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Catching forms foundation of the Tigers’ solid start

Jake Rogers and Eric Haase have been a stabilizing force during a turbulent opening six weeks.

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

As we enter mid-May, the Detroit Tigers have put together a pretty good start cobbled together out of a lot of castaway pieces. It’s been a turbulent beginning and they aren’t scaring anyone yet, but they’ve won more than their share of close games and played a pretty gritty and fun style of ball. Of late, the offense has really come on strong, but we’ll need a good deal more evidence that things have consistently turned for the better on that front.

So a lot of questions around the club are variations of, how are they doing this, and can it continue? The rest of the season is still going to run through the key everyday players on the roster, Javier Báez, Spencer Torkelson, and Riley Greene, but there are a lot of different reasons why this roster is overperforming. Chief among them is the fact that the Tigers catching group is near the top of the league in most categories. They’ve been a stabilizing force over an unexpected 17-19 start.

Eric Haase and Jake Rogers have given the Tigers the ninth best offensive production in the league from the catcher position. Even better they are fourth best overall in terms of fWAR, combining offensive and defensive production as well as baserunning. In all the catcherish arts of receiving, blocking, and throwing, they’re average or better. And combined with strong game planning from the coaching staff, they’re both managing a fairly rag tag pitching staff to success. Game by game, the catching position has been a strength in every way.

This early in the season, I don’t want to over-emphasize their framing or throwing numbers, because those can change rapidly as the chances start to pile up. Still, just a quick look at an Eduardo Rodriguez highlight clip makes it pretty clear how well he and Rogers are working together to hammer the edges of the zone and rack up the called strikes there.

Note Rogers setting up with a knee down, and his quick, decisive moves to receive the ball with his wrist and glove stabilized to deflect into the zone rather than away from it.

Offensive Production

2023 Rogers and Haase

Player PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
Player PA wRC+ K% BB% ISO fWAR
Rogers 76 89 35.5 10.5 0.224 0.7
Haase 100 111 27.0 8.0 0.109 0.6

Combined, the Rogers-Haase duo holds a 102 wRC+ with six home runs and a slashline of .245/.318/.403 so far. Haase also has 52 innings playing left field, so while he’s started less games at catcher, he’s got 24 more plate appearances. With their defensive and baserunning value added, they’ve been worth 1.2 fWAR in less than a quarter of a season. We’ll take that pace.

The fact that some of that value comes outside the traditional catching platoon usage illustrates Scott Harris and A.J. Hinch’s commitment to pinch-hitting aggressively and pursuing the best matchups. Only a handful of players in any Tigers lineup produced this year could expect to play the entire game. That aggression is clear in the fact that even their catchers have gotten a couple of pinch-hit appearances. If there’s a lefty on the mound in particular, Hinch has been willing to use Haase and Rogers as weapons off the bench and not worry about the rare event in which he might be left without a real catcher available.

The fact that Haase is also a reasonably solid left fielder despite little experience, holds another revealing nugget about the 2023 Tigers so far. They’re fast. Even their catchers run well.

Haase’s average sprint speed is 28.1 feet per second. That’s 94th in baseball out of 384 players. He’s ahead of numerous center fielders and others you’d just expect would be faster, such as Lars Nootbar, Francisco Lindor, or Cristian Pache. Meanwhile, Jake Rogers has league average speed for all positions at 27 feet per second.

The Tigers baserunning value overall isn’t anything special because they’ve made their share of mistakes, but another little ingredient they have is the fact that nearly everyone on the roster runs at average or better speed, even their first baseman and catchers. Only Miguel Cabrera and Jonathan Schoop check in below average in sprint speed, and neither is playing much.

In all the different ways in which the Tigers’ catchers have provided value this season, their unique combination of skills mirrors the ways in which the overall roster has overperformed expectations.

The backstory

The duo makes for an interesting and concentrating pair of stories. Haase was a somewhat forgettable depth catcher in Cleveland’s system who hadn’t tapped into his raw power at the plate and was regarded as below average defensively. Rogers was the hotshot defensive specialist with soft hands and a powerful throwing arm who came to Detroit way back in 2017 in the Justin Verlander trade.

Haase was 27 years old already when the Tigers acquired him for cash considerations prior to the 2020 season. The Cleveland Guardians had only seen fit to give him 10 games in the major leagues at that point. His Triple-A numbers were at least intriguing, as Haase hit plenty of home runs in the minor leagues. Still his overall numbers were pretty pedestrian, and his skills behind the plate remained lacking for major league work. His power potential made him a decent acquisition, but few thought he was really major league catcher material.

On the other end, Rogers’ defensive skills were highly lauded, at least until he reached the major leagues and find a few points, namely blocking and receiving, not quite up to snuff. There was also the question, as with Haase, of his high strikeout rate in the minors. Rogers also had power and was pretty tuned to try and pull the ball in air after coming up in the Houston Astros’ system. But in 2019, Rogers made his major league debut and struggled pretty badly. The short season Tigers, still led by Ron Gardenhire, didn’t even give him a look in 2020 while playing Austin Romine and Grayson Greiner.

Both players put in a lot of work. Haase cleaned up his defense a bit and refined his offensive approach. Rogers went to top private hitting instructor Doug Latta to improve his swing. Suddenly in 2021, they burst on the scene playing at a whole new level together. They both outplayed veteran starting catcher Wilson Ramos, leading A.J. Hinch and Al Avila to release Ramos and roll with their new options. Rogers cracked six home runs in 38 games played, before blowing out his UCL. Haase went on to crush 22 home runs as the Tigers played above .500 ball from mid-May onward.

However, even at that point there were some defensive weaknesses. Haase improved somewhat in 2022, and continued to be a pretty steady offensive force. Rogers rehabbed and spent the time unable to throw by working hard on his blocking, receiving, footwork, everything else he could. Suddenly, almost six years since the Justin Verlander trade, the catcher of the future has finally arrived, while Haase has backed him up well and contributed in a unique combination of ways beyond the power in his bat.

Finally in 2023, it all seems to be coming together for them again.

Can they keep it going?

Here is the crucial question, as there are still a few weak points in the mix. Rogers continues to strike out a ton, and while he walks more and generally posts a solid on-base percentage for the position, a strikeout rate of 35 percent says that there is plenty of potential for the power to dry up and for Rogers to be reduced to his defensive value alone. As the better handler of the pitching staff, he’s still going to get plenty of starts, but we’ll have to see how deep his recent slump goes.

On the other hand, after struggling early on, Haase has turned it on with the bat to make up some of the difference as Rogers has stumbled offensively. As we’ve seen, Haase has plenty of power, yet currently his isolated power mark is only .109 this season. Presumably that power will show up and balance out some likely regression from Rogers in this regard.

Defensively it’s a little soon to say how sustainable this is, because we’re still so early in the season. There are only so many applicable plays, either in throwing, blocking, or even balls received in the shadow zone where ball-strike calls routinely go either way. Defensive metrics take a lot of time to really stabilize.

Still, both catchers’ receiving marks have improved, and their move to using a one knee down setup this season has corresponded with those better marks, particularly at the bottom of the zone where they had traditionally been weak in their receiving game. For now, because those defensive skills have been in a pretty consistent trend of improvement, and there are actual technique changes that correspond to their improved numbers, it’s reasonable to think they can keep it going.

The Tigers are clearly going to need the rest of their lineup to step up if they’re going to sustain their early success. The catching group isn’t going to carry them offensively. But over the first six weeks, while many of the hitters they were counting on struggled or were out of commission, Jake Rogers and Eric Haase have lengthened the lineup, squeezed solid results out of a pitching staff that isn’t very impressive on paper, and contributed in all areas of the game.

If we consider them as one hybrid player, the Tigers are on pace to have an All-Star at the catcher position. It’s just that such an honor would have to be split between two players.