This backup catcher is raking like a star in spring

Detroit Tigers

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jake Rogers had barely completed his trot around the bases and was in the Tigers dugout after his latest home run, a 415-foot drive off the batter’s eye in center field at Hammond Stadium in Sunday’s 6-2 loss to the Twins. He quickly grabbed his catching gear and began suiting up for his main job.

A couple of minutes later, when the Tigers’ two-run third inning ended, Rogers was behind home plate waiting for Joey Wentz to take the mound and begin his warmup pitches.

“With the time limits, they only get a certain number of pitches to throw,” Rogers said. “I just try to get out there just in case he might want to work on something in between innings.”

Besides, it’s not like he hasn’t celebrated a home run already this week. Or last weekend.

“It was good,” he said. “I get my high fives and get a good, stupid saying of mine and then sit down.”

Maybe, but others are noticing.

“You’re raking. You’re raking,” new Twins catcher Christian Vazquez teased as he walked by Rogers’ interview session in front of the Tigers’ clubhouse.

Rogers smiled. But as of late Sunday afternoon Sunday, Rogers was tied for the Grapefruit League lead with three home runs alongside sluggers like Pete Alonso and Matt Olson, as well as promising youngster Jordan Walker. Only Jarred Kelenic had more among Major Leaguers.

No, Rogers probably won’t keep this pace going. But for somebody who had zero at-bats last year while he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and whose career question was whether he’d hit in the Majors — even before his elbow injury in 2021 — it’s a statement.

“It’s really fun to watch Rog play well,” said Wentz, whose lone run allowed over three innings Sunday was a Joey Gallo homer. “Everybody knows he can catch, but he does damage with the bat, too, so it’s fun to watch him hit the ball hard.”

Manager A.J. Hinch is looking at the approach and the swing more than the results.

“I think [the key is] staying in the middle of the field, not getting the ball too far in the air,” Hinch said. “The ball to right-center is really key for him to be an offensive player. He’s got to handle more than just sort of the occasional power. His strike-zone judgment right now is where we’d hoped it would be. He’s swinging at the right pitches. He’s getting rewarded for it in the middle of the field.

“I hope he rewards himself for strike-zone judgment, not so much the homers. Homers are going to happen. When you get in the strike zone, you get good pitches to hit.”

Rogers has always had lift in his swing. His average launch angle in 2021 before his injury was 26.9 degrees, according to Statcast, but he was susceptible to elevated fastballs and breaking pitches. Detroit’s new trio of hitting coaches have worked with him.

“We’ve been working on four-seams at the top, because I get under balls a lot,” he said. “I’m trying to get through the zone on top a little more and hitting four-seams. The home run [Sunday] was a four-seam, up and away.”

They’ve also worked with Rogers on setting a daily routine that fits within his regular catching duties.

“It’s huge,” he said. “And that’s why routines are very important — time management, being able to go in there and get my catching stuff done, go in there right after and go to the cages and work with whoever I’m working with that day. Just go in there and do my stuff for that 30 minutes and then go talk to the pitchers and have our meeting.”

Two of Rogers’ three homers have come off higher velocity, including Sunday’s launch off Pablo López. Rogers added a double Sunday to the wall in right-center off a Tyler Mahle slider. To cap off his day, Rogers threw out a would-be base stealer at second, testing out his surgically repaired elbow.

None of this will likely make Rogers a No. 1 catcher at this point; that role belongs to Eric Haase. But considering the Tigers’ need for offense, having another hitter behind the plate who can complement Haase or possibly allow Haase occasional starts in left field against a left-handed starter is potentially big, which is why Rogers’ favorite part of Sunday’s effort was predictable.

“I mean, runs are good,” Rogers said. “I like runs, so the home run was good. Any chance we can score is good.”

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