Lakeland, Fla. — Having the option of playing catcher Eric Haase in left field isn’t a just-in-case-of-emergency thing for the Tigers. It’s not even about creating a way to carry three catchers on the roster, though it would facilitate that if warranted.
Being able to play Haase in left field opens another level of matchup options for manager AJ Hinch, especially when three-fourths of his regular outfielders bat left-handed — which is the presumption with Riley Greene in center, Austin Meadows in right and either Akil Baddoo or Kerry Carpenter in left.
Matt Vierling, who likely will see time in the infield, too, is the only right-handed hitting outfielder.
Enter right-handed hitting Haase, who made his first left field start of the spring Monday in St. Petersburg against the Rays.
“It’s another way to be in the lineup and another way to help the team,” Haase said Monday morning in Lakeland as he was packing his bag before heading out onto I-4. “Like, I completely understand. If there’s a left-handed pitcher that’s a good matchup for both me and Rog (catcher Jake Rogers, also a right-handed hitter), and you can still have a designated hitter, that’s a huge win for everybody.”
Or, in a game that Haase doesn’t start, Hinch has a right-handed power threat on his bench to use later in the game when the opponent goes to the bullpen.
“And I can stay in the game (in left field) so we don’t have to give up the catcher who’s been in there the whole game,” Haase said.
And not for nothing, playing left field is a way for Haase, who’s hit 36 homers in the last two seasons playing part-time, to get more at-bats.
“A lot of my stats came from playing left field in games where I wouldn’t have even been in the lineup in 2021,” Haase said. “It was like 80 to 100 at-bats I wouldn’t have had.”
Haase played 22 games in left field in 2021 and 11 last season. Those games got him and extra 102 plate appearances which he exploited for five doubles, nine home runs, 22 RBIs and a .604 slugging percentage and a .918 OPS.
A good percentage of those extra at-bats came against left-handed pitching, which Haase has feasted on (.280 with a .519 slugging percentage the last two seasons).
Having Haase as an option in left field may be a no-brainer strategically, but it’s a tough ask physically, especially of a guy who is likely to catch 100-plus games or more this season. In 2021, Haase admitted the double duty drained him by the end of that season, as reflected in his .208 batting average and just four home runs the last two months.
Haase, though, has changed his body considerably since 2021. He is stronger but leaner, less catcher bulk more agile and athletic and, he said, better equipped to handle both positions.
“The way I train, I do more active stuff and not just sitting with a bar on my back going up and down and side to side,” Haase said. “I do a lot of upright stuff, a lot of hip-opening stuff.”
A lot of running, sprint work, agility work, which Haase said helps him as much behind the plate as it will in left field.
“I think I’ve taken some of that athleticism behind the plate, too,” he said. “It’s been kind of like rediscovering that part of it. I’d trained like a catcher for so long, to get away from that a little bit – my back feels better, my knees feel better. I’m glad it’s kind of come full circle.”
Haase was taken by surprise in 2021 when Hinch told him to get an outfielder’s glove and start taking reps in left field. He had spent the offseason working to improve himself defensively behind the plate. In 2022, he trained for both eventualities and only played 11 games in the outfield.
This offseason, he knew he had a chance to be the regular catcher. Still, he worked on his agility as well as his back-stopping. He kept his outfielder’s glove oiled and ready.
“Honestly, it’s not a hassle at all,” he said. “I’ve already put in a lot of that groundwork learning the (left field) position. It was a lot of struggle, doing that at the alternate site (after the lockout in 2021) and a little bit at Toledo.
“But that gave me a lot of confidence to go do it.”
Adding a second position won’t alter Haase’s spring work schedule much. Heck, he never stops working anyway. It was a blessing catching him packing for the trip Monday morning.
“Yeah, in the spring you’re doing so much work, but you’re not playing every day anyway,” he said, with a shrug. “It’s not an issue. I don’t do a lot of the early work the other outfield guys do. But if I’m ready to catch, I am ready to go play left field.
“There’s so much more physically that I have to do to catch that going to left field is actually easier for me.”
Easier for him and another viable matchup card for Hinch to play.