Here’s why Detroit Tigers’ catching prospect brings a Chris Spielman mentality to baseball

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Dillon Dingler was shagging balls for a future Hall of Famer.

It was his first time in Comerica Park — shoot, it was his first time playing in any major league park — and Dingler roamed the outfield, while studying Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron as they took batting practice.

“When they were hitting BP, I was watching, seeing what works for them, seeing their routine,” said Dingler, the Tigers’ second-round pick in the 2020 draft. “I was going down in the cages and it was the same thing. You pick up on the little things they do.”

When the Tigers held their Spring Training 2.0 last summer in Detroit, it became an education through osmosis followed by trial and error for Dingler.

[ What Dingler learned in camp before he goes to minors in 2020 ]

“You try to see if it works for you,” Dingler said.

And he’s going to take that education into this year’s spring training. Pitchers and catchers are expected to report Feb. 17, although nothing is certain because of COVID-19.

Dingler spent the offseason training in Columbus, Ohio. “I’m just trying to keep in shape as much as possible,” Dingler said. “You know, lifting, hittin’, throwing and, of course, that’s ramping up as we get closer to spring training.”

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A big investment

The Tigers are searching for their catcher of the future.

Perhaps it will be Jake Rogers, who turns 26 in April. Rogers could be the anchor of this rebuild, at least behind the dish, if he can hit. But in 2019, he hit .223 in 48 games at Triple-A Toledo before getting promoted to Detroit, where he struggled through a .125 stint in 35 games.

Rogers has a fantastic arm and has built a strong relationship with several of the Tigers top young pitchers.

A LOOK AHEAD: Here’s what the Tigers’ signing of Wilson Ramos means for 2021

But still — he has to hit.

So the Tigers made a huge investment in Dingler — in a shrunken draft — taking him in the second round. He was the 38th pick, the highest the Tigers have taken a catcher in 20 years. James McCann, also a second-round pick, was taken with the 76th overall in the 2011 draft.

Dingler is a tremendous athlete. In high school, he was a four-year letter winner in football, basketball and baseball. He was the sixth man on a basketball team that won the state title.

And when he went to Ohio State, he played in the outfield as a freshman.

“He’s a really athletic kid,” said Mike Hessman, the Triple-A Toledo hitting coach. “Very athletic. He’s got some pop in the bat. Strong, well built, athletic kid.”

‘City of Champions’

After he was drafted, Dingler was put on a conference call with Detroit media. While doing an interview, he heard his family scream in excitement in the background.

“While I was on the call, I heard all of my family go crazy,” Dingler said. “I was thinking for a second, ‘What is going on?’

“Then I was like, oh, I know exactly.”

[ Expert opinions on the Tigers’ 2020 draft class: ‘Hard not to like’ ]

Dingler’s family was celebrating because his high school teammate, Kyle Nicolas, was taken 61st overall by the Miami Marlins.

“I’ve known Kyle since he was 12 or 13,” Dingler said. “I played basketball with him growing up. I would like to think we were pretty good. He was our ace, obviously. We ended up winning states our senior year. We had a great we had a great baseball program growing up.”

A great baseball program in a football crazed area.

And if you want to understand Dingler, a baseball player with the soul of a football player, you have to understand where he comes from.

Dingler grew up in Massillon, Ohio — a town that calls itself “The City of Champions.” More than two dozen professional football players and 10 baseball stars have come from Massillon, according to the town’s website, including Chris Spielman, Paul Brown and Earl Bruce.

Dingler was a star on the football field and was named first-team All-Ohio. He played offense, defense, punted and was the placekicker. He led his team with 1,053 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on 45 catches. As a safety, he made 128 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Dingler was named the Stark County Player of the Year in 2017 — in a county where that’s a bigger deal than in most places.

“Stark County is known for football,” Dingler said. “I got to experience it. Friday night lights was crazy.”

Learning to pull back

Last year was also crazy, a whirlwind of starting and stopping for Dingler.

Playing at Ohio State. Having the season get shut down. Getting drafted. Wondering if he would have a minor league season. And then there he was, shagging balls for Cabrera.

Dingler did not do much to standout during his time in Detroit — he was still trying to learn names and how to act around MLB players. But he started to settle down in Toledo and everything started to click.

“You start to feel comfortable,” he said. “I started to not think as much. Just trying to play the game free. That’s the best way that I play. That’s what produces the most success, when I’m not thinking, when I’m just kind of reacting. And that’s exactly what I was doing. I was able to barrel balls throughout the field, which is really good.”

But sometimes, he worked too hard.

[ Hinch breaks down Tigers position battles, closer, prospects ]

Sometimes, that football player would come out of him.

“He’s done a great job,” Hessman said. “He works his tail off. Sometimes, we have to back him off. Tell him, ‘hey man, it’s an easy day, relax, these are long seasons.’”

Obviously, you will take a player like that any day — somebody who works too hard.

“He has been great as far as his work ethic and eager to learn,” Hessman said. “He’s always in the cage, wants to get some more work, whether it be with the hitting side of it or doing drills. He is eager to learn and excited to be here.”

Never say never

Tigers manager AJ Hinch loves versatile players, which makes Dingler’s skill set so intriguing.

Could he eventually move to the outfield?

“I don’t think they want me playing other positions right now,” Dingler said. “I think they want me to focus on catching.”

But when somebody is willing to go on a football field and play offense, defense, kick and punt, you get the sense he’s willing to do anything, just to play.

“Obviously, there’s always a possibility of it happening,” Dingler said. “But I’m never gonna close off my options to other positions because the more positions you play, the more valuable you are to a team. So even like next season, if I have a few games behind the plate and they want to get me out of there and want to throw me out in the outfield, I’d be perfectly fine with that. I just want to keep an open mind about different positions, getting as many different reps everywhere I can.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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