2017 Minnesota Twins Breakout Candidate — Eddie Rosario?

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I’ll admit, if this idea was pitched to me a week ago I’d be as skeptical as anyone else. Eddie Rosario has tantalized with his physical talents but teased with his inability to harness his game in spots where he could turn himself into a really nice player. It wasn’t a particularly nice thing to say, but earlier this offseason I tweeted that Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta is the player Rosario dreams he was.

Peralta is a 29-year-old Venezuelan who had an off-year due to injuries with the Snakes last year, but his career batting line is .292/.341/.481. That slash line reads to me like a guy who doesn’t walk a ton, has good pop and can make enough contact. In other words, a pretty solid outcome for Rosario to aspire to, right?

We know Rosario can make contact on just about any pitch he tries to hit. Case in point:

Look where that pitch is just before Rosario makes contact with it:

(Still captured via MLB on YouTube)

It was the home run that launched 1,000 blog posts. OK, maybe that’s hyperbole but the great Jeff Sullivan wrote about it on Fangraphs. He went so far as to say that Rosario’s quirky blast was the “lefty home run against the pitch most up and in.” And while the pitch selection speaks to Rosario’s tendency to swing at everything — more on that later — it did come on an 0-2 count. “Protect the plate!” they’ll frequently say.

Well, Rosario must have left some plates in his sink at home he was protecting.

It’s not just offensively that Rosario shows incredible talent, and we need not look too far back to see him do his thing with the glove. Or, more accurately, the hand not covered with the leather. This came just Tuesday night, as Puerto Rico scored an upset win over the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic at Petco Park in San Diego.

There are a lot of words for that throw, but most of them are not fit for print. Maybe that throw will stoke the flames of flip-flopping Max Kepler and Rosario in the outfield? Nevertheless, it’s throws like that which allowed Rosario to finish second in the AL in outfield assists with 16 — as a rookie. He did so in just 122 games. Rosario took a step back to just 10 assists in 2016, but he also only played 89 games and assists are a game of chance. If you get a reputation that you can throw people out, fewer people will eventually run on you. It’s like being a shutdown cornerback.

For instance, Ichiro Suzuki has one of the best outfield arms we’ve seen in the modern era, yet has just three years of double-digit assists in 16 MLB seasons. Rosario is already two-thirds the way there. Baseball is sort of weird like that.

But when you get right down to it, the gripe with Rosario hearkens back to the pitch he swung at against Josh Tomlin in that first video. Rosario’s bugaboo is that he swings at everything. That’s evident not only in his career walk rate — 3.3 percent while the league average is somewhere around 8.0 percent over that time frame — but also in his plate discipline stats. Exactly 200 hitters have at least 800 plate appearances over the last two seasons; just one — Baltimore’s Adam Jones — has swung at more pitches out of the strike zone (45.6 percent) than Rosario (43.9 percent).

In case you haven’t been monitoring at home, the last two season haven’t exactly been banner years for the O’s center fielder, as he’s hit .267/.309/.454 over that time frame. In other words, not terribly different from the .269/.292/.443 career line Rosario has posted to this point.

So where exactly does the hope lie for Rosario? Let’s take a look.

Rosario hit a meager .200/.218/.313 through his first 32 games last year and wasn’t particularly impressive in the outfield, either. That bought him a six-week vacation to Triple-A Rochester, where he spent the second half of May and all of June before returning to the Twins just before July 4. Rosario got into 60 big-league games the rest of the way, and hit a respectable .305/.335/.477 down the stretch — an .812 OPS that, wouldn’t you know it, is just 10 points shy of Peralta’s career mark? That’s downright respectable, if not solid.

Now if you’re aware of isolated discipline, you’re still probably not terribly impressed here. That concept is subtracting batting average from OBP for a quick-and-dirty idea of what a player’s plate discipline looks like. In short, you probably wouldn’t be surprised Rosario still had a 60-9 K/BB ratio over those final 60 games (233 PA).

That’s still just a 3.9 percent walk rate. That’s a little over a half-percent over his career rate, but still obviously not particularly good. Over the two-year window of Rosario’s career — again, the same 200 hitters we polled before — only Jonathan Schoop (3.1 percent) and Salvador Perez (3.2 percent) have lower walk rates over that time frame than Rosario’s 3.3 percent rate.         

So where’s the hope?

What if we told you one of the very best Twins hitters of all time had a terrible walk rate for his first two seasons, with even more plate appearances at the same age?

This player had 1,327 plate appearances over his first two seasons, walked just 4.3 percent of the time and finished the second season as a 25-year-old — something Rosario will miss by just a day or two.

Believe it or not, that hitter is Kirby Puckett. And while most of us remember Puckett as the rotund center fielder who ultimately moved to a corner and just flat out mashed, he started out as a fast-as-the-wind skinny kid from the South Side who never struck out, never walked and frankly didn’t really hit. Through those 1,327 plate appearances, Puckett had the seventh-worst walk rate among 176 plates over that two-year (1984-85) time frame and he hit just a meager .292/.325/.363.

Comparing different eras and different types of players is difficult, but Puckett had an 86 career OPS+ through those first two seasons. Rosario is at 98.

Now Puckett clearly turned a very serious corner in year three, as his work with Tony Oliva helped him develop the trademark leg kick that helped him pop a career-high 31 home runs in 1986 after he had just four MLB home runs to that point and just 13 over parts of three seasons in the minors. Puckett obviously had all-world talent to turn it on like that, and is most certainly an outlier as opposed to the rule. Just because it happened for Puckett doesn’t mean it’ll happen for Rosario — but it also suggests it isn’t an impossibility.

Even Brian Dozier made a significant jump in terms of discipline in the big leagues. In his rough rookie season, he walked just 4.7 percent of the time. His lowest mark since then was 8.2 percent the next year and it even spiked at a Mauer-esque 12.6 percent when he was first installed as a leadoff hitter. Now with that said, Dozier was known more for his plate discipline in the minors, so it was sort of hiding under a rock rather than coming out of thin air. Rosario’s had his moments of decent walk rates in the minors — routinely in the 6-7 percent range and 6.8 percent overall — but it’s not as though he has the exact same path as Dozier.

In short, if the Twins could legally have molded two players together, they could have created a superstar out of Aaron Hicks and Rosario.

Still, I stumbled upon some interesting information that led me to believe there’s still more buried deep within Rosario’s ability to break out. All the talk surrounding Rosario — and I’m just as big of a stickler as anyone — is “wow, imagine how good he’d be with plate discipline!” Well yeah, that’s like imagining how great Joe Mauer would be if he hit 30 home runs each year or if Justin Morneau had never been concussed or Francisco Liriano pitched like 2006 for his entire career.

Saying it is easy; making it happen is not.

Plate discipline is a pretty steady thing in a player’s development. It’s far easier for a player to decline on the way up than improve — not unlike most statistics, really — but to get it to take a significant jump is just not all that typical. Mauer has always had a good eye. Hicks bordered on passive but always took his walks. In fact, when he slumped badly to start his career, Ron Gardenhire said they wanted him to hit his way out of it. “He’s not going to walk his way out of this,” Gardenhire said. “The guy’s gotta hit.”

That’s obviously going to be true of Rosario, whose forte and a large part of his value is derived from hitting. So it was a random tweet from Lavelle E. Neal III — the intrepid Twins report at the Minneapolis Star Tribune — that led me down a Rosario foxhole. Here’s the tweet:

I had never thought much about Rosario using the field when he was going well. Obviously, his first career home run went the other way:

…and I’d always just assumed he’d been acceptable to all fields. I guess what I mean is I didn’t see him as a dead pull or push hitter. Mauer, for instance, absolutely rakes the other way. Dozier is a dead-pull hitter and Trevor Plouffe was better when he pulled the ball as well.

So I dug out Rosario’s 2016 numbers and, um, wow. First, via Fangraphs:

  • To left field (push): .901 OPS
  • To center field: .944 OPS
  • To right field (pull): .967 OPS

Hold up. So….he basically throttled the ball to all fields? Well, as far as Fangraphs sees it, yep.

I checked Baseball Reference just to make sure I wasn’t missing something, and here’s what they had:

  • To left field (push): .787 OPS
  • To center field: .928 OPS
  • To right field (pull): 1.024 OPS

So, there’s some disparity but still really great numbers overall. My suspicion is that it has to do with how the data providers — whether it’s MLB Advanced Media or something else — divides up the gaps a little bit differently as far as left-center and right-center are concerned.

But basically speaking, when Rosario puts the ball in play in fair territory, he’s an absolute masher. The trick is going to be cleaning up what he does in the meantime, because it really looks like that’s the difference between Rosario as-is, and Rosario the possible All-Star.

It’s not difficult for Rosario to take more pitches; that’s as simple as just not swinging. If hitting coach James Rowson can get him to work on that while not taking away his effectiveness, that might be one of the best moves of the offseason.

I can’t say that this is terribly likely, but I can definitely say I’ve undersold what Rosario is truly capable of.


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Brandon Warne covers the Twins for Cold Omaha, and has had his work featured in numerous places across the United States. Locally, Warne's work has appeared at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1500 ESPN and Go96.3 for writing and audio, and he's also had written work appear on Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs and cited in the Los Angeles Times. Warne lives in the outer Twin Cities suburbs with his wife, Amanda. Listen to his Cold Omaha podcast Midwest Swing. Follow Brandon on Twitter @Brandon_Warne.

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