Of the Detroit Tigers' recent successes in turning their fortunes around, certainly the most crucial was hitting on their high first-round draft picks. Sure, none of the group is exactly tearing it up at the major league level just yet, but by any standards, the organization didn’t blow any of its four top ten picks from 2016-2020. Historically, that’s not as easy to do as you might expect, even with a pair of first overall selections in the mix. As a result, and with some nice late-round additions and a big ninth-round find of Tarik Skubal in 2018, the organization now has a very nice core of young talent to build on.
Where they missed the target early in the farm buildup was with their work in the second round, particularly when picking near the top. A couple of their earlier picks in the round haven't panned out so far. However, the organization turned it around in 2020 when they selected catcher Dillon Dingler out of Ohio State with the 38th overall pick, the first selection in the second round. His athleticism and quality toolkit make him our choice as the No. 3 prospect in the Tigers’ farm system.
Dingler was born in Massillon, Ohio, into a family of athletes, and he was notable as a receiver and safety in high school. Baseball was his game ultimately, but that impressive athleticism allowed him to play centerfield with some regularity in college, as well as develop into a fine catching prospect. The bat really started to shine in Dingler’s junior year, but the season was cut short by the pandemic before teams were completely convinced. The Tigers liked his tools, but they also liked Dingler’s high marks for work ethic and leadership, plucking him with the first pick in the second round.
His pro career got off to a strong start in 2021. Dingler impressed his coaches and teammates with his preparation and actions behind the plate in spring camp, with A.J. Hinch paying him some extra attention, and then tore the cover off the ball for two months when the minor league season opened as well. In 32 games for the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps, Dingler hit eight home runs and posted a superb 149 wRC+ with a solid strikeout to walk ratio. Defensively, Dingler was showing all the developing attributes of a future major league catcher. Even the more steely-eyed of the game’s prospect watchers were suddenly paying close attention to his at-bats.
However, this was to be a distinctly “tale of two halves” sort of season for Dingler, and the bill came due when he was promoted to Double-A Erie along with Spencer Torkelson in mid-June. For about a week, Dingler carried over his torrid pace and then really hit a wall. The discipline faded as the strikeouts and weak fly balls started to pile up. A fractured finger cost him most of August, and it wasn’t until the final week of the season that he was able to show signs of life at the plate.
So it wasn’t perfect, but we’re fairly happy with Dingler’s season overall. The defensive ability and power potential at the plate were as good as advertised. A catcher has a lot more to learn than most players, particularly in the jump to Double-A, and that first pro season is particularly grueling as well. Whether Dingler can hit enough to be a full-time catcher in the major leagues still has to be proven, but he looks like a solid bet.
There are a whole host of positives attached to Dingler. He’s a very well-built six-foot, three-inches, and 210 pounds, combining strength with surprising speed and body control for a catcher. He has the physical tools to become an excellent defender, and the makeup to squeeze the most out of his game while leading his pitchers to success. Combined with good power potential for the position, the physical ingredients are all here for Dingler to develop into a very nice everyday catcher for the Tigers.
Defensively, he showcased elite pop times at his best and carries a plus throwing arm with good accuracy. While receiving may not matter as much in a few years as the automated strike zone arrives, for now Dingler has the soft hands needed to get extra strikes called around the edges, and is still improving. He’s also reasonably adept at smothering pitches in the dirt, though his use of a knee down setup for pitches down may hinder his side to side movement. Considering Dingler’s overall speed, agility, and coordination, this seems like an area where he’ll continue to improve.
With the bat, Dingler has a bit better than average raw power but is going to have to outhit his projections to really be a force. He showed decent strike zone discipline early on, but as the struggles built up in July it got worse for him. Still, the issue was more in terms of recognizing breaking balls and laying off high fastballs, and he was improving in those areas late in the season. We’ll get to more on the swing and miss in his game in the weaknesses portion of this profile.
The Tigers likely don’t have a big-time offensive catcher here, but Dingler does have a good shot to be average for the position. The strength of his game behind the plate is going to have to carry him most of the way, but there’s at least a chance that he gets to all of his power and becomes a very strong two-way performer.
Dillon Dingler Demolishes Dinger. pic.twitter.com/uH4ptlCnSf— Detroit Tigers Player Development (@RoadtoDetroit) July 18, 2021
Here’s a little back pick at second base for a look at his arm.
Best not wander too far on the basepaths when Dillon Dingler is behind the dish. pic.twitter.com/Yt8waeTuVh— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 2, 2021
The one element that will hold Dingler back is his contact ability. He doesn’t have particularly good hands and there’s a fair amount of loft in his stroke, leading to plenty of swings and misses at the top of the zone. Still, it’s worth remembering that he was moved to Double-A after only six weeks of pro ball, with all the extra requirements of playing the catcher position, so it’s not surprising that he was somewhat in over his head there last season.
Dingler sets up with an upright and slightly narrow stance for his size, with high hands. He tends to stay back and balanced pretty well, but his swing can be steep, leading to a lot of routine fly balls and weak grounders. With the ball down in the zone, he made plenty of hard contact and crushed his share of mistakes inside. He also showed some aptitude for getting his hands inside the ball on pitches away and driving them into right field. However, he proved particularly vulnerable to fastballs at the top of the zone as a result and struggled to lay off those pitches as pitchers leaned into testing him there. Combined with some trouble recognizing spin and offspeed, and his swing decisions during the summer months were rather less than ideal. The strikeouts piled up near 30 percent in Erie, and there was a lot more soft contact off the bat as well.
In a sense, his issues are less extreme but similar to that of Tigers’ catcher Jake Rogers. We saw Rogers emerge in 2021 with a modestly improved stroke courtesy of his work with private instructor Doug Latta, yet still struck out over 35 percent of the time. Dingler should make more contact, but modest swing changes probably won’t change the equation too much. Dingler will have to improve his decision making substantially to approach league average as a pure hitter. FanGraphs has a 40 on Dingler’s bat, with 50 raw power. We’ll take the over there for now, but need to see some real improvement at the plate in 2022.
Projected 2022 team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
While Dingler and Spencer Torkelson were promoted from High-A at the same time, there was no reason to expect Dingler to keep up. He had an awful lot to absorb in his first pro season, and while he did spend most of the season at the Double-A level, starting back out there in 2022 seems like the likely plan. A good campaign there with more consistent production would see a promotion follow in the summer months.
The Tigers don’t have any need to rush him, but this year should tell us quite a bit. Dingler will be a major priority for their new player development staff as they look to help him take the next steps. Right now he still has a good developing case to become a full-time major league catcher, but if he continues to struggle with upper level pitching this season, the backup profile will loom larger. There’s just so much to like in Dingler’s overall game that we’ll bet that there’s still plenty of improvement ahead.