Sometimes, you talk with a guy and there isn’t a great narrative that ties it all together. That’s what happened when I talked to Jimmy Rollins before a game with the Athletics this month. Sure, the general question was how he’s been able to stay fresh and relevant and productive through the latter part of his career. How he’s known what to change and what not to change. But Rollins has enough character to leave it alone and let him speak in his own words.
Eno Sarris: I noticed that last year you had 666 plate appearances.
Jimmy Rollins: Did I? Wow.
Eno Sarris: That explains everything!
Jimmy Rollins: I thought it was me! That’s crazy.
Sarris: A couple of things I wanted to talk about. You use that axe bat.
Rollins. I have. I don’t, but I have.
Sarris: Oh you don’t use it any more. From what I know, that was developed partially because of hamate bone issues? Did you have issues with that?
Rollins: No. I knew one of the guys that was trying to develop it, so I was able to give them some feedback. I used it in spring training two years ago, 2012 spring training I would say. I used it, but it was strange when I first used it. It’s not a round bat with a knob. It’s literally made like an axe. So the first thing you think is “how the heck am I going to swing this like a baseball bat,” it made no sense. The first time I used it, there’s a 3-2 pitch, and Shane Victorino was standing behind me, yelling “SWING!” Because he could see that I was like a little kid shaking —
Sarris: What do I do with this?
Rollins: The pitch hit the glove and I didn’t swing and I was like “____.” It’s a completely different experience. I used it a couple times in the season in 2012, got a good pitch and hit a home run with it. But after a while, it was just too much going on in my mind. That’s something you need a lot of time to get used to, it’s not traditional, it’s an alternative.
Sarris: Are you a guy that holds the bat off the bottom of the knob?
Rollins: I think I do sometimes. The better I feel, the more towards the end of the bat I get. If I’m feeling unsure, I pretty much stay on top of that because I want to get the complete bat control. If I’m good, I don’t worry about bat control as much, and I want to feel like I can get as much whip as possible.
Sarris: Get as much extension as you can. I did a little bit of research that linked holding off the end of the bat to hamate problems.
Rollins: That’s why you see guys with flared knob, it’s just flared so there’s no ledge or ridge to dig in. The axe is a little bit more than that. That’s part of it, you don’t have to worry about it digging in, but it’s shaped like an axe. It makes it so that you swing down like an axe. And that isn’t really a baseball swing.
It’s weird. I’ve used it, and I’ve had success with it, but mentally… every time I used it I was most concerned with getting the right grip on the bat. You see guys, they rotate the bat when they are up. Even just a quarter click. On that bat, it’s a big deal. You have to set your hands, and once they are set, they are set. And that’s the part that’s hard. That’s the difference between a bat and an axe — with the axe, there’s one part, the blade, but with a bat, it’s round. You can use any part of the bat to hit. I don’t want to change my swing.
Sarris: It’s interesting that you’ve tried this. So far in this career, you’ve tried a new thing. And it seems to go along with other things you’ve done. You have a crazy yoga/pilates regimen? You’re willing to do different things to stay on the field.
Rollins: A former teammate of mine, Marlon Anderson, when he got older — he was probably four or five years older than me — after he’d traveled around and picked up different things from different teams, as people do, he was like, “Dude, you ever try… yoga?” And I was like pssh, no, my wife does it, sure. I was more into trying pilates, because you have to work on form and there are weights around at least.
With yoga, it’s just laying, move left, move right, looks easy. But then I finally tried it, and I was like ‘that was a lot harder than I thought.’ On top of that, I understood what the body moves were for. I wasn’t executing the moves right by any means, but after a while, I only watched other people as a reference because you have to get so in tuned with yourself, and your breathing, that you just push through the movements. At the end, you feel like you worked out, but your body feels rejuvenated.
Sarris: I like it. Do you think there’s something that yoga has done for your ligaments and health in general?
Rollins: Flexibility. That’s the thing about baseball: You hit. You run. You sit. You do a lot of sitting. You get tight. So you know some little moves, some stretches. Before the game, on the field, you do some light-weight stretching, you know, some yoga out there. And I have to explain, to the people who don’t know (‘That dude’s a clown!’) that I’m just getting myself loose. You start learning how to breathe through things. You can feel your body getting out of alignment. You do. Because you become in tune with everything that’s going on.
Sarris: And if you’re too left or too right, you start compensating.
Rollins: Exactly. And one compensation leads to another, to another because our body is all in this axis like this. Unfortunately because of my injury, I’ve had to learn about that the other way too. There are reasons why I got into yoga — the longevity, the stretching — but your body is working its way through your normal changing patterns, and if you have a bad pattern, you can change that. You know, you breathe and get yourself back on track. Until you do it, you’re just like ‘pssh what.’
Sarris: These are things you’ve tried that are different. But how different of a player are you from season to season? How much does your approach change? I ask this because this is the best walk rate of your career.
Rollins: I know, right? I don’t know, I guess. Obviously, the object is to be on base as much as possible. If they walk me, that’s great. But I’m not a guy that’s trying to walk. If they walk me, I’ll take the walk. But being 5′ 7″ and hitting in front of Chase [Utley] especially in his heyday, Ryan [Howard] in his heyday, what are they going to do? They just going to joke around with me and then pitch to them with runners on? No. So I knew that.
Working the count is not taking pitches. Taking strike one, strike two, that’s not working the count.
Sarris: No! That’s bad!
Rollins: It’s horrible. So if you’re outside of baseball, you might say ‘at least you got five pitches.’ Yeah, but I could have hit one of those. The best thing for me is to be on base, not to work the count. It’s always a fine balance, especially batting at the top of the lineup, but if they walk [me], fine, they walk me. You learn more about how they’re trying to pitch you. And you can make adjustments.
In the sabermetric world, those shifts and everything. And there are no more fastball counts. Everyone’s throwing a cutter. So it changes constantly. Maybe they aren’t throwing maybe as many strikes with those cutters as the traditional four-seam, two-seam fastballs. So all that contributes to me walking more, I’m sure. There’s no formula I can tell you why.
Sarris: It’s funny that you mention who’s behind you. Because lineup protection is a big thing. The numbers pretty much say it doesn’t exist. But I think you hit on why it might not show. Because there’s two things going on. One is, I don’t want to pitch to the guy behind you, so I’m going to pitch to you. So you might see something to hit in the zone. But the other is, I’m not going to walk you — I want to get you out. I might attack you really aggressively.
Rollins: Nothing’s going to be pure. There’s always going to be arguments in both dimensions. It’s not a pure yes or no thing. If you’ve been around, and you’ve seen the game, you can’t argue the fact that the guy behind you, if he’s a good hitter, if he’s a bad hitter, it’s going to dictate what you see. If he’s bad, you think I’m giving in to you? Here, hit this. If you get on, and there’s two outs, I can get him out. Or, ‘Whoo, oh yeah, I see that guy.’ Then they do everything they can to get you out. It’s like saying I saw eight pitches.
Sarris: But how good were those pitches? How nasty?
Rollins: And why did I see those pitches?
Sarris: Thanks so much for talking to me, very interesting stuff. So… what do you think happened last year?
Rollins: Last year? You’re talking numbers? That is a wonderful question. As soon as I actually looked at the numbers, I was like ‘damn!’ You play baseball, you pay attention to the team’s win-loss record, what can you do to help, coaching young guys, who you’re playing tonight. I mean, I knew what they were, but my focus wasn’t, by any means, that. After the season it was like ‘How could I only have six home runs?’ It was just one of those things.
Sarris: You couldn’t have even told me that during the season?
Rollins: Nope. There was some stuff coming into the next year, like ‘Do I still have it?’ And then in spring training I hit six home runs.
Sarris: As much as you hit all year last year!
Rollins: But I don’t know.
Sarris: But there wasn’t anything like you changed your swing plane.
Rollins: Well I didn’t have a good swing. But why? Especially for power? Everyone tries changes, but 99% of the time, you’re going to back to what you’ve done. Your body reverts back. Your brain starts going ‘this is not right, this is not right, this is not you.’ And you’re trying to fight it.
Sarris: Best thing you can do is just learn your body and do the best you can I guess, as you’ve said.
Rollins: That’s right.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.