After Year 2, Eric Haase hopes consistent playing time continues with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

There was a time when Eric Haase was slumping badly.

He wanted more playing time.

And then he heated up.

Haase finished the 2022 season as the Detroit Tigers‘ best hitter, with a 112 wRC+ and 1.3fWAR of production in 110 games. He came into the year as one of three catchers on the Opening Day roster, a backup to Tucker Barnhart, expecting to play more left field than catcher and serve as a specialist off the bench against left-handed pitching. At-bats were scare for Haase, though, as he came off the bench in eight of his 16 games through May 1. He slumped early and started 37% of the Tigers’ games before June 16, then 57% the rest of the way.

He hit .280 with 12 home runs in that stretch, covering the Tigers’ final 99 games.

“I’m happy to be here,” Haase said in September. “It’s been a long time coming, putting in a lot of work. I’m happy to see that paying off. To find some consistency I’m more happy with, being able to play at this level every single day is a huge thing for me. Looking down the road, I’m trying to stay with that consistency.”

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Upon further examination, Haase improved over his first two full seasons in the big leagues.

He has earned his playing time and firmly established himself with the Tigers.

Haase, who turns 30 in December, didn’t crush as many homers — his total dropped from 22 to 14 — but his wRC+ jumped, from 101 to 112 (with 100 as league average). His strikeout rate dropped, from 31.2% to 27.6%, while his walk rate stayed at 6.8%. And his performance against right-handed pitchers skyrocketed, from a .661 OPS in 2021 to a .731 OPS in 2022.

“That’s all I’m trying to do, get something out over the plate that I can put forward,” Haase said. “When I simplify it down to that, it doesn’t matter what he’s throwing. I’m just trying to get a good pitch and move it forward. When I do that, a lot of success has followed.”

At the beginning of 2022, Haase struggled in his role as a bench player because he didn’t feel comfortable in his limited plate appearances. He spent the offseason working on breaking balls from right-handers, but he wasn’t getting consistent chances in those situations, so he never found a rhythm. Early in the season, he would typically start one of the three games in a series and come off the bench in a late-game hitting situation in at least one other game. That made it difficult to adjust to the opposing team’s pitching staff in the middle of games and plate appearances, especially in situations when he had to face righties. Sometimes, he would guess without a firm plan.

On June 19, Haase talked about his playing time for the first time. He was in the starting lineup for the third time in a four-game series against the Texas Rangers, following the day Riley Greene made his MLB debut. The whole team seemed energized, but many failed to sustain the short burst of success.

But Haase kept hitting.

“He’s been able to control right-handed pitching a little bit better,” manager A.J. Hinch said Oct. 1. “He has a big swing. He has bat speed. He has power. It’s a natural look to being a threatening hitter against left-handed pitching, but he’s been better against right-handed pitching and different styles.”

Journeyman catcher Dustin Garneau — who retired after the season — was designated for assignment in early May, ending Hinch’s three-catcher experiment. Barnhart, locked in as the starter coming out of spring training, started 33 games from April 8 through May 31 but only 14 games each in June, July and August and 15 games from Sept. 1 through Oct. 4.

Throughout the shift in playing time, Haase maintained a strong relationship with his manager. He described Hinch, a former MLB catcher, as a “great communicator” and picked his brain on matchups and situations as a hitter and catcher. The wide-open communication is something Haase hadn’t experienced before.

“I talk with A.J. all the time,” Haase said. “Regardless of if I’m getting hits or driving in runs, I feel like I’m giving him good at-bats. He can trust me in situations. I’m proud of that aspect. That’s a good feeling. It was a question mark for a long time.”

On Sept. 7, Haase went 5-for-5 with two doubles and one home run against the Los Angeles Angels. He became the eighth Tigers catcher in franchise history to record five hits in a single game and the first to do so since Pudge Rodriguez in 2006. Only Haase, Rodriguez and Pinky Hargrave (1929) hit a homer in their five-hit performances.

In the next game, on Sept. 9, Haase finished 3-for-5 with one double and two homers against the Kansas City Royals.

He is a below-average defender with poor pitch framing, but over the past two seasons, his offense ranked eight among 18 catchers with more than 700 plate appearances. His combined 106 wRC+ trailed only Will Smith, Alejandro Kirk, Willson Contreras, Salvador Perez, J.T. Realmuto, Sean Murphy and Yasmani Grandal.

“He’s still very new in his career,” Hinch said, referencing Haase’s 53 plate appearances in MLB before the 2021 season. “I think he’s matured and finally feels like a big leaguer in his hometown. That’s not easy to do when you have the career path that he’s had. He’s always been disappointed by one break or another that hasn’t gone his way.”

Now that the offseason has arrived, Haase is taking some time away from baseball and enjoying life as a husband and father in Livonia. His mind, however, is already preparing for 2023, as he entered the offseason with clear goals for the future. By November, he plans to start baseball activities once or twice per week at Play at The Cage in Ypsilanti. From there, it’s a slow build to spring training.

He doesn’t like to feel rushed when February rolls around.

Last offseason, the Tigers traded for Barnhart on Nov. 3 and immediately bumped Haase into a backup role. This time around, the organization — under new president of baseball operations Scott Harris — could acquire another catcher while awaiting the development of its prospects. With Barnhart hitting free agency, there will be three catchers on the 40-man roster: Haase, Jake Rogers and Michael Papierski.

Rogers, acquired in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, is returning from Tommy John surgery, while Papierski, a former San Francisco Giant, was claimed off waivers Oct. 14 from the Cincinnati Reds. Adding another catcher makes sense, but regardless of the Tigers’ path forward, Haase should play a key role in 2023.

Maybe he’ll get to compete for the starting job.

“I’ve gotten close to him as a catcher, to a father, to a journeyman myself,” Hinch said. “I think I can relate to his perseverance as an endearing quality. He’s tough, man. Tough mentally, tough physically. He wasn’t given a ton of opportunity early, despite the 20 homers. And he loves the Tigers. That matters.”

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