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Patience and hard work finally earned Eric Haase a major league role

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An ultra-late bloomer, things started clicking for Haase at just the right time, leading to his ascendancy in the major leagues.

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Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When Eric Haase came to the Tigers just before the start of the 2020 season, his career was on thin ice. As a 27 year old without a real prospect pedigree who had never seen the major leagues for more than 10 games in a season, the Tigers were able to pick him up from Cleveland for cash considerations. While the amount of money that exchanged hands between the organizations was never revealed, in almost every case, it essentially amounts to nothing and merely serves to circumvent the waiver wire process.

Almost two years later, Haase has pulled off a Lazarus act. The opportunity to assert himself on the Tigers’ roster presented itself and he seized it with both hands. Now with nearly a full season as a major leaguer under his belt, the future looks bright as he should see plenty of action as Tucker Barnhart’s backup in 2022. What changed in the interim?

Put simply, he was able to bring his big-time stick to the field more consistently than in the past. He doesn’t have much dimensionality as a hitter, but in slugging department, he is hardly lacking. The 2019 FanGraphs scouting report on the hitter presented him as having a 70-grade raw power, two standard deviations above the mean. His max exit velocity of 113.2 miles per hour places him 101st out of 574 MLB players with at least 25 batted ball events during the season. That’s not elite territory, but it’s certainly well above average.

It’s never just that simple, though. What really changed is that the team gave him a chance. By the time he was making a push to join up with the major league team in Cleveland, Haase recalled, the organization’s instructions to him were “just keep doing what you’re doing.” That lack of specificity is not a sign that you’re an organizational priority.

“You never want to hear that when you’re a player,” he said. “I was just working my ass off any way I could.”

That sense carried over to his initial introduction to the Tigers’ coaching staff under AJ Hinch. In an August 2021 meeting with the press, Detroit’s skipper said as much, admitting that the team had gone through Spring Training with no intention of using Haase as their backup catcher. Nevertheless, time and unforeseen circumstances forced their hand. Their intended starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, fell far below expectations defensively and quickly hit the injured list for back trouble. His successor, Jake Rogers, carried the torch for a few months, but eventually went down with what became a season-ending elbow injury on July 19th.

That left the door wide open for Haase, who turned out to be just what the team needed exactly when they needed it. Through 98 games, he hit 231/.286/.459, which amounts to a league-average performance, according to wRC+. Average is far better than anything else the Tigers have in-house, as their last remaining options at catcher were Grayson Greiner and Dustin Garneau.

Eric Haase 2021

Season PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
Season PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
2021 381 100 31.2 6.8 0.228 1.0
Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The swing and miss that has always been a part of his game was still present for Haase in 2021, ending the year with a pretty hefty 31.2 percent strikeout rate. The Tigers know they’ll probably have to endure his contact issues and decision-making for as long as they intend to keep him around. He’ll start next season as a 29 year old with 11 years of experience in professional baseball. Experience is not the missing ingredient.

The idea with high strikeout rate hitters is that, when they get ahold of the ball, the impact made is enough to make up for the lacking contact. That was the case during Haase’s 2021 campaign, when he barreled 13.7 percent of balls and only made soft contact on 14.5 percent of batted ball events. It led to 22 home runs and 12 doubles despite his season being truncated.

The real standout feature of Haase’s profile, apart from the boomstick in his hands at the plate, is his exaggerated splits. In 2021, he posted a 141 wRC+ against lefties, and while he held his own earlier in the year against right-handed pitching, that didn’t last and he was pretty well exposed later in the season. His strikeout rates don’t differ all that much, and he actually drew more walks against right-handers, but he didn’t do nearly the amount of damage the southpaws who faced him endured.

Expecting Haase to take another step in his offensive development is probably getting too greedy at this point in his career. But with a left-handed hitter in Barnhart as the starting catcher, Haase fits beautifully into the niche of backup catcher, occasional outfielder, and pinch-hitter against lefties late in games.

Haase was also primed by his time with Cleveland to be adjunct to a Chris Fetter-led pitching staff. As a 2011 draftee who spent nine years in Cleveland’s pitching development juggernaut, Haase grew up as a player smack in the middle of that organization’s transition to a tech-forward approach to pitching coaching and strategy. He described joining the 2020 Tigers, the last team in the Ron Gardenhire era, as a “shock,” but is more than comfortable with the changes put in place by the new staff.

“Obviously, hiring Chris Fetter was a huge step for what we’re trying to do going forward,” he said. “I could look at the XY axis and see, ‘OK, this guy’s fastball is so many inches of vertical break, and his slider is moving this much.’ In my head, it would be, ‘These are the guys I’ve caught with similar looking stuff, and how they pitched.’ That would give me a good idea of how we should attack hitters based on their strengths. … And there are also times you go with the data and do everything right — the pitcher executes — and a hitter clips you for three runs. Regardless, you have to rely on both.”

Now that Haase has established he’s a major league caliber player, what’s next for him in the long, winding journey that his career has been? Much of that will depend on how well he is able to bounce back from a late-season slump that saw him hit only .208/.263/.319 over the last two months of the season. However, it’s not like his whole season was a mirage. He ended the year with an acceptable batting average on balls in play, which is often used as a shorthand for luck, and his batted ball distribution looks pretty much like what you’d expect from a tightly wound power hitter. At the minimum, he’s earned the opportunity to prove his worth again next season as Jake Rogers recovers from Tommy John surgery.

It’s not difficult to root for Haase. He’s a hometown kid who overcame immense odds and the lack of two organizations’ faith in his abilities. His hard-nosed aesthetics and huge swing are a joy on television. It’s easy to see how AJ Hinch might enjoy using him as the secret depth piece on this team, utilizing his offensive production to excuse moving him from catcher to first base or left field depending on the nightly needs.

With the force of willpower and hard work, and aided by more than a little good luck, Haase has wedged open his own window of opportunity. It doesn’t look like that window is closing anytime soon.