With every major league organization embracing, at least to some extent, analytics and evidence-based decision making, it’s inevitable that those ideas will trickle down to the players themselves.
While the transition to these new ways of thinking is sometimes slower for veteran players who grew up in a game that still largely chaffed at shifts, launch angle, and exit velocity, young players in the minor leagues only know modern baseball. For those players, the wealth of information now available isn’t a foreign concept, but the norm. If they choose to use it, the data can help unlock a deeper level of understanding about how to optimize their own game to produce the best possible results.
Twins prospect Brent Rooker is a poster child for the modern, analytically-inclined player. Drafted by the Twins in the first round of last year’s draft out of Mississippi State, Rooker is a huge proponent of using the vast amounts of data the game provides to his advantage.
“For guys like me, I’ve never known professional baseball without the analytical side, so it’s more normal for me,” he said. “I like to have all the information I can, both on myself and opposing pitchers. Analytics, Statcast, shifts, that’s all been a part of the professional game for as long as I’ve been closely following it and been a part of it.”
For Rooker, reviewing his swing and mechanics is a daily exercise. He gets to the ballpark early, before every game, to review the previous game’s at-bats, searching for inconsistences or areas where he’s getting away from what’s been successful in the past. He has a checklist of things he wants to accomplish with his swing, and analyzes his swing against the list.
“If I’m not producing at the plate, there’s a few things I can go back to and make sure that I’m doing, and if I’m not doing one of those things I know where the issue is and what needs to be addressed,” he said. “It takes away the whole feeling of searching and having to try to find answers with your swing, when you know concretely what you need to do well to have success. If I’m not doing one of those things, that’s what the issue is and that’s what I need to address.”
Rooker looks at video of his swing and mechanics, but also batted ball data that gives him a better idea of whether his swing is producing the results he wants. He knows his path to the big leagues is hitting for power, and the metrics allow him to better assess whether his mechanics are facilitating a high level of production.
“Launch angle and exit velocity are big for a guy like me,” he said. “My carrying tool is power, my ability to drive in runs is going to be what allows me to move [up in the system]. I need to be hitting balls hard enough, and at the right angles, to optimally produce as much as I can. So whether it’s doubles or home runs, I want to make sure that the metrics are there to allow me to do significant damage when I get my best swing off on a pitch I should handle.”
Rooker’s been doing a lot of damage in his brief time in the minors. After hitting .281/.364/.566 between rookie ball and High-A last year, he’s slashing .274/.348/.513 this season in Double-A. Now a top 100 prospect according to Baseball America, Rooker’s been fast-tracked through the Twins’ system. He’s on a similar path as former first round picks Andrew Benintendi and Alex Bregman. Like Rooker, they both starred in the talent-rich SEC and sped quickly through the minors.
A bit of a late-bloomer in college, Rooker red-shirted his freshman year at Mississippi State. His production increased in each of his first two years, including a .954 OPS as a sophomore. It wasn’t until his junior year, though, that he blossomed into perhaps the best college bat in the game. That season, he slashed .387/.495/.810 and was the SEC Player of the Year. Rooker credits the improvement in part to analyzing his at-bats and tweaking his mechanics.
“[I improved my] posture, put my body in a better position to move well, move correctly, be on plane early with pitches to be able to elevate them with authority,” he said. “Eliminated some unnecessary movement to make sure I was on time more. So when I was on time and put my body in a good position, when I got a pitch to hit I was able to do damage on it. When those things clicked and combined, my swing and the production just kind of took off.”
He isn’t just breaking down his own swing. Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson are among the current players he said he likes to watch, taking concepts they do well and applying them to his own swing. Barry Bonds is among the hitters he most admires.
“I’ve talked a lot about watching Bonds,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone’s used their body more efficiently in tighter spaces, and produced more power than he did.”
With the minor league season ending in three weeks, it’s possible Rooker could get a September call-up. His ability to play both first base and left field, along with DH, will give the Twins options to get his bat in the lineup. Like most players in the high-minors, Rooker admits to thinking about getting a big league promotion, but says he doesn’t dwell on it.
“You have to stick to your process, not worry about numbers or promotions or things like that,” he said. “Trust the process.”