'I’m for sure a better hitter': Rooker building on strong May start

May 14th, 2024

HOUSTON -- A strong first week of May earned American League Player of the Week honors. At this rate, it might be time to make him the early favorite for Player of the Month.

Rooker’s red-hot stretch continued in the A’s 9-2 series-opening loss to the Astros on Monday night at Minute Maid Park. His 2-for-3 effort with a walk marked his seventh multihit performance for a month in which he’s now hitting .463 (19-for-41) with five home runs, four doubles and an MLB-leading 14 RBIs in 11 games. His 1.469 OPS leads all Major League hitters with at least 40 plate appearances in May.

This stretch is reminiscent of the strong start last year that carried Rooker to his first career All-Star selection. On May 13 of last year, he was hitting .316 with 11 homers and a 1.091 OPS through 34 games. Exactly one year later, Rooker is batting .303 with 10 homers and a 1.034 OPS.

The numbers might look similar, but not all hot starts are created equally. This time around, Rooker is a much different player.

“I’ve got another 600 big league at-bats under my belt,” Rooker said. “I feel like I’m a better, more complete hitter who is more understanding of the level of the pitchers up here. How they try to attack me and use their strengths to avoid their weaknesses.”

Before emerging as a full-time slugger for the A’s in 2023, Rooker’s previous big league exposure came as a part-time player for the Twins, Padres and Royals from 2020-22.

In that three-year period, he received just 270 Major League plate appearances. Rooker nearly doubled that total in ‘23 with 526.

“Those extra 600 at-bats or so have given me that experience and knowledge,” Rooker said. “I’m for sure a better hitter at this point this year than I was at this point last year.”

For one, Rooker is faring much better against breaking pitches. That was a glaring weakness that pitchers attacked last season, as Rooker hit just .141 with five homers off breaking pitches.

This year, Rooker entered Monday hitting .343 (12-for-35) with six homers against breaking pitches. He added another hit off a breaking ball in the eighth inning with a single on a 1-2 slider from Ryan Pressly that was smashed with an exit velocity of 102.8 mph.

Asked what has led to his newfound success against breaking pitches this season, Rooker simplified his answer. He’s doing a better job of swinging at the hittable ones and laying off the unhittable ones.

“At the surface level, it sounds pretty simple,” Rooker said. “But that’s the whole thing when it comes to hitting [breaking] pitches at this level. Making sure you swing at ones that are not only in the strike zone, but an area that you can do damage with.

“And then, being willing to take the really good one for a strike. That allows you to lay off the chase one.”

Most importantly, Rooker is remaining “stubborn” with his approach at the plate, something that was difficult to maintain last year as he fell into a midseason slump before turning it on late to reach his 30th home run on the final day of the 2023 campaign.

“I’m doing a pretty good job of being stubborn and believing in what I’m doing,” Rooker said. “That’s allowing me to put myself in the best position to have success in each individual at-bat. … Sometimes, it’s easy to come up with an approach, but you go up there and the count goes to 1-1 or you’re down 0-2, and you come off that approach, which ends up hurting you.

“I’m doing a pretty good job of being stubborn and believing in what I’m doing. I’m believing in the process, trusting my swing and letting the results take care of themselves.”

While Rooker is thriving, the A’s are scuffling as a whole over the past week. Monday’s loss marked their seventh in the past nine games, a stretch that follows what was a season-high six-game winning streak.

One early developing pattern is their reliance on the long ball, as they entered the day with the fourth-most homers (55) in the Majors. That along with a strong bullpen has led to their early-season success. But after going homerless against Houston, Oakland is now 2-10 in games in which it did not hit a home run.

“Tonight, we had a chance there in the eighth inning with [Seth Brown] up and a chance to tie the game,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “Our success for our offense is when we hit the ball out of the ballpark. We walk and hit homers.”