch from Rays starter Luis Patino in the sixth inning Friday night and scorched it, just foul. Next swing, he hit a two-hopper to third base, 5-4-3 double-play.

You’d think that’s the root of his frustration. But it is not.

“I feel fine physically, but it’s been real frustrating, the on the field stuff,” Haase said before the game Saturday. “I really don’t know what’s going on. Defensively, I feel like I’m doing all the same work. Obviously, I’m a very intense player, so to be making what looks like careless mistakes — just very frustrating.”

Haase endured his seventh passed ball in his 59th game behind the plate Friday night. It came on a swing-and-miss strike. Unusual.

“It wasn’t a cross-up,” he said, meaning he and pitcher Casey Mize were on the same page with the signs and pitch. “We were trying to go back-door and it ended up back foot. We got a swing on it and at the time I thought it was a foul ball. I got it right off the bottom of my glove.

“That’s another example. It wasn’t where we were going with the pitch, Casey missed his spot, but at the same time, that’s a ball that has to be caught.”

In the ninth inning, he allowed Austin Meadows to steal second base without a throw. That put the potential winning run in scoring position.

“I had a good grip on the ball, but the pitch took me behind the batter,” he said, adding that he felt it would’ve been too risky to try to make that throw.

More: Hinch laments putting Michael Fulmer in tough spot in loss to Rays

It’s the defensive missteps that he can’t abide.

“I feel like I take the defensive part so seriously,” Haase said. “I want these guys to succeed and I have much more of a hand in winning ballgames defensively than I do offensively a lot of times. To be still winning a lot of these games behind the plate is a very good sign and I take a lot of pride in that.”

According to Baseball Reference, he’s a minus-3 defensive runs saved behind the plate. Statcast grades him at minus-five in framing strikes. He’s thrown out 28% of would-be base stealers (9 of 32) which is slightly above the league average.

“A couple of times I felt like I had opportunities to throw a guy out and I left it arm-side high (to second base),” he said. “Missing an errant pitch that’s catchable, even if it’s not a strike, that kind of thing is more frustrating than the offensive stuff.”

Control the emotions

Manager AJ Hinch said Haase was still stalking around the clubhouse Saturday, upset with himself about Friday night.

“I’m sure it’s weighing on him a little,” Hinch said. “He burst on the scene and had such success, and the opportunity is still his to take. He wants to do well. He’s a pretty emotional player and he gets pretty frustrated with himself, so I’m sure it bleeds into all aspects when he comes to the ballpark.

“That’s an area of growth and development for him. It’s just like parenting. You’re going to let them do that, let them learn, let them experience that and then let them walk the path back to success.”

Hinch always says Haase is one good swing from getting hot again at the plate and that’s been proven true, as his 21 homers attest. Haase believes that, too, he’s just getting a little antsy waiting for that one good swing.

“It’s not even like the pitchers are making adjustments to me,” Haase said. “It’s not like the book is out on me and they are making pitches I can’t handle. I’m fouling off good pitches to hit or I’m hitting it right at people. I’m not at the right (launch) angle I should be at.

“But that’s baseball. It’s not some hill I need to overcome.”

A defensive slump, though, that’s a little unprecedented for him and he’s searching for a way out of that.

“The name of the game is scoring runs and over the course of the season, that’s where I’ve added a lot of value — with the bat,” he said. “But at the same time, I’ve had periods where I’ve been ice cold for a couple of weeks and still caught well and the bat has come around.

“To be making some very easy mistakes behind the plate has been very frustrating for me.”

Unwavering faith

Haase has caught in 59 games. He’s played left field in 19 and was the designated hitter for 10. He does early work at three positions nearly every day — catcher, outfield and first base. You wonder, coming off the short season last year, if fatigue is a factor in his recent struggles.

“In a normal season, I wouldn’t feel the slightest bit of fatigue,” Haase said. “I prepare to catch 120-140 games a year. But maybe last year, not having that stimulus, maybe that’s playing a factor. I don’t know. I feel really good coming to the park.”

He has lost some weight but he says that’s been helpful, especially playing left field. He feels like he is lighter and more athletic. But all the extra work might be exacting a toll, even if it’s more of a mental fatigue.

“It’s a lot more than I’m used to,” he said. “But I see the value in it, and the staff does, as well. You know, the staff is not freaking out about this one bit, which makes me feel a little better. AJ still has a lot of faith in me.”

That remains unwavering.

“I’m not going to stop relying on him,” Hinch said. “I’m not going to stop playing him. We’re going to encourage him and let him know when he has missteps at times — and then we’re going to watch him flourish.

“He has a chance to finish strong. You hope he can learn to not let things pile up on him the way they have the last four to six weeks.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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