Brent Rooker Is Who We Thought He Was

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite articles to write is the “you won’t believe how this guy is succeeding” piece. You’ve seen me – and plenty of other writers – break it out over and over again. Maybe it’s a reliever with a weird pitch, or a starter with a blazing fastball who is nonetheless succeeding with secondaries. Perhaps it’s a hitter excelling thanks to a novel approach, or a slugger altering his game to prioritize something he didn’t before. In any case, it’s fun to subvert expectations, and it makes for a good story to boot.

Spare some thought for the players who succeed by doing exactly what you think they’re doing, though. They might not garner as many headlines, but that doesn’t make what they’re doing any less real. I have a specific example of this today, someone I was hoping to write about in the former style. I went looking for the one weird trick that made him tick, but I couldn’t find one. Brent Rooker is succeeding with one extremely normal trick: Every time he comes to the plate, he tries to hit a home run.

Here’s a representative Rooker swing:

Here’s another:

You’ll notice a few things right away. He swings hard – his average swing speed matches Bryce Harper and Matt Olson. He also swings with a pronounced uppercut. Most hitters hit more home runs on high pitches, thanks to the laws of physics. Rooker doesn’t have a single homer in the upper third of the strike zone this year; he’s either annihilating pitches down the middle or lifting low balls over the fence.

This is not a swing designed for maximum contact. Among qualified hitters, Rooker’s contact rate is the second-lowest in the majors. Even if you widen the sample to include everyone with 200 or more plate appearances, he’s in the bottom 10. Instead, as you might expect from that uppercut shape, it’s a swing designed to lift the ball. Rooker makes his best contact on upward trajectories. His squared-up rate is at its highest between 10 and 40 degrees, with a fairly consistent pattern:

His approach mirrors his results almost perfectly. Rooker is 12th in all of baseball when it comes to home runs per plate appearance in the last two years, fractionally behind Kyle Schwarber and Yordan Alvarez. He boasts the ninth-lowest GB/FB ratio; if he hits the ball on the ground, it’s by accident. He has the fourth-highest strikeout rate; his all-or-nothing approach leads to its fair share of nothing.

The only surprising thing about Rooker’s game is how unsurprising it all is. He’s not fooling anyone with what he’s doing. He’s not even changing his approach all that much, the way that most hitters do. He’s swinging at 71% of strikes overall, a bit more frequently than the league does as a whole (67%). When he gets to two strikes, he amps up his aggression, but not by as much as you’d expect. He swings at 84% of strikes, less than the league (88%). His contact rate ticks down in two-strike counts, while the average hitter’s goes in the opposite direction. When his back is against the wall, Rooker simply changes his game by less than most do.

The result of that consistent approach is that Rooker strikes out quite a bit when he reaches two-strike counts. Of the two-strike pitches he’s seen this year, 27% have resulted in a strikeout, the eighth-highest mark in the majors. A different approach would likely lead to fewer strikeouts: Rooker doesn’t reach two-strike counts particularly often, he just doesn’t ease off the gas as much as most hitters do when he gets there. He puts less emphasis on protecting the plate and slows his swing by less than the league average.

If that were all that was going on, I’d say that this plan was a bad idea, but there’s a payoff here. When Rooker does connect with two strikes, he’s doing plenty of damage. The league as a whole puts up poor production on contact in two-strike counts. It’s for an obvious reason, namely that if you’re swinging defensively, you hit with less authority. In two-strike counts, hitters have produced a .344 wOBACON, as compared to .370 in all other counts.

Rooker has a .493 wOBACON in two-strike counts. That might even understate his production; he’s produced the fourth-best xwOBACON (.529) in two-strike counts, behind only Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Harper. The rest of the top 10 is a list of fearsome hitters: Rafael Devers, Shohei Ohtani, J.D. Martinez, Gunnar Henderson, Riley Greene, and Ronald Acuña Jr. Rooker isn’t their equal overall, but he’s getting results like theirs by taking his “A” swing more often, even if a miss means a strikeout.

Is this keep-it-simple approach working? It really depends on what you mean by working. Despite the ghastly swing-and-miss numbers and the pile of strikeouts, Rooker is doing better than the league as a whole in terms of two-strike production. As measured by run value per 100 pitches, he’s slightly better than average, while the league is, naturally, exactly average.

It turns out that Rooker’s power-on-contact skill makes up for his mountain of strikeouts. He’s third in all of baseball in terms of wOBACON (production on contact) since the start of 2023, behind only Judge and Ohtani. This isn’t a matter of some flukish luck on batted balls, either; he’s fifth in xwOBACON, the version that uses launch angle and exit velocity instead of observed results. If you’d prefer barrels per batted ball, he’s eighth in the league. These aren’t cheapie homers. This isn’t a case of a few home runs sneaking over the wall and making him look good. The power’s real.

There’s no need to get too fancy in interpreting these results, because they match almost exactly with what you’d expect from looking at his process. Of course the guy who swings hard and tries to put the ball in the air does well when he connects. Of course the guy who accepts extra misses in disadvantageous counts to keep taking full swings looks good when he makes contact.

Sometimes what you see is what you get. That just leaves one question: Can pitchers come up with a counter to Rooker’s approach? One obvious avenue to pursue is to pitch him high in the zone. He does much better on pitches in the bottom third thanks to the shape of his swing. The problem with that is obvious, though: Do you really want to feed the guy who swings out of his shoes a steady diet of fastballs? Most pitchers throw fastballs high and secondary pitches low to match the trajectory of the pitches. High breaking balls aren’t unheard of, but they’re rare. Rooker might be a low-ball hitter, but he’s a powerful guy who takes big swings, which makes him a fastball hitter too. Miss low with your up-in-the-zone four-seamer, and he’ll make you pay.

The best solution that pitchers have come up with is staying away from Rooker in general. He sees fewer fastballs and fewer strikes than the average hitter, which makes great sense. But that comes with downsides. Rooker is walking 9.9% of the time this year despite his contact issues. The walks and homers mean that his strikeout rate is more of an annoyance than a problem.

It feels like there must be some trick here, but there just isn’t. Sure, Rooker is running a higher BABIP than you’d expect, but if it declined by 50 points, he’d still have an excellent batting line. Sure, good big league pitchers can take advantage of his swing, but when they don’t, he’ll make them pay. Our projection systems peg him for a batting line anywhere between 20% and 30% better than league average the rest of the year, which is right in line with his 2023 season and his career numbers.

Yes, it turns out that swinging for the fences with plus power works just like you’d expect it would. That skill has served the A’s well for the past two years – and realistically, it might serve someone else well in three weeks or so. Corner outfield and DH will both be sought-after positions at the trade deadline, and the A’s are clearly sellers. Rooker won’t be a free agent until after the 2027 season, and he hasn’t even hit salary arbitration yet. It’s not all sunshine and roses for a potential acquirer – Rooker has little defensive value and is already 29 – but the pitch is simple here: What you see is what you get, and what you see has been great for two years running.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Doug Lampertmember
16 days ago

So, he’s Adam Dunn, except with a much later start?

15 days ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

I always love when that’s used as some sort of insult. Prime Adam Dunn was an ELITE hitter

Doug Lampertmember
15 days ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Was I insulting him? I thought I was complimenting him.

15 days ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

sorry not you specifically. The demographic that thinks Adam Dunn wasn’t a great hitter isn’t in a Fangraphs comment section