Detroit — Eric Haase didn’t need to check Twitter or read the transaction wire to know what might be in store for him this season.
For the rest of us, a little bell went off back in November when the Tigers announced they’d tendered a contract to veteran catcher Dustin Garneau. It meant they are at least considering carrying three catchers on the major league roster, which means Haase’s role might be expanded beyond just being Tucker Barnhart’s backup.
Haase, who caught, played left field and, for two innings, first base last season, already knew that.
“Yeah, regardless of the roster construction, AJ (Hinch, manager) was very vocal at the end of the year and in the first couple of days of the offseason about me continuing to play more positions,” Haase said Thursday afternoon, driving back to his Livonia home from his daily workout in Ypsilanti. “He really likes my bat off the bench, like against left-handed pitchers late in the game.
“I think with the trade for Tucker, it’s a great move. It gives us a lot of depth, with him being a left-handed hitter, with Dustin being great behind the plate – it gives us a lot of flexibility on the roster. With me playing other positions, it kind of fills all those gaps without having to carry 30 guys.”
The whole utility role thing was dropped into Haase’s lap early last spring.
Ever since he was drafted in the seventh round by the Cleveland Guardians out of Dearborn Divine Child in 2011, Haase has designed his offseason workouts to prepare him to handle the rigors of the catching position. But out of the blue, Hinch asked him if he’d consider playing other positions.
At the time, Haase was ticketed to start the season in Triple-A Toledo. He’d already been designated for assignment once by the Tigers and Hinch was looking for a way to expand his skill set to better the chances of getting his main asset, his power bat, to the big leagues — be it in Detroit or elsewhere.
Of course, Haase accepted the challenge. Happily. Suddenly, he was starting spring training games in left field and taking practice reps at first base. And we know the results. He ended up playing 98 games with the Tigers, 66 behind the plate, 22 in left, two innings at first and 11 as the designated hitter.
And about that bat. Regardless of the final stat line, man did he hit the ball hard. The average exit velocity on balls he put in play was 91 mph. He ranked in the top 16 percentile in baseball with a 48% hard-hit rate. His barrel percentage, balls hit 95 mph or better, was 13.7 — top 14 percentile.
He slugged 22 home runs, knocked in 61 runs and posted a 1.9 WAR. He was a plus-1 defensive runs saved in left field and he threw out 31% of attempted base stealers.
Haase was a helluva story last season. The hometown kid who grew up a Tigers’ fan suddenly found himself hitting behind his idol Miguel Cabrera in the Hinch’s batting order, swatting home runs and even catching a no-hitter (Spencer Turnbull’s).
Running on fumes
But there was a toll.
The daily and pre-game prep for being a catcher in the big leagues is, by itself, exhausting. There’s a reason catchers don’t typically double as utility players. Add in the additional grind of not just preparing to play, but learning to play left field and first base — well, Haase was running on fumes most of the last month of the season.
“The difference was playing the different positions,” Haase said. “I basically trained one way — to be a catcher — since I’ve been in professional baseball. So the natural flow of the other positions, trying to learn them on the fly at the highest level, I tried to be a sponge and just soak in as much information as possible.
“But when it came down to it, I was doing the work of three positions, trying to roll out and play every night. I probably could’ve gone about it a little better, in hindsight. It was a learning process.”
Just watching Haase’s pre-game routine was exhausting. Besides the daily pitcher and hitter meetings, and his own batting practice routine, Haase, if he wasn’t doing early drills with outfield coach George Lombard, would be tracking balls in the outfield while other players took their swings. Later he would grab his first baseman’s glove, still not fully broken in, and take a few ground balls.
Fatigue, mental and physical, was inevitable. His production waned dramatically in August and September — .208/.263/.319 over his last 40 games, with 49 strikeouts and four home runs. He started feeling tightness and pain in his back and went on the injured list on Aug. 14.
He came back on Aug. 27 but struggled to regain his timing at the plate.
“It was really frustrating,” he said. “You look at my season, it was a tale of two seasons in one. There was the first part where I was making all the adjustments and laying off more pitches and getting better pitches to hit, making pitchers come into the zone.
“Then, once my back started flaring up, I didn’t have as much juice in my bat as I was accustomed to. So I started pressing, swinging a little too hard, trying to do damage on pitches I’m not able to do damage on. It kind of spun on me a little bit.”
Haase is quiet by nature, but his competitive fire smolders. It’s a blessing and a curse. That fire helped him persevere through 10 minor-league seasons, but it came close to consuming him as his frustrations mounted last season. The harder he tried to douse the flame, the hotter things got. He started chasing pitches out of the strike zone (33% chase rate) and the strikeouts mounted (31% strikeout rate).
“You know, when I was hitting my stride, it didn’t matter if it was a fastball or breaking ball or off-speed, anything over the plate I was hitting it hard,” Haase said. “It was just always going to be a battle of not going off the plate. These are the best pitchers in the world we’re facing. Sometimes they just aren’t going to give you anything to hit.
“I have to be more accepting of that.”
Also what he learned, there are more ways to contribute offensively than hitting balls over the fence. He hit his 22nd and final home run on Sept. 19, but over his last six games, he hit .320 (8 for 25).
“I was having more productive at-bats, driving in some runs and getting big hits in big situations,” Haase said. “I was able to take a deep breath and realize I can help the team win in other ways than just hitting the long ball. I was happy with that adjustment and starting to feel better at the plate.
“Just kind of ran out of time.”
‘A lot more to give’
He’s working to make sure that doesn’t happen this year. He took a couple of weeks off to let the inflammation in his back subside but has been hard at it for more than two months now.
He puts himself through a rigorous physical therapy program twice a week on top of daily workouts at Play At The Cage facility in Ypsilanti, where he has incorporated more agility and flexibility work into his regimen to prepare for the expanded role.
“Just looking at how I was going about learning the new positions last year, I think I was doing too much overall, even carrying it into the games a little bit,” Haase said. “I’m also going to be a guy who never shies away from hard work. But I think being more comfortable playing those different positions now, I’ll need a little less work to maintain that going forward.”
It’s a comfort to Haase, knowing the expectations heading into spring training and being able to set his routine, streamline his workouts and just check off boxes every day. He’s also excited about working with Barnhart. The two shared a spring training complex in Arizona when Haase was with Cleveland and Barnhart with Cincinnati.
“I’m so excited to learn from him,” Haase said. “He’s a Gold Glove catcher who has reworked his catching style over the last four or five years…I think, too, with him being a left-handed bat and me being right-handed, it’s going to put us both in more situations to be successful.
“When we have those stretches where we face a bunch of tough right-handed pitchers, that might be a good chance for Tucker to get on a roll. Then when we face some tough lefties, that fits right into my bread and butter. It can help us both.”
Barnhart over his career has a .722 OPS against right-handed pitching, including 45 of his 51 home runs. Haase last season posted a .907 OPS and slugged .592 against lefties.
“I got to be in the big leagues for an extended period of time last year, something I had been looking forward to for a very long time,” Haase said. “I’m happy with the way the season went. Obviously, I’d like to have done better. But I feel I have a lot more to give.
“I feel like I left a little bit in the tank, as far as I could’ve done things a little more efficiently. This year I am going in with a very clear plan. I learned a lot last year. I can’t wait to see what happens this year.”