PITTSBURGH -- What was once a hope that the Tigers could get catcher Jake Rogers back by season’s end is now a fear that he could be out for much of next year. Rogers underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on Wednesday.
Manager A.J. Hinch, who announced the news, had already all but ruled out Rogers returning this year. The rehab process will likely keep Rogers out for a good portion of next season as well.
It’s a reflection of the unusual injury that landed Rogers on the injured list July 19. Rogers was initially diagnosed with a pronator teres strain, but his continued soreness while going through a hitting and throwing progression led to a series of visits with specialists and debate over whether surgery was needed. Dr. Keith Meister, who performed Tommy John surgery on Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer, performed Rogers’ procedure at his clinic in Dallas.
“There was some debate on whether or not he needed this surgery from various doctors around the country,” Hinch said. “Thankfully Dr. Meister was the voice of reason, and it was even more necessary than the films showed throughout this process.”
While Tommy John surgery is increasingly common for pitchers, it’s less so for catchers. Royals All-Star Salvador Perez missed the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgery in March of that year, but he was ready for the delayed '20 season when it began last July. Travis d’Arnaud underwent the procedure in April '18 for a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and was ready for the following Spring Training following a 10 1/2-month rehab.
“The only guy that throws more balls on a nightly basis than the pitcher is the catcher,” Hinch said. “It’s a little tricky with the catcher, different arm angles and it’s a different throw, but the rehab portion of it is the same.”
The injury puts the Tigers’ catching situation in some question heading into 2022. Eric Haase has become the No. 1 catcher in Rogers’ absence and produced the first 20-homer season by a Detroit regular catcher since Mickey Tettleton in 1992. Haase also entered Wednesday having thrown out one-third (9-for-27) of would-be basestealers, well above the Major League average. However, his OPS has dropped from .809 before Rogers’ injury to .717 since then, including an 89-point drop in slugging percentage.
Haase’s ability to play left field respectably allowed the Tigers to keep his bat in the lineup without subjecting him to the wear and tear of everyday catching. That advantage has understandably diminished with Rogers out.
For Rogers, meanwhile, the injury potentially stunts his development as a quality all-around catcher, a possibility that looked far greater this summer than it did going into the season. The 26-year-old has long been regarded as a defensive stalwart, but his swing work -- including offseason sessions with swing guru Doug Latta -- finally paid off at the plate this year with a .239 average, an .802 OPS and a 120 OPS+.
“I think Jake went from a player who penciled into the plans to somebody who had firmly entrenched himself as part of what we were doing moving forward,” Hinch said. “I was impressed by the work that he did in the Minor Leagues, and then when he came up and he grabbed the opportunity and took off.
“Much is said about the homers and he had gotten more competitive at-bats. But he cleaned up his catching and he was doing a lot of good things behind the plate and calling pitches and receiving and throwing, doing everything that we asked as an organization to help us win. So he made major strides this season. Those don’t go away just because he’s injured and will miss significant time.”
The Tigers have a promising catching prospect in Dillon Dingler, the fourth-ranked prospect in the system by MLB Pipeline, but he isn’t expect to push for a big league callup until later next year. The second-round pick from the 2020 MLB Draft entered Wednesday batting .208 with a .589 OPS at Double-A Erie while throwing out 9 of 26 would-be basestealers. He could be an option to play in the Arizona Fall League if that returns this year.
The in-house options include Grayson Greiner and possibly Dustin Garneau, who has impressed in his late-season stint as Haase’s backup.
“Losing Jake for this long time is clearly going to have an impact on how we feel we need to make our team better,” Hinch said.