Rehab work paying off for Jake Rogers

May 12th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Tigers’ hockey-themed home-run celebration includes not just the helmet and stick, but giant hockey gloves. Put those on the hands of a Major League hitter, and the baseball bat in his hands looks more like a twig.

So, of course,  had to try them on for pregame batting practice Wednesday in Cleveland. He got in a round of easy swings with them, then went back to his traditional batting gloves before coaches could tell him to knock it off.

This is what Rogers does. He’s not going to take himself too seriously, right down to the mustache that evokes the image of a slugger on a bubble-gum pouch. But his return behind the plate after a year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery has made a serious difference in the Tigers’ fortunes.

What was a lengthy rehab process for Rogers, equivalent to a pitcher’s rehab from elbow surgery, was also a reset of sorts. It was a chance to work on parts of his game that might have been still in development when he was first called up in 2019.

“I was expecting to be fully ready to go by the end of last year,” Rogers said last week. “It was kind of one of those decisions to just wait until this year.”

His year of rehab was also a year to work on a consistent approach at the plate and address the longstanding question about his offense. Defensively, while he waited for clearance to throw, he could work on his stance behind the plate. After catching on both feet, he worked with Tigers catching coordinator Ryan Sienko, who suggested putting one knee down last summer and explained the potential upside he could get in framing pitches.

So far, the patience is paying off. Rogers entered Friday’s series opener against Seattle batting .179 (12-for-67), but his four home runs are tied for the team lead. Add in his three doubles, and more than half of his hits have gone for extra bases. His barrel rate ranks just outside the top 10 percent of Major League hitters, and his hard-hit rate ranks just outside the top 20 percent.

Most of that damage has come against left-handed pitchers; he’s 5-for-19 (.263) with three homers and a double. That production, even in a small sample size, not only makes him a viable producer in the lineup against lefties, it frees up fellow right-handed-hitting catcher  to play left field in those matchups, further stacking the lineup.

Defensively, Rogers entered Friday just outside the top 5 among MLB catchers with three Defensive Runs Saved, according to Sports Info Solutions. He has thrown out 3 of 13 would-be base-stealers, but two of them came in last Thursday’s win over the Mets, including a ninth-inning nabbing of Brandon Nimmo that erased a Mets opportunity with the potential tying run at the plate in a 2-0 win.

His strong arm, according to Statcast, is throwing at pretty much the same velocity he had pre-surgery.

“Going into Spring Training, it felt good, and kind of like it’s normal now, which is awesome,” Rogers said last week.

The bigger difference with Rogers’ defensive metrics, and the area where his knee-down approach pays off, is reflected in the pitches. Statcast ranked him fifth among MLB catchers in Framing Runs entering Friday. He has converted 52.2 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes on the edges of the zone, fifth-highest among qualified catchers. By comparison, he converted 44.4 percent in 2021, and 47.6 percent in 2019.

Rogers has improved from 2021 at framing strikes all over the bottom of the strike zone, especially on the corners. However, he’s also better at the top of the zone, a weaker spot for him in past seasons.

“I’m just trying to get the strikes called strikes,” Rogers said.

His pitch-calling, already trusted by many Tigers pitching prospects who worked with him on their way up the farm system, has earned the high regard of veteran , who has allowed one earned run in five starts with him behind the plate. Rodriguez trusts him enough to go with traditional pitch signs with nobody in base instead of the Pitchcom electronic pitch-calling system.