Tigers convene tag-team in reworking Jake Rogers' swing mechanics
Lakeland, Fla. — So, you’re the new hitting coach and one of your main offseason projects tells you he’s working with a hitting guru out in California. What do you? Do you let your pride and ego get in the way? Do you prevent him from working with the guru and make him stick to your plan?
Not if you are Tigers’ hitting coach Joe Vavra and your top catching prospect Jake Rogers is asking to work with renowned hitting instructor Doug Latta at his Ball Yard Hitting Academy in Northridge, California.
“If you hold your hand out and say, ‘No, I don’t endorse guys going to offseason people, I don’t know what he’s doing,’ — hey, some of these guys out there are really good,” Vavra said. "This guy is really good."
Instead, Vavra used Latta as a resource. He had several conversations with him and the two put a program together for Rogers.
“We had good conversations, between Doug and I and Jake and I,” Vavra said. “They sent me videos. So, I was kind of in the loop with what he’s doing…Since I’ve had that relationship going on, talks with Doug Latta, I feel really comfortable with where he’s at.
“Mentally, he feels good. Physically he looks good. He’s a great athlete. He’ll have to stay with it, though, because in this business, one bad day can take you right out of what you’ve been working on for a long time.”
Rogers knows that as well as anybody. He struck out 51 times in 128 plate appearances in his 112-game big-league debut last year. He worked tirelessly with then-hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. He picked the brains of veteran hitters, he even pulled Tigers’ legends Al Kaline and Willie Horton aside and talked to them about hitting.
“I’m a big believer in talking to everybody,” Rogers said Friday. “I am just trying to be the best I can be and guys who have done it before, like Mr. Tiger and Willie Horton — they are fun to talk to. They’ve got a lot of stories, but it’s good to throw in a serious question every now and then.
“They’ve got a lot of knowledge, a lot of years in the game.”
He and Latta hit it off quickly, though one of his suggestions was for Rogers to lose his beloved leg kick.
“The simplest way to put it, I’ve got to get consistent,” Rogers said. “I’ve really worked on repeating my swing. Do it the same over and over and be better able to adjust to pitches. I took out the leg kick, not because I didn’t like it. I loved it.
“But to get more consistent and be able to repeat, it’s a lot easier without the leg kick.”
Latta also changed Rogers’ posture at the plate.
“I was breaking my upper body too much over the plate,” he said. “When you break, the shoulders come in and you slide open. Causing a lot of swings and misses, lot of head movement.”
His swing plane is more level and the bat now has a chance to stay through the strike zone longer. It’s far too early to make any assessments about the effectiveness of the changes, but it is fact that Rogers was sending balls over the left field fence, over the high screen and into the bullpens on the turf field behind Joker Marchant Stadium during batting practice on Thursday.
“It was good yesterday,” Rogers said. “Felt really good. But I am still working, still really honing in on it.”
Rogers doesn’t appear to bear any scars from what he went through last season, which is a testament of his mental strength.
“I am really thankful for the opportunity they gave me,” he said. “I went up and I got some experience in the big leagues. I learned a lot from Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire). I went through hard times, but you have to go through them. It’s part of the game.
“It went on longer than I wanted it to, but it’s a new year.”
Rogers isn’t likely to start the season with the Tigers, but he has one of the more important tasks in the organization. He is expected to be the starting catcher at Triple-A Toledo where possibly four of the top pitching prospects could be starting — Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Tarik Skubal.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Honestly, it’s really fun. And it’s pretty easy. With those guys, there stuff is unbelievable. It makes calling a game a little easier.”
Work in progress
Manning has had and will have better bullpen sessions than the one he threw Friday. He seemed to be fighting his mechanics on a rain-soaked mound, looking perturbed with himself after several pitches.
He has been working to add a slider to his tool kit, but after he spiked a couple in the dirt, Anderson ordered him to stop throwing it.
“Just for now,” Anderson said. “It’s a new pitch and you got to know when to back off of it.”
Matthew Boyd, who has one of the nastiest sliders in the game, talked to Manning after the session and looked to be showing him the grip and arm slot he uses with the slider. Presumably, Manning will continue to tinker with it.
But as fellow pitcher Beau Burrows said, “He doesn’t need it when he’s got 98 (mph fastball) and that curve ball.”
Speaking of sliders
It took Buck Farmer several years to not only develop his slider, but to have the confidence to use it.
It came together for him last season. Opponents hit just .185 against the slider with a whiff rate of 53 percent.
“I guess I’d gotten more change-up and fastball happy that the slider just became a show-me thing,” said Farmer, who is in line to the be the right-handed set-up reliever this season. “But the hitter could eliminate that right out of the gate. I’d only throw it like two percent of the time.
“Last year, I tried it a lot more and now hitters have to be ready for three pitches instead of one or two. The swings and misses definitely gave me more confidence to use it.”
Farmer pitched in a team-high 73 games last year.
“My goal was to get 80 games, but Andy said that wasn’t happening,” Farmer said with a laugh.
Still, even with that heavy workload, Farmer began working with weighted balls Oct. 29 and maintained the same throwing schedule he’s always used. No rest for the wicked.
“In baseball and in general, there’s always guys trying to take your job every day,” he said. “There’s no real taking a step back, taking a deep breath and saying I got it made. You show up to the park every day to work. You’ve got to keep your job just like everybody else.”
Must be the shoes
Gardenhire has been giving Boyd the business for wearing bright white, Nike high-top cleats. Finally on Friday, Boyd gave Gardenhire a pair to try — though they weren’t the high-tops.
“Ultimately, they’re not really baseball shoes,” Gardenhire said. “They’re going to be my new golf shoes. They are really comfortable, and Matty is a big shooter now so he can do those kinds of things.”
Asked if the shoes made him any faster, Gardenhire quipped, ‘Nothing can make me faster, not even if I was being chased by dogs.”