Jake Rogers a silky-smooth catcher, but will he hit enough for Tigers?

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jake Rogers

Erie, Pennsylvania – In the Tigers’ dream, which isn’t much different from Jake Rogers’ vision, he gets that leg-kick, timing issue ironed out and hits with the kind of pop and consistency that can put him in Detroit no later than 2020.

Hitting is the only issue. Defensive artistry, throwing out runners – there are reasons MLB Pipeline, among other national bird-dogs, have tabbed Rogers as the minor leagues’ best defensive catcher.

“He’s just so athletic,” said Erie manager Andrew Graham, who last week was talking about his Double A project. “He played shortstop in high school. He could probably play shortstop now.”

He can also hit. With impressive right-handed power. Some of the time.

You could see it Tuesday night when he launched a cutter on a long rocket-ride against the ice arena beyond left-field’s wall at UPMC Park.

He did it again a night later and added a single. The next game he walked three times. Not that any of it altered an 0-for-7, three-game dip heading into Sunday’s game.

More: After bumps and lessons, Beau Burrows, Alex Faedo inch closer to Tigers rotation

While all of the offensive drama was unfurling, Rogers, 23, was of course playing nearly flawlessly behind home plate.

He eases into a crouch as slickly as most people slide into a chair, only, it seems with more grace. To watch Rogers set up for a pitch is to think the human species was meant to catch baseballs on its haunches.

“And his release is one of the quickest I’ve ever seen,” Graham said of Rogers’ rifle-shot throws. “He has an average arm, but the release is so quick.”

Jake Rogers was acquired in the trade that sent Justin Verlander to Houston.

This, the Tigers hope, is a potential everyday catcher and an up-the-middle centerpiece as their roster replenishing continues.

They got Rogers last August as part of a three-player dowry the Astros sent them in the swap that shipped Justin Verlander to Houston.

He had been a third-round pick by Houston in 2016 as Rogers left Tulane University. He batted .263 with an .805 OPS in 85 games at high Single A in 2017, all before the Verlander trade, which came with only a few days left in the 2017 minor-league season.

This year, he’s at a worrisome .206, which isn’t as ominous when you look at some secondary numbers. Rogers in June batted .281 with a 1.004 OPS. He dipped to .783 in July (.463 slugging), but in August has a .882 OPS.

He also has 14 homers in 84 games, confirmation that Rogers is no singles hitter. When he squares up a pitch he tends to rip it. Often over a fence.

More: Henning: Long Tigers rebuild begins to show life at Double-A Erie

Still, the question: Will he hit enough to make it to the big leagues as more than a backup?

It probably hinges on something all parties believe is fixable: the leg-kick, which is a swing trigger and power mechanism as well as a dicey piece of timing within the split second a batter must see a pitch and execute a swing.

Rogers’ weight is on his back foot as he sets up, his bat at a 45-degree angle. His front (left) foot is raised so that only his toes are grounded. As he moves into his swing, the front leg rises.

The Tigers have been counseling him to streamline the process, much as they did a few years ago with former outfielder and leg-kick practitioner, Austin Jackson.

“Been working with Hess trying to get the timing down,” Rogers said last week, referencing Erie hitting coach Mike Hessman. “Been working with Bruce (Fields, Tigers roving minor-league batting guru) on getting the timing straight.

“Just my whole approach. I’ve been trying to do a little much.”

One fact of life baseball players, and coaches, continually cite is the difficulty in making serious swing changes during the season.

Normally, they’re better pursued during the winter. Rogers suspects that will be the case when he heads to Dallas in a couple of months and gets busy retooling ahead of 2019.

“I’m confident,” said Rogers, who is 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, and who grew up in Canyon, Texas, in the Texas panhandle. “Just have to keep my head down.”

Graham tends to agree.

“He’s on board with it,” the skipper said, referring to Rogers’ swing tweaks. “It’s gonna take time.”

What’s not in dispute is Rogers’ defense. His style is sublime. His mental horsepower meshes with those physical pluses to make him something of a model.

Alex Faedo, last year’s Tigers first-round draft pick, is working in Erie’s rotation in his first full year of professional ball and knows all about Rogers’ savvy. Sometimes the lesson has been painful.

“When I get hurt, it’s usually when I don’t listen to him,” said Faedo, who has taken some licks after shaking off a Rogers sign. “He knows how to read swings. And he knows the scouting reports.”

He also understands there’s a potential opening in Detroit.

James McCann might or might not be returning in 2019. Grayson Greiner is shuttling between Detroit and Triple A Toledo as the Tigers get a bead on his potential.

There are reasons, obvious, why Rogers was included in that whopping Verlander deal that wrapped up a couple of minutes before midnight, last Aug. 31.

Tigers scouts had taken notes. They saw the talent. They hope eventually, no more than he, that in time it all will be delivered to Detroit.


Twitter @Lynn_Henning