It’s my contention that you can tell a lot about a team’s ability based on how many questions need to be answered after spring training.
On some clubs, you’ve got a position on the diamond up for grabs, plus a veteran and a young up-and-coming prospect duking it out for the right to that place in the lineup. Other clubs wonder who will begin the year as the fifth starter, and how many capable depth arms will stay healthy should the need arise for an in-season replacement. On the best teams, questions and uncertainty are reduced to a minimum. Such as: Will Clayton Kershaw or Mike Trout stay healthy? Will Jose Altuve be the best player in baseball this year or merely a great player? And on and on.
This brings us to the Twins. I had questions at just about every position on the diamond this year. Maybe that’s because I follow this team closer than all other clubs. Maybe it’s because there’s a relative inexperience in the clubhouse, and therefore a shorter and less reliable track record on which to base our judgements. Maybe it’s because they lost 103 games a year ago and didn’t make many changes.
One of the players that drew my skepticism – and I have to say I felt like I was in the minority with this one – was Eddie Rosario. The free-swinging outfielder had a great rookie season in 2015, was slick in the outfield and on the bases, and looked destined be a very good player — even with an underlying problem that he basically never walked and chased a lot of pitches outside the strike zone on the way to a .289 on-base percentage. Still, his combination of speed, some power and strong defense earned him runway, and at 23, that was still an awfully impressive season for a guy who had formerly been one of the Twins’ top prospects.
But things took a step backward in 2016 for Rosario. He swung and missed more often, the strikeout problem got a little worse, and to my untrained eye, he took a pretty sizable step in the wrong direction as an outfielder. In 2015, I’d thought he was on track to one day win a Gold Glove. In 2016, I thought he was ticketed for Triple-A Rochester.
So I was a Rosario skeptic, and while I wasn’t alone, it was a relatively small crowd, to be sure.
Looks now like that crowd – the author included — was wrong.
At 25 years old, Rosario appears to be in the middle of a breakout season offensively. He’s relied on more than just luck – his approach at the plate appears to be improving. The Twins have a new hitting coach this year, and it’s possible that James Rowson has had an impact on Rosario’s approach.
It’s also possible that Rosario is simply coming into his own at age 25, and Rowson will receive some residual credit by virtue of association. I’m not here to settle that score. After talking about hitting at length with Rowson on a couple occasions, my educated guess is that he’s been a big part of Rosario’s improvement.
The left fielder was hitting .231/.265/.338 after three weeks this season. As I mentioned, I’d been a skeptic in the past. And I thought he was struggling to adjust to teams that knew perfectly well that they didn’t always have to throw a ball in the strike zone to get Rosario out. That’s baseball. Hitting is a tall order for anybody—even someone with the apparent ability and remarkably quick hands of an Eddie Rosario.
Since that time, though, Rosario’s been on a tear. He had three hits on April 25 against the Rangers and got overshadowed by Byron Buxton, the uber-prospect who was showing his own signs of improvement at the plate during that series in Arlington. Maybe it was Rosario who should have received more pub. Since that day Rosario is hitting .300/.342/.514 with 12 home runs in 315 plate appearances, and has been a force in the Twins lineup.
Rosario’s Weighted On-Base Average in that time is .368, which will help put his performance in some context. For those unfamiliar, wOBA is basically a one-size-fits-all offensive stat designed to measure how good a player has been at contributing to his team’s ability to score runs. Unlike batting average, wOBA gives you more credit for hitting a home run than for hitting a single. Only 35 hitters who qualify for the batting title have a wOBA that’s higher than .368 this season. It’s also a higher mark that the full-season number for hitters like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Khris Davis and Miguel Sano.
What’s impressed me about Rosario’s run of great hitting hasn’t just been that he’s getting his hits. It’s the way he’s approaching each plate appearance. Sure, you’ll still see him throw away a plate appearance every once in a while, but it’s not as often these days as it was during other stretches in his career. Encouragingly, Rosario’s walking almost twice as often this season as he has in years past. That walk rate is still a little low (6%) compared with his outfield peer group around the league, but it’s respectable. (By the way, MLB outfielders as a group have combined to hit .261/.332/.439 this year, so it’s not like Rosario’s .287/.328/.482 batting line is running away from the pack, it’s just that he’s trending in the right direction and showing real signs that he can be an impact player for the Twins in the next few years.)
In addition to walking more often and boosting his OBP, Rosario also isn’t striking out as frequently. He’s swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, meaning he’s refined his approach to exclude the old M.O. of hacking at any pitch, anywhere. Perhaps as a result, he’s also making contact more often when he does swing outside the strike zone, and he’s also getting the bat on the ball more often overall.
|Year||BB%||K%||OBP||Chase rate||Out-of-Zone Contact Rate||Overall Contract Rate|
The strikeouts are down for two reasons, as far as I can tell. One, he’s making smarter decisions about the pitches that he can handle, or is getting a better read on them rather than guessing; and two, he’s better at making contact when he makes the call to swing his bat.
That sentence may sound obvious if you read it over enough times. But it’s important to note that it’s a whole lot easier to write and talk about than it is to implement against Major League pitchers whose job security depends on getting you out.
Rosario still has things he can work on to become an even better player. As we sit here in mid-August, though, I’m a lot more convinced that he’ll be a strong contributor for the Twins than I was this February.