“Don’t Give Up:” Jake Hager, after a Decade in the Minors, Gets His Chance with the Diamondbacks

Jake Hager
Spread the love

Three members of the Las Vegas area high school Class of 2011 have been drafted and made the big leagues. One of those three graduated early and was the first overall pick in 2010 — 2021 National League MVP Bryce Harper, who made his debut for the Washington Nationals in 2012 at the age of 19. The second, Erick Fedde, attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Three years later, the Nationals drafted him in the first round, and he made his debut with them in 2017. The third was a first-round pick (32nd overall) by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. It took years of patience and perseverance, but in 2021, he finally made the majors with the New York Mets. He didn’t stay long, bouncing around to three other teams before settling in. Now he’s a valuable utility infielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks — Jake Hager.

The Minor-League Journey of Jake Hager

“It’s been a journey for sure,” Jake Hager said of his career. It began in 2011 with the Princeton (West Virginia) Rays of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. He progressed through the system nicely, moving up one level per season. He turned 21 during Spring Training 2014 and headed to the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. Hager had a good season despite developing patellar tendonitis in both knees. In Spring Training 2015, he tore his right patellar tendon. “That derailed me a little bit,” Hager recalled. “That was hard. I had to miss all of 2015, when I was slated to go to Triple-A that season. You never know what could happen, but I told myself I wanted to come back stronger.”

When he returned in 2016, he didn’t have the same opportunity. “I understand,” Hager said. “That’s part of baseball. I missed a year and lost that prospect status. They (the Rays) signed a couple of guys that year, and they jumped in front of me.” With those events, Hager became a utility player. He went back to Montgomery, where he played well enough to get called up to the Triple-A Durham Bulls in early June.

His career stalled at this point. “I wasn’t an everyday guy, so I kind of struggled in ’16 and ’17. In ’17, I thought I was going to be an everyday guy but ended up not being it. I had to learn how to be that full utility guy and not play every day. That was my last year with the Rays. I didn’t have a great year, but we won the (Triple-A) Championship, so it was a lot of fun. It was really cool to win that with Durham.”

Jake Hager became a free agent that offseason. The Milwaukee Brewers signed him and sent him to Mississippi to play for the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers. “You know what,” Hager said with a smile, “I was happy to be in a new spot and revamp my career there.” He had one of the best years of his career, making the Double–A All-Star Team. After 64 games, he was promoted to the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox, continuing to play well. “I thought I had a good chance of being a September call up,” he said.

“And sure enough, I broke my ankle.”

July 30, 2018, Hager left the game against the Albuquerque Isotopes with a broken ankle. (In an added insult, the pinch-hitter that finished his at-bat was hit by the pitch.) “I had some bad luck with injuries, but I did well enough that (the Brewers) brought me back in 2019. Same thing happened to me that happened with the Rays. They went and signed some guys that jumped in front of me, so I didn’t have the same opportunity.

“But I didn’t give up. I wanted to continue (playing) and ended up having a pretty good year for the role I had in 2019.” He did so in a new city, as the Sky Sox moved to Texas and became the San Antonio Missions. His contract with the Brewers was up, but the Mets signed him for 2020.

“And then the pandemic hit.”

Hager spent all of the shortened 2020 season at the Mets’ alternate site on Coney Island. “It’s crazy, man,” he said with a “can you believe this?” smile. But Hager did well enough at the alternate site for the Mets to bring him back. He had a great big-league camp in 2021.

“And sure enough, I made my debut.”

On May 15, 2021, the Mets called Hager up for an away game. The site was perfect — Tropicana Field against the Rays. “I got drafted by the Rays, always dreamed of being a Tampa Bay Ray and playing in the Trop. It was very special. All the guys that were over there, that I came up with, were still there — coaches, the training staff, a couple of players…it was special.”

Hager came to the plate as a pinch-hitter with two out in the top of the ninth. The Rays led the Mets, 12–5. When the PA announcer said his name, “all of them (the Rays) were on the top step. It was really cool.” Hager had done so much to prepare for this moment that he had no jitters. “I honestly wasn’t nervous when I went up to the plate, but when I saw that, my heart started pounding. So I had to step out and slow myself down.” He calmed down enough to send a deep liner to right-center, but Brett Phillips made a running over-the-shoulder catch to rob him of an extra-base hit and end the game.

That was the first of five games with the Mets. He played again the next day, entering as a defensive sub in the bottom of the first. The day after that, the Mets were in Atlanta; Hager pinch-hit in the top of the eighth. He played again two days later in Atlanta, entering in the fifth. On May 21, in a road game against the Miami Marlins, he got his first hit — a single off Adam Cimber in the top of the 12th.

“I was on a big high,” Hager said, “and was slated to start at second the next day.” But instead, he was designated for assignment (DFAed). “I did not expect it,” he said. “That’s when last year got crazy. Got DFAed by the Mets, claimed again by the Brewers. They sent me to (Triple-A) Nashville. I was doing well for them — DFAed again. Got to go to the (Seattle) Mariners. I went to (Triple-A) Tacoma with them. Was with them for about a month and a half. Got off to a slow start but had a really good last few weeks before the trade deadline. I honestly thought I was being called up. Got pulled in the seventh inning…

“…for them to tell me that they DFAed me mid-game.”

But two days later, the Diamondbacks claimed him. “They sent me straight to the big leagues,” he grinned.

In his first stint, he played in six games between August 1 and 8. He started in five, notching two hits in the process. On August 9, he was optioned to Triple-A, but three days later, right fielder Kole Calhoun got hurt, and Hager was back. “I didn’t play (much) at all when I was back, but it’s okay. That’s part of (the game),” he said.

The Diamondbacks outrighted him to the minors with a few weeks left in the season. No one claimed him, so he went to Reno. Hager reflected on the whole year with, “It was a crazy year last year, but looking back on it, I got to learn a lot about how the business side of the game works and how it all goes. I got to reflect on a lot of things, but it got me to where I am today.”

Jake Hager the Ballplayer

Jake Hager has resonated with his Diamondbacks teammates, coaches, and manager. Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo called him “a very prepared player who probably has one of the hardest jobs in baseball. He doesn’t play every day, but he’s expected to have perfect timing offensively and defensively. So he brings an energy, a focus, and a great deal of dependability.”

Outfielder Cooper Hummel, who spent some time with Hager in the minors, called Hager “one of the best defenders I’ve ever played with. He’s a surefire thing on defense. The way the game is, you need guys who can (do that) in the back end of the game, even if you’re not playing. (You need) someone who is ready to go every single day. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever played with.”

Outfielder Pavin Smith called him a “do-it-all kind of guy.” First baseman Christian Walker added, “Jake’s great. He works hard, is very prepared, and takes care of himself. You know that when he gets called upon, he’s gonna be ready. That’s all you can ask for.”

Third base coach Tony Perezchica, who also works with the infielders, praised Hager for what he brings to the club. “Hard worker,” he immediately said. “Desire, hard worker — I like the way he goes about his business. He wants to work, wants to get better. Guys like that tend to hang on a long time in the big leagues just because they can do that. And he’s getting better. I have nothing bad to say about him. He’s always the guy that I wish more guys would look at him and say, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s a worker.’”

Jake of All Trades

Embed from Getty Images

Third baseman Josh Rojas praised Hager’s abilities at all infield positions, saying “it’s a huge value to have one guy who can give someone an off-day at every spot…. You don’t have to worry about a liability at all. You’re going to get just as good of a guy in there.” Hummel added, “He’s incredible at second, short, third — I have full faith in him anywhere. I’ve seen him at first base, too. He’s a good first baseman, and he can play outfield, too. No one mentions that here, but he debuted with the Mets in the outfield. He can do it all.”

Lovullo agreed with Hummel. “That’s a great point. It goes hand-in-hand with what I’m saying about him having one of the hardest jobs in baseball. He can play all four infield positions and play outfield in a pinch. We haven’t seen him do that yet, although I know he can. But the four infield positions he plays, he plays at a very high level, and that’s hard to do. That means he’s dividing time in four different areas throughout the course of the day. There’s a lot of work going into that.”

Now Pitching…Jake Hager?

Jake Hager has also pitched three times this season in blowout situations, holding the opponents scoreless in two of them. Reliever Joe Mantiply said he appreciated Hager volunteering in those blowout situations when relievers were gassed. “You don’t want to waste an arm in a game like that. It helps us save an arm. In some situations, you just don’t need to throw an arm out there. You only have so many bullets, so it’s not fun to waste them in a blowout.”

Jake Hager the Teammate

Embed from Getty Images

Jake Hager’s willingness to eat up an inning to give the relievers a break falls in line with what the other players have said about him as a teammate. Catcher Jose Herrera said he’s a “great teammate. He’s there for everybody, works so hard. He’s into the game so much. You can pick his brain every day, every moment, and he’s right there. It’s been helpful to have him around.” Fellow catcher Carson Kelly agreed, saying he “brings a lot to the table” and is “a guy who’s always in there working every single day. He wants to get better.” Kelly added that he is a “consistent guy. He gives us his all. I enjoy playing, learning, and growing with him.” Infielder Geraldo Perdomo said Hager is “one of the biggest reasons we get energy in the dugout,” adding, “he always supports us,” even when not playing in the game.

Outfielder/catcher Daulton Varsho called Hager “a great guy to…have in the dugout. He’s always willing to cheer you up and be there for you. As you’ve seen, he’s always the last one off the field to give everyone high fives and make sure he gets the team going.” Smith added that Hager is “great to have around the clubhouse,” mentioning that he gets there early. Center fielder Alek Thomas loves that about Hager. He also loves that Hager “is always going to come with the same attitude every day…. He’s an even-keeled dude. No highs, no lows. That’s what I really look for in a teammate, someone who stays the same all the time.” Thomas added that he’s a “very supportive teammate.” Rojas also mentioned that Hager is a “really good teammate” but added, “he’s a funny guy who has some good stories.”

A Valuable Mentor

Perezchica pointed something else out about Jake Hager. “He’s a quiet leader. He’ll sit down and talk to certain guys, telling him certain things that he does to keep himself in shape. Sometimes that goes longer than a guy that always talks, because you see what they do and think, ‘Man, I want to do the same thing.’ You can talk, talk, talk, but you have to do the walk, and that’s what (Jake) does.”

This has been valuable to younger players like Hummel and 23-year-old second baseman Buddy Kennedy, who said it’s “awesome” to play with Hager. “I met him when we got here in February for early camp. Didn’t really know much about him, started to get to know him as a person and as a player. To see how much he cares about the game — even away from the game, about your life, wants to know what’s going on, if everything’s alright. He’s a great dude.

“We went through Triple-A together. I was like, dude, you gotta help me out with some things I’ve never done. I’ve never done some of this stuff. He said, ‘No, I got you.’ So he’s helped me, starting in Triple-A. The little things, life things, baseball things. Then when I got here, I said the same exact thing. First day. ‘You have to help me, now. This is new to me.’ He said, ‘Dude, I got you.’ It’s awesome to have him, because he genuinely cares about you as a human being. At second base, it’s a little bit different here than it is in Triple-A. If I have any questions, I go to him, even within the dugout.”

Jake Hager the Guy

To a man, every player interviewed for this feature described how great a guy Jake Hager is. Herrera called him “a great, great guy.” Walker said he’s “great, supportive” and “always there to pick you up. He’s somebody you can count on from top to bottom. I have nothing but good things to say about him. I’m happy to have him on board.” Varsho summed it up simply with, “he’s a good dude.” Smith said he’s great to “hang and talk with — an all-around good guy.” Thomas said he had “nothing bad to say about Jake Hager.” Perdomo added that Hager is “really fun.” Rojas, Kelly, and Mantiply also gave testament to how good of a guy Hager is.

When the Diamondbacks are taking infield drills, Hager is always out there. But one recent pregame practice showed the type of guy Hager is. Recently, before a day game — where batting practice and infield drills are optional — Hager set up at third with Kennedy at second and Walker at first. Perezchica hit grounder after grounder to Hager, both so he could practice his throws to second and so Kennedy could practice making the turn at second. After a few minutes, Hager moved over to shortstop so Kennedy could practice fielding grounders and making the throw to second. Hager got in his practice, yes, but when he moved to shortstop, it became apparent that Hager was doing this more to help Kennedy out than to help himself out. That became even more clear when Hager put his arm around Kennedy to give him pointers, something that happened more than once.

Seeing Success

Since Jake Hager became a more regular part of the lineup June 7, his hitting has blossomed. In that span, he has slashed .313/.389/.375 (10-for-32) with two doubles, four walks, and three runs scored. Furthermore, since June 7, he ranks first on the team in batting average, second (to Ketel Marte) in on-base percentage, and fourth in run production (wOBA and wRAA, behind Walker, Marte, and David Peralta).

Hitting coach Joe Mather, who said that Hager brings energy to the team and is a good teammate, explained Hager’s recent success. “He knows the role that he’s in and handles it well. Gets his work in, very, very consistent. I think he has been getting good results, and a lot of that is due to his approach at the plate. There’s no ‘give-in’ there. He battles, battles, battles, battles. And he’s had good results because of it. Those kinds of at-bats spark a team, because he ends up turning the lineup over to the top after seeing eight, nine pitches and finding a hole. It gets guys going.”

Jake “Three-Hit” Hager

Embed from Getty Images

Against the Minnesota Twins on Friday, June 17 — the same day Kennedy made his major league debut — Hager hit a personal milestone. He went 3-for-4, giving him not only his first major league three-hit game, but his first major league multi-hit game. “That was awesome,” Hager recounted. “It felt great. It’s hard because I wasn’t playing much. Not every fifth day, but a couple of starts here and there. And it’s hard to get timing, especially up here, where pitchers are elite. But to get that first multi-hit game felt great.

“Every day I’m getting more and more comfortable and feeling good and understanding my role and understanding what I need to do for preparation every single day. It’s all coming together, man. I feel like the past couple of weeks, I’ve been good and having good at-bats. I’m trying to keep it rolling.”

Never Give Up

Jake Hager has a message for everyone who has a dream but keeps hitting roadblocks. “Never give up. It was my dream to be a big leaguer. And I believed in myself that I could do it. I knew I could do it. People kept telling me I could do it, kept telling me I’m a big leaguer but just needed someone to give me the opportunity. And I just didn’t give up.

“I gotta thank my agent for getting me contracts. And thank you to the Brewers, the Mets, and the Mariners for giving me the opportunity. I work hard every day and put in the work in every day. And I knew I could be up here, and I thank everyone, especially the Diamondbacks, for giving me the opportunity.”

The overall message applies to baseball or to any other area of life that involves turning a dream into a goal and working hard to achieve it.

“Never give up. If you believe you can make it, don’t give up. I have guys that are still trying to play and make it, and I applaud them for it. Just don’t give up. Don’t give up. It’s a hard game. And all you need is the opportunity.”

Main Photo Credits:

PHOENIX, Jun 26 — Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Jake Hager takes infield drills with Geraldo Perdomo in the background prior to the Diamondbacks’ game against the Detroit Tigers at Chase Field. (Photo by Evan Thompson)

Players/managers/coaches mentioned:

Bryce Harper, Erick Fedde, Jake Hager, Brett Phillips, Adam Cimber, Kole Calhoun, Torey Lovullo, Cooper Hummel, Pavin Smith, Christian Walker, Tony Perezchica, Josh Rojas, Joe Mantiply, Jose Herrera, Carson Kelly, Geraldo Perdomo, Daulton Varsho, Alek Thomas, Buddy Kennedy, Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Joe Mather