In retrospect, the Detroit Tigers 2021 season looks like an odd blip on the radar in the midst of a long period of extremely dismal baseball. Breakouts and career best seasons were abundant as the club posted its best record since 2016 and played good baseball after an awful stretch from mid-April to mid-May. One of the better stories early in the season was the combined thump of catchers Eric Haase and former prospect Jake Rogers. Two years later, Rogers is on the comeback trail from UCL reconstruction. So far he’s picked up right where he left off.
Rogers was widely expected to need a month or two against live pitching before really getting sorted out again at the plate. He was always prone to a ton of strikeouts, and had only just hit his groove at the major league level when he blew out his elbow. Scott Harris acquiring catcher Donny Sands as a third piece in the Gregory Soto trade, and then signing a whole host of minor league free agent catchers, seemed to indicate they had similar concerns coming into the season and needed to hedge on Rogers’ return. Instead, he’s re-emerged swinging the bat well and doing damage. Right now he’s in line to claim his major league role once again.
Jake Rogers 2019-2021
Those tables make it clear how little Rogers has even played since reaching the majors for the first time as a 24-year-old back in 2019. For a player who was not the main piece of the Justin Verlander trade, but was regarded as one of the more precocious defensive catchers in a decade, things have taken a long time to come together even as a backup.
Rogers graduated to the majors under manager Ron Gardenhire late in the 2019 season after torching Double-A Erie and then posting solid marks in Toledo. He immediately cranked a few homers and got everyone excited, but was a complete disaster at the plate in late August and September, going on to strike out nearly 40 percent of the time. It takes an awful lot of walks and dingers to survive that way and he looked overwhelmed at the plate.
The coaching staff didn’t seem to like Rogers much behind the plate either, leveling a lot of criticisms of his blocking and game calling that didn’t match up with his actual metrics. The Houston Astros trained catcher versus the old school Gardy-led coaching staff might have been part of it, but their horror at his strikeout rate still seems like the most likely divide. In 2020 Rogers was left behind in Toledo at the alternate site and wasn’t even called up to play while Austin Romine and Grayson Greiner were downright atrocious in his place.
Finally, with Gardenhire retiring and his staff ousted in favor of A.J. Hinch once the season ended, Rogers finally found a more sympathetic ear. However, Hinch would also push him much harder and in greater detail to improve. That offseason, Rogers made the decision to work with private hitting coach Doug Latta and try to improve a stiff, uppercut swing that wasn’t delivering enough good plate coverage and hard contact. That didn’t eliminate the strikeouts, as Rogers still struggled to hit breaking stuff, but his eye for crunchable fastballs was still good and he did plenty of damage when he finally got his shot in 2021. Rogers only played 38 games, but he had six homers, five doubles, and three triples in that span, despite a still sky-high strikeout rate.
Right about then, just as it all started to come together, everything fell apart. Rogers dealt with soreness in his elbow that eventually turned out to be a UCL tear requiring Tommy John surgery.
There was some thought that Rogers might get a little work late in 2022, but the Tigers decided to be careful and make 100 percent sure he was good to go, and so it wasn’t until February 26th of this year, in the second game of the Grapefruit League schedule, that Jake Rogers finally made it all the way back with his spring debut. He made it count, launching a long home run. A few days later, he did it again.
Jake Rogers - Detroit Tigers (2)* pic.twitter.com/gA18tVMsty— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) March 3, 2023
And then another one for good measure two days later. At this point, Rogers was tied for the spring training home run lead.
Jake Rogers - Detroit Tigers (3)* pic.twitter.com/9jIdzekJ5O— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) March 5, 2023
In just 16 plate appearances, things are still just getting underway and it’s very, very early, Yet Rogers has the highest OPS on the team by a significant margin, with three home runs, two doubles, a walk, a stolen base, and five strikeouts. It’s far too early to tell if he’s leveled up at the plate, but he’s certainly picked up where he left off, at the least. He came into camp intent on claiming one of the two catching spots, and while Eric Haase appears a lock already and has swung the bat pretty well, Rogers is rapidly closing the gap and looks close to locking up the second catching spot already.
Now, we’re a long way from concluding that Jake Rogers has reached some higher level based on a few weeks of spring training. He does look like he’s re-captured the better approach and improved plate coverage that helped him to finally be more productive in 2021. Presumably, he’s going to mash, particularly against lefties, and strike out a lot, but provide enough walks and power production to mitigate the high strikeout rate. For a solid defensive catcher, this is perfectly acceptable. Eric Haase has made it work for two seasons without even walking as much as Rogers does. At the catcher position, good power production is more than enough to earn regular playing time if your skills behind the plate are up to snuff.
Some parts of Rogers’ game are still really hard to evaluate. His arm strength in 2021 was middle of the road for catchers, but his pop time was well above average. So far, Rogers looks like his old self in that regard. We’ll see if the arm strength has gotten a boost post-surgery as the year progresses, but he’s still got the quick transfer and a pretty accurate arm. With the likelihood of more stolen base attempts this season, that skill is going to be thoroughly tested this season. Likewise, there just isn’t a big enough sample to evaluate his blocking, nor to get good data on his receiving behind the plate.
In 2021, Rogers framing was below average, though of course the margins between good and bad receiving have narrowed to a far narrower range than used to exist early in the framing era. He struggled to his backhand a little bit and was better at the bottom of the zone than at the top. Rogers has always looked to have really quiet hands back there, and there still isn’t enough of a sample size to really grade his receiving with great accuracy. Still, this is an area A.J. Hinch really wanted him to improve on, and he’s had nearly two years off to work on it. One would expect to see him a little more dialed in with his receiving as he settles into regular playing time.
The gist of all this is that the Tigers appear to be in solid shape at the catcher position. We didn’t really know what to expect from Rogers coming into camp, and while Donny Sands and Andrew Knapp make for a good pair of third catchers, neither seemed likely to thrive in the majors. Rogers fast start, and the depth Scott Harris has added, have the catching group in a much better place.
Eric Haase and Jake Rogers aren’t going to hit for high average. They’ll hammer lefties, and should walk and put the ball in play enough to produce a decent OBP. That’s not good, but the equalizer is the likelihood that they can combine for 25 home runs. A catcher who is solid behind the plate and posts a .230/.305/.450 slash line with 25 bombs is a pretty good all around catcher in this day and age. We’d love to see another Bill Freehan or Lance Parrish holding down the fort every day and producing at a high level at the plate, but for now, the Haase-Rogers duo looks like they’ll do just fine in 2022.