Cleveland Finally Adds Some Outfield Talent in Eddie Rosario

Ever since Michael Brantley left as a free agent after the 2018 season, Cleveland has had an extremely difficult time fielding a competent outfield. During the past two seasons, the team’s outfielders have collectively accumulated just four WAR in total, the sixth worst mark in the majors. Those struggles go back even further than the last two years, though. In the past decade, Cleveland has had just six qualified outfielders post a wRC+ over 100; five of those seasons were from Brantley, and the sixth was from Shin-Soo Choo back in 2012.

That long stretch of outfield futility may come to an end in 2021, as Cleveland agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with Eddie Rosario last Friday. Fans in Northeast Ohio should be well acquainted with Rosario, who has spent his entire career with the division-rival Twins, and who should immediately provide some stability and an infusion of talent to an outfield that sorely needs it.

In six seasons with the Twins, Rosario posted a 106 wRC+ and 11.4 WAR. That may not look like much on the surface, but he took a big step forward in 2017, cutting his strikeout rate from 25.7% the year before to 18.0% and upping his ISO from .152 to .218. His numbers from that season on: a 111 wRC+ and 8.1 WAR. Excepting the shortened 2020 season, he’s hit more than 24 home runs in every year of that span, and his strikeout rate has continued to drop. While that power and contact are nice, they’re borne from an extremely aggressive approach at the plate that’s limited his career walk rate to just 4.7% and made him an extremely streaky hitter at the plate. When his balls are falling in for hits, his peaks can be high, but that means his overall production is at the whims of the BABIP gods.

In 2020, Rosario made some strides towards greater passivity. A year after running the second highest swing rate in baseball at 59.1%, he dropped it to 51.7. That’s still well above league average, but it’s a significant change in approach. The good news is that he made contact at nearly the same rate as before. The bad news is that he continued to swing at just as many pitches outside of the zone. That newfound passivity was mostly focused on pitches thrown in the zone, as his zone swing rate fell by more than 10 points. All those extra called strikes didn’t actually affect his overall strikeout rate; he was just much less aggressive early in the count while relying on his excellent contact ability if he got to two strikes.

Working deeper into the count had another positive knock-on effect. The number of Rosario’s plate appearances where he got to three balls increased greatly in 2020, going from just 11% of his plate appearances reaching that point to nearly 17%. All those extra three-ball counts led to a career-high walk rate, nearly double what he had posted up to that point in his career, which in turn helped him post a 110 wRC+ despite a career-low .248 BABIP.

The batted ball data is a little concerning. Rosario’s hard-hit rate didn’t really budge last year, but his average exit velocity dipped a couple of miles per hour. With more soft contact to counteract the same amount of solid contact, more of his batted balls found gloves rather than grass. One of the reasons why his BABIP might have taken a hit is because opposing teams increased the number of defensive shifts they employed against him. In 2019, Rosario pulled nearly half of his batted balls, and in response, opposing teams shifted their defense against him 85.1% of the time in 2020. He wasn’t as pull happy as he was in 2019, but his BABIP fell to .250 against the shift despite a .351 wOBA when facing those defensive alignments.

If the changes to his approach are real and not just an artifact of a weird and challenging shortened season, Rosario could have a much higher ceiling at the plate than expected.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Eddie Rosario
90% .293 .334 .585 549 91 161 34 6 38 113 36 72 13 137 3.8
80% .288 .325 .551 552 88 159 32 4 35 106 33 81 11 126 3.2
70% .284 .320 .528 553 86 157 31 4 32 102 32 86 9 120 2.6
60% .282 .317 .518 554 85 156 30 4 31 99 31 88 8 116 2.4
50% .280 .315 .496 554 84 155 29 2 29 96 31 90 7 111 2.0
40% .277 .312 .488 555 82 154 29 2 28 93 30 93 7 108 1.8
30% .273 .307 .471 556 81 152 28 2 26 90 29 97 6 102 1.5
20% .269 .302 .460 557 79 150 27 2 25 87 28 102 5 98 1.1
10% .265 .295 .436 559 78 148 26 2 22 84 26 110 4 91 0.6

Rosario reaching his upper-level projection percentiles is likely tied to how much his BABIP bounces back from the career-low he experienced last year. His 50th percentile ZiPS projection has it at .283, which would still be lower than all but one of his previous seasons. Regardless of what that number ends up being, though, there’s not much variation in his walk rate in any of those projections. If Rosario can maintain the gains he made in his plate discipline and sees his BABIP bounce back, a breakout season could be in the works.

Even if Rosario only hits that 50th percentile projection, though, he’s still projected to be the best outfielder on Cleveland’s roster and third best hitter behind José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes (which says a bit more about that outfield and lineup than Rosario, but still).

Cleveland Outfield, ZiPS projections
Eddie Rosario 0.280 0.315 0.496 554 84 155 29 2 29 96 31 90 7 111 0 2.0
Jordan Luplow 0.242 0.333 0.439 360 52 87 20 3 15 54 45 97 4 103 6 1.7
Josh Naylor 0.275 0.337 0.436 473 66 130 27 2 15 59 42 80 4 103 -4 1.0
Bradley Zimmer 0.212 0.307 0.365 255 33 54 10 1 9 31 27 103 14 78 3 0.7
Oscar Mercado 0.242 0.295 0.370 476 61 115 22 3 11 48 33 117 23 76 2 0.6
Daniel Johnson 0.235 0.292 0.395 446 53 105 21 4 14 49 31 133 11 80 3 0.1

Before Rosario joined the team, our Depth Charts projected Cleveland’s outfield to be the 10th worst in the majors. Adding him doesn’t move that ranking much, but it does allow the team to shift Naylor to first base, where he can displace Jake Bauers and his projected .312 wOBA.

Even with Rosario on board, there are still huge question marks at the other two outfield spots. Mercado had a terrible sophomore season but might be the only person on the roster who can play center. In right, Luplow and Johnson are penciled into a traditional platoon, though if the projections are to be trusted, Cleveland might be better off seeing what the former can do if given full-time at-bats against both right- and left-handed pitching. The oft-injured Zimmer is still on Cleveland’s 40-man roster, and the displaced Bauers could also find some at-bats in one of the outfield corners as well, but they’re not bringing much to the table regardless of where they end up.

The addition of Rosario settles their situation in left field and gives Cleveland a potent bat for the middle of their lineup. He won’t replace the production of Francisco Lindor, but he doesn’t need to. He just needs to bring some competency to an outfield situation that’s long been lacking it.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Good to see the Indians giving their rotation some offensive production to support them.