The Colorado Rockies are struggling in a myriad of ways in 2021. Their record is currently 25-41, and on April 26th, GM Jeff Bridich stepped down after 7 years at his position, much to the surprise of Rockies fans, who were expecting a long rebuild under his watch. To make matters worse, the future of the organization took a major hit in early June, when rumors surfaced that shortstop Trevor Story would not re-sign with the Rockies after the 2021 season.
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) June 7, 2021
Considering that the fanbase already lost Nolan Arenado in a trade to St. Louis this past off-season, the looming departure of Story is just another gut check to a frustrated Rockies fan base.
That being said, Rockies fans can still find solace in one bright spot: infielder Brendan Rodgers, who seems to be finally living up to his massive prospect hype at the Major League level.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Rodgers to the big league roster, especially the past couple of years. In addition to being blocked in the infield by Arenado and Story, Rodgers has struggled with various injuries over the past two seasons. During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Rodgers only played in seven games due to injury issues with his right shoulder. This season, he missed over a month of play due to a strained hamstring suffered in March.
But, since making his 2021 Rockies debut on May 21st, Rodgers has been a revelation for the Rockies, albeit in limited spurts. As of June 14th, Rodgers is posting a .254/.357/.424 slash with a .781 OPS in 20 games and 70 plate appearances. Rodgers has also hit three home runs and accumulated 13 RBI, a sign that he could be a fantasy monster if healthy and given the playing time to contribute. While it may not be a perfect replacement for the Arenado-Story combination, Rockies fans have to feel good about the possibility of Ryan McMahon and Rodgers being a productive left side of the infield for the Rockies for years to come.
Rodgers’ developing eye at the plate
One of the biggest changes for Rodgers in 2021 from his first two campaigns in the Majors has been the improvement in plate discipline. After posting strikeout rates of 33.3 percent and 28.6 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively, Rodgers has lowered that rate to 18.6 percent in 2021. And it’s not just the decrease in strikeout rate that has been impressive, but also the corresponding improvement in his walk rate, which is currently 8.6 percent, a nearly 3.7 percent improvement from 2019 (he did not generate a walk in 2020, but it was a small sample).
While the K rates and walk rates demonstrate an improved batting eye this season, a deeper dive into his metrics reveals that he is showing a more mature approach at the plate overall in 2021. Here is a look at his three-year plate discipline metrics, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
There are some interesting developments from Rodgers’ plate discipline numbers. This season, he has demonstrated a more patient approach, as he is only swinging 44.7 percent of the time, a 15.1 percent decrease from 2020 and a 10.1 percent decrease from 2019 (the latter is more impressive since he had 81 plate appearances in 2019, which is a better sample to compare). And so far, his patient approach has paid some dividends for him at the dish.
His tendency to chase pitches outside the strike zone, which plagued him in his first two stints in Colorado, has dramatically decreased. His chase rate is 23.5 percent lower than a year ago, and 19.7 percent lower than 2019. Chasing out of the strike zone is usually not a good characteristic for a hitter, as pitches outside of the strike zone don’t normally result in contact, let alone create productive contact. His 53.8 percent chase contact rate, which is around his 2019 and 2020 rates in that category, demonstrates that his new decreased chase rate is a good sign for him going forward in terms of limiting the strikeouts long term (or at least this year).
While Rodgers is showing more prudence at the plate, he is also capitalizing on hittable pitches. While he is swinging slightly less on pitches inside the strike zone, he has increased his contact on swings inside the strike zone by 8.2 percent and 6.5 percent since 2019 and 2020, respectively. However, the most eye-popping mark is his ability to take advantage of “meatballs” thrown by pitchers. The “meatball” percentage he has seen from opposing pitchers has nearly doubled from a year ago, and he is swinging 95 percent of the time on those advantageous pitches, which is nearly 20 percent higher than his 2019 “meatball” swing percentage. Thus, Rodgers is not being passive at the plate; rather, he is more than willing to be aggressive, as he was on this 91 MPH “meatball” pitch from Marlins pitcher Trevor Rogers:
This leads me to believe that Rodgers is seeing the ball better than he ever has at the Major League level. He’s laying off pitches outside of the strike zone and capitalizing on pitches that he can do damage on. As he sees more pitches with the Rockies, it isn’t out of the question to think that this improved plate discipline will only boost his profile, and Rockies fans and fantasy owners will see an uptick in production from his traditional metrics.
Rodgers and hard contact improvement
In addition to Rodgers making gains with his batting eye, the 24-year-old former first-round pick is also hitting the ball harder than ever, which is a good sign for possible future performance.
Rodgers was drafted by the Rockies to be a multi-tool threat in the infield much like Story, Arenado, and Troy Tulowitzki, all previously successful draft stories for the Rockies. This season, Rodgers is hitting the ball with authority in ways that he didn’t during his first two limited stints in Colorado. Take a look at his three-year Statcast data sample via Savant, and notice the improvements in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate.
Rodgers is posting career highs in every valuable Statcast batted ball category. His hard hit rate is nearly double what he did a year ago, and is 8.7 percent higher than 2019. His barrel rate is higher than 2019. And his average exit velocity is seven MPH higher than 2020 and 3.3 MPH higher than 2019. And this better batted ball improvement is evident in his expected metrics, as he is posting career highs in xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA.
When looking at his xwOBA zone charts from 2019 and 2021, one can also see the improvements Rodgers has made when it comes to making contact all across the plate. Here is a look at his xwOBA zone chart from 2019:
And now, let’s take a look at what he’s done around the zone this year, on a xwOBA basis:
Notice the improvements on the inside part of the zone, as he is hitting the ball more successfully in those areas. What contributed to that difference from 2019 to 2021?
Well, an easy explanation could be credited to a change in his batting stance, as he has incorporated a more open stance in 2021.
Here is a look at his more “closed” stance in this backward K against Noah Syndergaard during his rookie season (2019):
Now, let’s take a look below at him opening up his stance in the box a little bit more in 2021. As a result, he is able to get around on this 96 MPH fastball from Ryan Hendrix:
Rodgers isn’t just getting lucky. He’s made some adjustments over the past couple of seasons, and as a result, has demonstrated that he has the batted balls skill to succeed at the Major League level. Furthermore, he’s doing this as only a 24-year-old, which is still nothing to shrug at.
For Rockies fans looking for a solution at shortstop when Story leaves Denver, Rodgers is proving so far, with his hard hits and improvements in barreling the ball and launch angle, that he can be that guy, as long as he stays healthy and gets a fair number of at-bats.
What can people expect from Rodgers going forward?
According to Fantasy Pros, Rodgers currently is owned in five percent and six percent of Yahoo and ESPN leagues, respectively, which makes him an available and interesting long-term option for Dynasty players. Obviously, Rodgers missing the first month and a half didn’t help his case as a serious fantasy option. Furthermore, the lack of a clear position available for him in Colorado at the beginning of the year, as well as the injury issues he dealt with in 2020, probably scared many owners off in even the deepest of leagues. That being said, over the last 14 days, Rodgers ranks 81st among all players, according to Yahoo, and over the last seven days, he ranks 94th. And, this is with inconsistent playing time, as Rockies manager Bud Black has taken him out of the lineup on occasion in favor of Josh Fuentes, which may not happen for much longer if Rodgers continues to hit.
For fantasy teams looking for someone who is probably available in most leagues, Rodgers is a solid pickup who should be acquired immediately. His playing time and plate appearances will probably skyrocket once Story is traded, which at this time, appears to be on the verge of happening sooner rather than later, especially with the Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks so far out of the NL West race.
Rodgers has long been expected to be a future star in Colorado, as he was rated as the Rockies’ top prospect, according to Baseball America, every year from 2017 to 2021. While that is indicative of the struggles of the Rockies farm system (they ranked 25th as an organization in Baseball America’s 2021 team farm system rankings), Rodgers consistently holding the top spot in the Rockies system demonstrates that he has high upside and potential, as long as he can stay healthy.
Will Rodgers be the next Story, Arenado, or Tulowitzki in Denver? That is to be determined, and baseball fans probably won’t know for another year or two, at the earliest. Nonetheless, Rodgers has shown a lot of improvement offensively in 2021. He is an option that could greatly boost this Rockies lineup, as well as fantasy teams’ rosters, once he gets more playing time in the coming weeks as the Rockies make some critical decisions with their roster (specifically Story).