Daniel Robertson has been scorching the horsehide. With 84 plate appearances under his belt — just enough to qualify for our leaderboards — the 24-year-old Tampa Bay Rays infielder ranks fourth from the top in both wOBA (.451) and wRC+ (189). His slash line heading into the Month of May is a stand-up-and-take-notice .333/.476/.561.
He credits an adjustment for his fast start. Rightly unsatisfied with his rookie-season output — Robertson logged a .634 OPS in part-time duty — he spent the winter revamping his stroke under the tutelage of a pair of hitting gurus. No longer satisfied with a “pretty generic swing,” he’s now embracing launch angle (a term he uses cautiously) and adopting a rhythm-conscious mindset that allows him to transfer his energy through the baseball.
Robertson talked about his new mechanics and approach when the Rays visited Fenway Park over the weekend.
Robertson on making the adjustment: “I got knocked for what I did offensively last year. I feel that I impressed with what I did defensively, but for my whole career I’ve always been a hitter. I think I’m starting to show that again this year, thanks in part to things I worked on in the offseason. I’m putting myself in a better position to hit and that’s translating into me seeing the ball a lot better, as well as doing damage rather than having a defensive swing and just slapping it around.
“I changed where I’m firing my barrel from, basically. I don’t know how I got away with it in the minor leagues for so long, but I was always a guy who thought, ‘Throw your hands down to the ball.’ Now I’ve kind of bought into launch angle and getting on plane with the baseball. That allows my barrel to stay in the zone longer and essentially allows me to see the ball longer.
“Now I don’t have to dive and basically get lucky hitting fastballs. If I was setting my sights out over the plate and thinking, ‘Get down on it,’ when they spin a changeup or a breaking ball, I’d already be committed and just swinging to swing, rather than really recognizing the ball. Now, with the changes I’ve made with my approach, my setup, and my swing, I’m able to see the ball and let it get deeper. I’m able to make contact with the ball back towards my right groin, back on the plate as far as possible. That adjustment has been a big help.”
On what prompted the adjustments: “It was from talking to teammates, honestly. I was lucky to play with guys like Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza last year — guys who are really good at all this new-age hitting stuff. And I’m a big fan of Josh Donaldson. When the MLB Network video of him and Mark DeRosa came out, I tried to study it. I tried to do it, but I never really understood what he was talking about.
“This offseason, LoMo and Steven Souza prompted me to get with some guys that they hit with. They’re in my area, down in Southern California, so I spent all offseason hitting with them. They totally changed my mindset and my swing. Like I said, now I’m getting on plane with the baseball.
“The guys I worked with are pretty well known: Robert Van Scoyoc and Craig Wallenbrock. And Jay Gibbons would be sitting in there. It’s awesome, man. You go in there and take swings and learn new stuff. You do different drills to teach your body different things. You watch video. You have guys who fly in from coast to coast — J.D. Martinez is one of the guys they’ve hit with — and I was fortunate that it was an hour-and-a-half drive for me. I made the most of it, and they changed my career.”
On getting into rhythm and letting the ball travel: “It’s about what you’re doing with your body — getting some rhythm, gathering and transferring your energy through the baseball. I was always a simple stride-through-the-ball, now I’m maximizing my power. I’m stretching the rubber-band effect.
“Letting the ball travel, that’s the whole theory of… you want to think of it like a Ferris wheel or an elliptical. I would always throw my hands out to the ball, but now with the theory of the elliptical my barrel is working north and south. And instead of just going toward the ball, I can recognize what it is and let it get as deep as I want.”
On his pre-pitch setup and not overthinking: “I had a pretty generic swing coming up through the minor leagues, then last year I played with a lot of different stuff. I tried a ton of different things. I had my hands up here. I had them down here. Now I get in the box and rest them on my shoulder. From there… I’m also not thinking about anything. I get in the box, I get comfortable, and I try to see the ball.
“Last year, I would get in the box and be thinking about where my hands were and what my body was doing. I couldn’t even go out and compete because I was worried about what my setup was, how I looked, or what I was doing. I wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do because I was so caught up in all this different stuff. I wouldn’t even see the ball. Now… so yeah, I put a lot of work into launch angle and getting on plane with the ball, but the main thing is that I’m getting in the box with confidence and telling myself to just see the ball and trust my swing.”
On relaxation and energy transfer: “I go up to the plate and take a deep breath, with my shoulder relaxed. Having the bat on my shoulder keeps me tension free. When I do that, my hands don’t get lost. When I’m thinking about where my hands arel they kind of get lost in space, but if they’re on my shoulder it’s, ‘OK, they’re right here.’ Then, when it’s time to go, my barrel gets up and fires.
“The guys I worked with helped get me free and into some rhythm. It’s that whole gather and… Miguel Cabrera is another guy they hit with. Watch Miggy when he hits. He’s got that good rhythm, kind of a shoulder rock, gathering back and then transferring that energy through the baseball. He’s got that rhythm.”
On adjusting to zones and elevated fastballs: “Again, I’m just trying to see the ball and hit it. When you’re able to see the ball a long time, like I am now, you can recognize when it’s up and adjust. If a pitch is up and you’re trying to swing underneath it, you’re going to clip the bottom half and pop it up. You need to get on top of it. You’re not chopping down, but rather you’re kind of taking your front elbow and getting on top of it more. You’re kind of working your plane in a different way.
“When I hit the home run yesterday, I wasn’t trying to elevate at all. I was trying to hit a line drive up the middle. When you think those thoughts, everything else just kind of takes care of itself. I’m not thinking, ‘Drop my shoulder and hit it in the air.’ When I step in the box, all I want to do is get a good pitch and hit it hard. I don’t really care where it goes or what it does. As long as I hit it hard, I did my job.”
On trusting the process: “Like I said, I don’t really think about things like launch angle and exit velocity. You can hit a ball 110 mph, and it’s a line drive right at the shortstop. You can also get fisted and hit the ball 40 mph over the first baseman’s head, and it trickles into the corner and you’re standing on second base with a double. That’s baseball, man.
“Are you going to strike out? Yes. Are you going to swing at bad pitches? Yes. Are you going to roll over on balls? Yes. But you’re also going to square balls up. The more consistently you can hit the ball hard, the more things will go your way.
“Another thing — maybe the biggest thing — is that I’m not scared to fail anymore. Last year, I was so scared to fail that I wouldn’t swing at pitches. I was passive. This year, if I swing at a stupid pitch, it’s, ‘You know what, man? It’s over with. Screw it. Hit the next pitch. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.