Dillon Dingler’s blue-chip status returns after some Tigers tweaks

Detroit News

Yes, of course, it is a small sampling.

A dozen games.

So, if anyone cares to nitpick Dillon Dingler’s early numbers, the floor is theirs.

The bat, however, remains in Dingler’s right-handed control, and what it has done these past three weeks has returned Dingler to the realm of Most Important Tigers Prospects.

It’s all because, as a catcher, only 24, and with exceptional defensive gifts, Dingler could be back on track as the Tigers’ future long-haul man behind the plate.

Back to those early numbers, amassed ahead of Sunday’s game between Dingler’s red-hot SeaWolves and the Bowie Baysox at Bowie, Maryland.

Dingler’s streak began when he checked in April 21 at high-Single A Lakeland for eight games — a rehab assignment following March meniscus surgery on his right knee.

He was 13-for-29 (.448) in those eight games, with two doubles, four homers, and a 1.474 OPS.

Satisfied that his knee and his two-way talents were ready for duty at Erie, he reported last week to the SeaWolves and promptly homered in his first two games. This was central to some scalding first-week stats that showed him batting .533 (8-for-15).

He had seven walks in his first 12 games at Lakeland and Erie against eight strikeouts.

This from a 6-foot-3, 210-pound, model of a catcher who three years ago, after his junior season at Ohio State, was of such appeal he was the first player taken in the MLB Draft’s second round.

The Tigers have been looking rather longingly to him when the organization has cried for a possible everyday answer at a position that depends on two-way talents.

As for those two-way capabilities:

Hitting, of course, is as essential for a starter as having the glove, arm, and pitch-handling gifts required to be a MLB starter.

No one was sure, in analyzing a tough 2022 season, if Dingler was going to swing a bat in line with his otherwise shining ways on defense.

He was not by any means bad, offensively: .238 batting average last season at Erie, .333 on-base, .419 slugging, .752 OPS, with 14 homers and 22 doubles.

The big problem — and it was big, indeed — was strikeouts.

Dingler whiffed 143 times in 107 games in 2022. He had a 32% strikeout rate — 10 points higher than a team can, in good conscience, carry even at a position that here and there can forgive a weakness.

The Tigers and Dingler decided they would spend the 2022-23 offseason in heavy reflection and instruction. They would work on a blessed athlete’s bat-to-ball skills, with emphasis on getting the lower body more involved as a means to square up pitches.

Given that Dingler’s been ripping the ball for three weeks, it’s looking as if the analysis and mechanical retooling are absolutely working.

“The big difference is I think he’s in a better hitting position,” Erie manager Gabe Alvarez said Saturday, just before Dingler went 2-for-4, which included a double, in Erie’s 10-4 romp over the Baysox.

“He’s in better position to be able to handle multiple pitches. I think, as a hitter, what you want to do is consistently put your body into position to make your best swing.

“And I think he’s doing that.”

Again, this first-12-games display can be viewed as quite the aberration — or, maybe more accurately, as a sign that all the qualities Dingler long displayed at Ohio State ahead of Detroit drafting him, and often shown at various times in his Tigers infancy, are merging at an appropriate age.

Much has been made by Dingler’s managers and coaches the past three years that learning to work behind the plate, to run a pitching staff, to block and frame and throw and generally police a game, can make it rather sticky for a prospect to focus also on his hitting.

It wasn’t an excuse as much as it was a conviction on his overseers’ part that Dingler needed time.

Cut to last December. The Tigers had a catchers clinic at their Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Florida. They had collective and individual tutoring for their behind-the-plate recruits.

That’s when Dingler’s program was furthered and when those swing tweaks began to hint at possible better days and better contact in 2023.

“Just small adjustments with some of his moves,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers vice president of development who has primary authority in grooming the Tigers youngsters.

“The changes have been small and subtle, but I think the early returns are good.”

Very good, in fact.

Now, to keep it all going …

Dingler needn’t hit at a 1.000-OPS pace, although he’s certainly free to pursue it.

No, the Tigers would happily agree to something in the .800-plus sphere, with his natural power and reasonable balls-strikes judgment equipping him to have a season in line with the future All-Star the Tigers three years ago envisioned.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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