LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch sat in the dugout before a spring training game and received a question from a reporter about catcher Jake Rogers. Three sentences in, Rogers coincidentally walked down the stairs and into the dugout.
“Oh gosh, you walk by as I’m talking about you,” Hinch said.
Rogers smiled and put his fingers in his ears to block out the noise.
“I think he’s been pretty underwhelming this spring,” Hinch said, just loud enough for his best defensive catcher to still hear him. The light-hearted joke from Hinch died out as Rogers exited the dugout.
“It’s a pretty rewarding camp for him,” Hinch said.
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The 27-year-old catcher has been fantastic in his return from Tommy John surgery and looks like the Tigers’ long-term catcher again.
He showed up to spring training in competition with Donny Sands (acquired in trade from Philadelphia Phillies) and Andrew Knapp (signed to minor-league contract) for the second catching spot. One of his teammates described him as ‘a glue guy’ in the clubhouse at the beginning of camp.
Rogers won the job by a landslide.
And he could catch the majority of the games in 2023.
Fellow catcher Eric Haase, who doubles as a left fielder, is a far better hitter than Rogers and provides above-average power, but he can’t play defense like his counterpart. Both catchers are right-handed hitters who perform better against lefties.
“Be an above-average framer and above-average blocker,” Rogers said of his expectations for the season. “That comes first with me, the defense. I want to win. That means keeping the runs low and helping the pitching staff. Once I do that, any hit is a plus. I just want to win.”
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Rogers, acquired from the Houston Astros in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, is under team control through the 2026 season. He turns 28 in April but might be the Tigers’ primary catcher for the next four seasons.
His defense-first profile fits on a winning team.
“He takes a lot of pressure off our pitchers by what he can do behind the plate,” Hinch said of Rogers. “It does start with controlling the strike zone as a catcher, but it goes far beyond that.”
Mason Englert, a 23-year-old Rule 5 draft pick, experienced Rogers’ influence as a catcher against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 30. The up-and-coming pitcher threw three perfect innings — and 22 of 26 pitches for strikes — with three strikeouts.
“We haven’t worked together a whole lot, but it was really good,” Englert said. “I was really comfortable with the way he was putting up targets and the way he was calling (pitches). I would have thought he had caught me 10-plus times.”
Martín Maldonado, one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, has played 54 games in the postseason over the past five seasons with the Astros, including five games in the 2022 World Series, despite terrible results on offense. If the Tigers can build a lineup to protect Rogers’ bat, he could start 100-plus games behind the plate into his 30s like Maldonado.
Rogers hit .239 with six home runs in 38 games before the season-ending injury in 2021. This spring, he hit .303 with three homers in 16 games. He has double-digit homer power.
“The biggest thing was getting that timing back for hitting,” Rogers said. “I could catch all last year, so I worked on framing and stuff. That wasn’t a worry for me. I knew that would come back pretty quickly. The worry was being on time, hitting and getting that locked in to be ready for the season.”
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More important than the swing is the defense.
Rogers focused on receiving and blocking pitches with catching coordinator Ryan Siekno while rehabbing from surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He also learned to catch in the one-knee-down stance. This spring, Rogers practiced blocking from one knee with catching coach Tim Federowicz.
In 2021, Rogers was worth minus-3 framing runs and converted 44.4% of non-swing pitches into called strikes in the shadow zone, which is the region that borders the strike zone. (Haase, by the way, was worth minus-5 framing runs in 2021 and minus-6 runs in 2022.)
He expects better framing metrics in 2023.
“Hard work pays off,” Rogers said.
The Tigers watched Rogers — finally back to full health — showcase his latest developments behind the plate in spring training as he beat out the competition for a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Next, the Tigers will evaluate his consistency in the regular season.
“The swing feels good,” Rogers said. “The timing feels good. The catching feels good. I’m ready to go.”
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.
For openers: Rays
Matchup: Tigers (66-96 in 2022) at Tampa Bay (86-76 in 2022), Opening Day.
First pitch: 3:10 p.m. Thursday; Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida.
TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WXYT-FM (97.1).
Probable pitchers: Tigers — LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (5-5, 4.05 ERA in 2022); Rays — LHP Shane McClanahan (12-8, 2.54 ERA in 2022).