Jake Rogers is brilliant defensively, but can he hit his way to Tigers?
Notice the silky set-up as Jake Rogers eases onto his haunches as neatly as Dad slides into his La-Z-Boy.
Pay attention to the deft wrist-flicks as he receives — not catches, but receives — pitches of any velocity and, seemingly, any location within a 6-foot-1, 190-pound man’s reach.
And then, of course, there’s the arm. Rogers’ throws look like World War II tracer bullets.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline last week put Rogers on the website’s 2019 All-Defense Team culled from scouts across baseball’s minor leagues.
“ … (Rogers) continued to show (in 2018) just how good he is behind the dish,” Mayo wrote. “Rogers threw out 55.6 percent of potential base-stealers in the Double A Eastern League in 2018. That brings his career mark up to 48.5 percent, thanks to his arm strength, quick release, and accuracy.”
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Mayo continued: “He deserves consideration as the best defensive prospect overall, an American League pro scouting director said. He’s the best defensive catcher by a wide margin.”
Now for the flip side.
Mayo observed that Rogers “didn’t hit in his first full season with the Tigers after coming over as part of the return from the Astros for Justin Verlander.”
Well, yes — and in some key respects, no.
The bat absolutely will determine how significant of a brick a 23-year-old, right-hand-hitting catcher becomes in that new and intended playoff-bound roster the Tigers are now shaping.
Rogers at least is an interesting hitter, in the sense there’s mystery and promise and ominous stuff all happening at once.
Consider that he whacked 14 home runs in 60 games during June, July and August while working at Double-A Erie. Spread that across a typical big-league season’s calendar and the math turns intriguing.
Now focus on that important baseball metric, Isolated Power (ISO), which is a tight window into how hard a player is hitting the ball for extra bases. FanGraphs reveals that in 2018, Rogers had an ISO of .193, which doesn’t sound impressive but in sabermetrics circles is appreciated as handsome indeed.
His 17 homers in 2018 — 14 coming from late spring through August — take on added thump when in his overall hitting profile ISO is considered more than any focus on his .219 batting average and .717 OPS in 99 games at Erie.
Big year for Rogers
And yet big-league baseball reality dictates Rogers needs a better season at the plate, with ongoing gains behind it, during a hugely important 2019 at Erie or Triple-A Toledo.
Grayson Greiner will be the Tigers’ starting catcher in 2019 and one question looms as all-decisive: Can he hit enough to stick as a long-term starter?
The same question will follow Rogers into spring camp next month at Lakeland, Fla. It could be that by the end of this year, the Tigers will be resigning themselves to a simple fact they have two starting catchers but lack two everyday bats.
Because of his defense, Rogers will win any duels there, almost certainly. But a team hoping to play in October minus a hard-hitting catcher is counting on a great deal of compensation from the rest of its batting order. That isn’t in the immediate forecast for the Tigers, who need their guy behind the plate to now and then bust up a game with his bat.
Rogers was aware of baseball’s basic truths when he talked last week from his home near Dallas, where he’s been working out for the past six weeks at Exos, a 145,000-square-foot conditioning oasis in Frisco, another Dallas suburb.
He has been in constant touch with a pair of Tigers minor-league coaches, Scott Fletcher and Mike Hessman, who analyze video and offer pointers the Tigers’ development crew have prescribed.
“Getting things cleaned up,” Rogers said. “Just working with videos, seeing if I’m doing things right. I’ve made some good strides.”
Return to those numbers from 2018 and Rogers’ workload for 2019 becomes clearer.
He struck out 112 times in 99 games. Those whiffs ideally should drop.
He walked 41 times. Good, but must become better in that his on-base average otherwise was a light .305.
He doubled only 15 times. He hit one triple. They’re surprisingly low digits for a man who hits the ball hard and who runs acceptably.
Neither was last autumn’s Arizona Fall League promotion any party. Rogers batted .167 in 13 games and 52 trips to the plate.
About that leg-kick
Always in any conversation about Rogers’ hitting the talk turns to his leg-kick. It’s a trademark, of sorts, this sequence where his left foot and leg become a swing’s launch-pad. The leg-kick contributes to pluses and maybe a few too many minuses in the same way Austin Jackson during his Tigers days always seemed to be in-and-out with a similar leg-trigger.
Rogers and his gurus have a different focus. They’re more concerned about balance. They want his bat on plane as it travels through the strike-zone. His leg-kick isn’t necessarily a contributor or detractor, they say. It’s about being square to the ball.
“It’s about getting to a better balance position before contact, so I can make good adjustments as far as where the pitch is located, or if it’s off-speed,” Rogers said. “It’s about being in a more athletic position. That’s the major thing.”
His bosses trust Rogers’ athleticism and don’t care to over-complicate matters. Neither is there a tidy general blueprint that immediately turns prospects into quality hitters. And that’s evident with Rogers.
“It’s a subject on which a lot of different people have different ideas,” said Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president of player development, speaking about Rogers’ swing and leg-kick protocol. “Hitting is always a combination of being on time, with a swing path that makes contact more frequently.
“Now, those are simply concepts to say. For anyone who’s ever been in a batter’s box at this level, it’s challenging. And complicated. There’s a lot of stuff happening.
“But there’s lots of discussions with all the coaches — Mike Hessman, Lloyd McClendon, Scott Fletcher. He (Rogers) is aware of the situation. He’s working at it. And we’re confident, with the type of athlete he is, and the smart player he is, he’s going to be fine.”
That athleticism is how a kid who lived in Texas Panhandle country, in the small town of Canyon, first got a taste at catcher. He was until high school your basic Little League and junior-high shortstop who played short because he was the best athlete on the team and maybe tops within quite a few square miles.
He also played football for a while, at wide receiver and free safety, but soon decided baseball was his sport. And catcher was his position.
The University of Oklahoma wanted him, and so did Tulane. Rogers picked Tulane and was slick enough there to convince the Astros he was worth a 2016 third-round draft pick.
He was hitting .265 with an .814 OPS at high Single A on the night of Aug. 31, 2017, sitting in an apartment with a bunch of teammates in Buies Creek, N.C., home of the then-Buies Creek Astros.
On the move
It was the very last night of August, and with the minor-league regular season shutting down Labor Day, various teammates had been purged from their end-of-August leases. Sofa space had become bed space. A few floors seemed destined to turn into air-mattress boudoirs.
It was sometime around 11 when Rogers got word he might be headed to Detroit in a mega-deal for Verlander. Twitter soon was blowing up with word Verlander had nixed the deal. Then, near midnight, came word Verlander had said yes.
A superstar was headed to Houston. Rogers, Daz Cameron, and Franklin Perez, all prized Astros prospects, were now Tigers inventory. The Astros called to say a cordial goodbye. Tigers general manager Al Avila called minutes later to say hello, welcome, and stay tuned for orders from Littlefield on where to report.
The next day he was on a 1 p.m. flight bound for Lakeland and for a quick two-game cameo with the Single-A Flying Tigers before the 2017 season shut down.
“There were a lot of emotions, but it was good,” Rogers said. “I mean, you’re with the team that drafted you, and that’s a special place, but once I saw the big picture I was excited to come over and put on the Olde English D and play for a great team with such a great tradition.
“After it all settled down, it was great.”
How he eased into a nearly effortless defensive realm as a catcher is, Littlefield repeats several times in any chat about Rogers, all a product of being “a very athletic, agile player.”
But he mentions other elements. There’s the intelligence that made Rogers attractive to Tulane, the scholarly private university in New Orleans.
Littlefield also says Rogers works harder than the average dude. He is the son of a one-time cotton farmer and knows a bit about hardscrabble Texas and its ways. The ethic hasn’t been lost.
Rogers talks about past influences and tutors: Bruce Sutter, son of the Hall of Fame pitcher, who was his first true catching coach at Tulane. Philip Miller, now an assistant coach at the University of Texas, was huge in Rogers’ early grooming.
And then there was a Hall of Fame catcher with whom Tigers fans are familiar: Pudge Rodriguez, who made an imprint during an Astros instructional camp shortly after Rogers was drafted.
He took more pointers from two minor-league Tigers managers who are ex-catchers: Mike Rabelo and Andrew Graham. They saw a gifted young man who not only had innate talent coaches needn’t have touched, but a youngster who would listen, who would absorb, who craved getting better.
Littlefield suspect Rogers’ bat will surge in something of a parallel to the way in which his defense earlier blossomed.
Is that possible? Probable? Achievable?
The Tigers and Rogers will find out. Spring camp begins in four weeks. Rogers’ growth-curve, however it plays out, will be one of 2019’s more absorbing prospect presentations.