Fort Myers, Fla. — Two players — center fielder JaCoby Jones and catcher Jake Rogers — are elite-level defenders. Jones led all big-league outfielders with 21 defensive runs saved last season. Rogers set a record at Double-A Erie last season, throwing out 50 base-stealers.
The Tigers believe both are impact players right now, defensively. And the Tigers believe they can be All-Star-level players if they can clear the one tall hurdle that’s vexed them through their developmental years — hitting.
Lloyd McClendon, the Tigers hitting coach, is the man tasked with getting these two through this particular barrier. He’s just getting started on Rogers, who is expected to start the season in Double-A, but with Jones, he’s seeing some light at the end of a long tunnel.
“Profiling him, getting him to understand what type of hitter he is, and then dealing the emotional roller coaster for a young hitter,” McClendon said Monday, before Tigers took on the Twins. “I think he’s finally starting to get over that hump. He’s a very talented individual. He’s explosive and he can make an impact on the baseball field.
“His biggest hurdle is here (pointing to his head). He’s getting better, you are starting to see that this spring.”
Jones started out slowly, but in the last couple of games he’s been able to work counts, keep his bat through the hitting zone longer and has been hitting more balls on the barrel.
“He’s getting himself in a very athletic position and he’s not panicking,” McClendon said. “He’s starting to see pitches; that’s a sign of maturity.”
One of Jones’s best attributes — his lightning-quick hands — also works against him at times.
“It does,” McClendon said. “Sometimes he can get in and out of the zone. He recognizes that and he’s fighting it, staying through the ball and letting the swing do what it’s supposed to do. He is getting better.”
McClendon said there are a lot of misconceptions about hitting, and even more about teaching hitting. He’s been accused of being anti-launch angle, which he decidedly is not. He just doesn't believe it is best-suited for every hitter.
“That’s a bunch of baloney,” he said. “Hitting is such an individual thing. To try and clone guys and to say we're all going to hit the ball one way — it doesn't work.
"You have to identify what type of hitter they are. I try to do that very diligently with the type of hitters we have. And I think we’ve been very successful. I think you will see our numbers improve, and I think we will be a better offensive team this year.”
McClendon and assistant hitting coach Phil Clark essentially create an individual blueprint for each hitter. Some players have come to him fully committed to a high launch-angle swing, and McClendon has tried to encourage them to level out.
He did that with Dixon Machado two years ago, and with Jose Iglesias last year.
“I fought with Jose Iglesias for half the year,” he said. “Fly ball, fly ball, fly ball. He saw his season start to tank, so he said OK, I’m ready to change it.”
Iglesias, you will remember, came into his contract season a year ago and started 2 for 35. Once he got back to his old swing plane, he hit .287 the rest of the year.
“Sometimes, failure is a good thing,” McClendon said.
Rogers is a similar case study. He came from the Astros organization, where he had an extreme launch angle.
“This young man has done certain things for so long,” McClendon said. “And I am certainly not trying to attack anybody and say it’s the wrong way to do it. But it’s not working for him.”
Rogers hit 17 home runs last year in Double-A, but he also had a 27 percent strikeout rate. The Tigers made it clear to him that might not be a workable ratio.
“The first thing I asked him, what type of hitter do you want to be,’” McClendon said. “He said, ‘I want to be a productive hitter, foul line to foul line, gap to gap, back to the kind of hitter I was in high school.’”
McClendon and Clark are presently in the process of restructuring his swing to get him back to that.
“The hardest thing to do is make changes on the fly, and we’ve asked him to do that,” McClendon said. “And he’s starting to get it. Phil Clark has worked diligently with him. Yesterday (against the Yankees) he took some good pitches, had some good hacks (but ultimately made an out).
“Sometimes when you fail, you succeed. I think he took a step forward yesterday.”
He’s only had 14 plate appearances this spring (two hits, five strikeouts). Part of that is because the Tigers need to give at-bats to Grayson Greiner and John Hicks first. And it’s partly because he’s learning a new swing and they don't want him to get overwhelmed early.
“He came here with these habits and it’s tough to get out of it,” McClendon said. “But I think he’s committed to doing it. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. This wasn’t built overnight, and we’re not going to break it down overnight.”
McClendon has always preached having a good two-strike approach and putting the ball in play, first and foremost. This year, though, it’s been an organizational emphasis. And, from his view, it’s been well-received.
“I think everybody has bought into it,” he said. “I think they are on board. We need to be productive hitters. I like where we are at.”