The Twins are one of two teams in baseball competing for a wild-card spot without a qualified hitter inside the top 50 on FanGraphs’ WAR leaderboard. Venturing out beyond this window unveils two players the average baseball guru would guess are Thad Levine and Co.’s most valuable assets: Miguel Sano (injured; 2.5 fWAR) and Brian Dozier (2.7 fWAR). If “Thad Levine and Co.” was the name of an ’80s band — which I can’t confirm or deny — Eddie Rosario would be the rhythm guitarist capable of beautiful harmonies; forgotten, but essential to the end product.
Anytime a player of Rosario’s level comes into relevancy, the radar in my mind starts to tick, hoping to decipher what changed to bring about better results. Naturally, venturing to other outlets helps to answer that question quickly, leaving me satisfied and with one less idea for a future column. Other times, unsatisfied by the results of searching, a new narrative will linger in my mind long enough to expand such thoughts into a column. That’s exactly what took place with my thoughts on Rosario’s recent breakout.
If you’re looking for a deep dive into some of the finer aspects of Rosario’s changes, SB Nation’s Twinkie Town — unrelated to the apocalypse-proof snack — has what you’re looking for. I, however, was stuck on one general concept from a Star Tribune post at the end of April. In an attempt to not rob the outlet of its quote, I’ll paraphrase by citing that Rosario was looking to go up the middle and the other way more, in an effort to help him find comfort at the plate.
The midpoint of that sentence — “… go up the middle and the other way…” — is something I’ve heard so much in baseball circles that I’ve become numb to the concept. Most of the time when I see those words in citation of a change in approach, it’s backed up by said player’s batted-ball distribution. For Rosario, that was initially the case, but then something odd happened.
La Velle E. Neal III’s column for the Tribune — 80-grade name — was written at the end of April and jives with the barebones comparison of Rosario’s batted-ball distribution between 2016 and the first month of action in 2017.
2016 – Pull 36.1% / Middle 39.8% / Oppo 24.1%
2017 – Pull 26.9% / Middle 44.8% / Oppo 28.4%
Whether this created an intersection of adjustment and improvement, in a purely statistical sense, I would be skeptical. Rosario had a wRC+ of 86 in his full season of work from 2016 and April brought with it a discouraging 72 wRC+. He was pushing balls to the middle of the field more, but this dampened production wasn’t intended.
Even more spiteful of any theory linking Rosario’s batted-ball distribution the other way and casual success is breaking down the outfielder’s changes over time in relation to performance. Keep in mind the love for Rosario was spurred off the starting block recently, as the average fantasy owner got tired of struggling vets, and searched for the hot hand (Rob Arthur say what?!).
April 2017 – Pull 26.9% / Middle 44.8% / Oppo 28.4% / wRC+ 72 / 18.6% K
May 2017 – Pull 33.9% / Middle 38.5% / Oppo 27.7% / wRC+ 108 / 18.6% K
June 2017 – Pull 36.7% / Middle 38.3% / Oppo 25.0% / wRC+ 126 / 22.4% K
July 2017 – Pull 36.8% / Middle 35.3% / Oppo 27.9% / wRC+ 126 / 18.5% K
August 2017 – Pull 54.1% / Middle 29.7% / Oppo 16.2% / wRC+ 155 / 15.6% K
Total 2017 – Pull 38.0% / Middle 37.1% / Oppo 24.9% / wRC+ 118 / 18.7% K
Weird indeed. That statement about Rosario going the other way, and that concept leading to results, is a theory that just took a wrench to the gut in the form of this progression in 2017. A progressive tendency to pull the ball, met with better wRC+ numbers, and a fluctuating strikeout rate that — in the aggregate — is substantially lower than 2016.
Intuition took over as I began to formulate ideas on what exactly happened in this particular case of the missing culprit of success. One stuck, and to my dismay, it’s not as groundbreaking as I had hoped.
Seeing Rosario’s strikeout rate plummet this much, I theorized that staying up the middle, or to the other way, doesn’t always mean actually doing so in a way that results in tangible batted-ball changes. It’s all about the approach itself. By Rosario telling himself to approach the ball with anticipation of hitting it to the left-center gap, he was effectively saying see the ball deeper into the zone. This may have helped his ability to recognize pitches and judge the break on an offspeed pitch better, along with a plethora of other nuances that sum to cuts in his swing and miss tendencies of years prior.
But my theory wasn’t enough to inspire confidence in claim, so I went to an individual that I admired the presentation of at Boston’s Saberseminar, and subsequently connected with on the network that is Twitter: Dan Blewett, host of the Dear Baseball Gods podcast and pitching guru.
I asked him whether it made sense that when Rosario says he is going the other way, it may actually be a larger complex of changes taking place. His response was what I wanted to hear…
“Hitters who are dead-pull commit earlier to pitches, because they have to get their barrel farther out in front of the plate in the same amount of reaction time. This limits pull-hitters to only a small grouping of pitches that they can both hit hard and keep fair.
By taking an opposite-field approach to the plate, Rosario is watching pitches in deeper, and thus keeping his barrel in the hitting zone longer. For someone who was an extreme pull-hitter, ‘opposite field’ is somewhat relative, and lining balls up the middle with authority is a sign that his new approach is working, even if it’s not producing true opposite-field hits.
He’s making himself a vastly tougher out, and it’s a sign that he’s growing as a player.”
– Dan Blewett
The interesting thing about Rosario is that he wasn’t much of a dead-pull hitter last year, but still realized that his production lacked punch with the approach he carried. This concept of him staying toward the middle of the field and the other way is a roundabout way of saying what Dan Blewett points out above — Rosario is making himself a vastly tougher out, and growing as a player. He’s not going the other way more, but that middle/oppo approach allows him to see the ball deeper — fewer strikeouts — and recognize which pitches he can pull productively without creating the dead-pull approach that Blewett implies is futile for most.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens going forward with Rosario’s approach, as he has gotten pull-happy in the month of August, but has been unbelievably productive in the process. With hitting’s mental side as important as its mechanical side, I continue to think his April tweaks to take a left-center approach primed him for development as an asset, even as his batted-ball distribution changes like the weather.
Hearing that a player is trying to go up the middle, or the other way, is too general of a statement to capture all that a player is doing. Next time I hear those four words — going the other way — I’ll be a lot more inquisitive as to what else may actually be happening in the player’s approach. Cycles of adjustments are guaranteed in baseball; player analysis is catching those adjustments and hammering out the what and why.
A version of this post can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com (to be published 8/27/2017).
I also tweet baseball… pretty much all the time — @LanceBrozdow