Hinch pulls no punches with Jake Rogers: It's defense that will make or break you
Lakeland, Fla. — People who are blessed with uncommon athletic skill can sometimes take that skill for granted. It’s almost like they get bored with it. It’s human nature. You don’t always have to try as hard as others to win. You can sluff off and cut corners and still end up ahead. You don’t always have to study to ace the test.
But that kind of sloth can be aggravating to witness for those not as blessed, those who might have to work twice as hard just be adequate, those who study all night just to pull a C.
Back in the early 1990s, San Antonio Spurs point guard Avery Johnson used to get flabbergasted when Hall-of-Fame center David Robinson would go through motions in a game or in a practice.
“You are cheating God, David,” Johnson would yell. “He gave you a gift and you aren’t using it.”
Well, perhaps on a smaller scale and in a much gentler way, Tigers manager AJ Hinch has sent a similar message to rookie catcher Jake Rogers. Rogers is a gifted athlete with above-average defensive skills. Yet, there are times when his focus lapses, when his fundamentals go lax.
It is probably infuriating for a manager, especially a former catcher who worked and worked and worked to carve out seven seasons as a backup.
“The one thing I want Jake to know,” Hinch said on Saturday. “All eyes are on his offense, right, on whether he can be an everyday player? But the reality is, from his manager, I want him to know that he will lose playing time and lose a spot on the roster more because of what he does on defense.
“We have to continue to encourage and get the most out of his defense. That’s his No. 1 priority.”
Since coming to the Tigers from Houston in the Justin Verlander trade in 2017, Rogers has been told he was major-league ready defensively, but it was his bat that was holding him back. To his credit, he has worked tirelessly with a bunch of hitting instructors and coaches, both within and outside the organization.
Even before pitchers and catchers reported last week, new Tigers hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh went to Rogers hometown in Texas and worked with him. And as Hinch said Saturday, Coolbaugh has continued to wear Rogers out in the cages and during batting practice this week.
But a not-so-funny thing has happened. While Rogers showed signs of some offensive improvement before the shutdown last March, his defense was showing signs of troubling slippage. He had nine passed balls in 34 big-league games in 2019. His work at the alternate site in Toledo last summer got mixed reviews, too.
Tigers general manager Al Avila and then manager Ron Gardenhire both felt the defensive struggles were an extension of his hitting issues. They felt he was making the cardinal sin of taking his bad at-bats onto the field with him.
Not only has Hinch offered Rogers a clean slate, but he’s also put a battery of former big-league catchers-turned-instructors at his disposal — Josh Paul (big-league catching coach), Tom Prince (Triple-A manager), Brayan Pena (High-A manager) and Hinch.
“His arm is good, but we’re working on receiving, reacting to pitches, game-calling — we’re really in the weeds now of all the intricacies of the catching position,” Hinch said. “We’re full-fledged into opening our resources. He’s got as many catching coaches in camp as anyone can ask for.”
Hinch, like Coolbaugh, met with Rogers ahead of camp.
“It’s good to see he came prepared to compete for a job,” Hinch said. “It’s been all laid out in front of him. He knows what’s ahead. He knows he’s going to get the opportunity. He also knows he has to do something to solidify himself as a Major League-ready catcher.”
No time like the present.
Around the horn
Things got a little livelier at TigerTown Saturday. Miguel Cabrera, two days ahead of Monday’s first full-squad workout, was not only in town, he was on the field taking ground balls at first base. Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum and Zack Short were also on the field taking a round of infield.
…Hinch said pitcher Franklin Perez was finally cleared to enter the clubhouse Saturday. His COVID-19 intake test results had been delayed. He was still listed as a non-participant, though, presumably waiting the results of an athletic physical.
…Pitchers Jose Urena, Gregory Soto, Gerson Moreno and Wily Peralta have yet to report due to work visa issues. Hinch said he expects more players will be delayed getting into camp when the full team reports Monday.
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…Left-handed pitching prospect Joey Wentz, recovering from Tommy John surgery, is hoping to begin his rehab assignment in late April. "I think I'll be back on a roster sometime maybe late May or June,” he said. “I'll have to start facing hitters in late April and some rehab games in May."
…The Tigers signed right-hander Ricardo Pinto to a minor-league deal. The 27-year-old made 30 starts and pitched 162 innings in Korea last year, posting a 6.17 ERA and 1.77 WHIP with an ungainly 112-90 strikeouts-to-walk total. He’s pitched briefly in the big leagues with the Phillies (2017) and Rays (2019).