Vision back, Rosario has bounce-back year in his sights

February 25th, 2023

NORTH PORT, Fla. --  If wondering how different looks in comparison to the early part of his frustration-filled season last year, it’s best to point out he is no longer struggling to make solid contact while taking swings during simple soft-toss drills.

“He’s not even the same guy,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Even in Spring Training last year, that bat to ball wasn’t there like it normally was. I can’t believe he actually went as far as he did in the season with that.”

As the Braves opened their Grapefruit League season with a 6-6 tie against the Red Sox on Saturday, Rosario further distanced himself from his vision woes of 2022. The 31-year-old left fielder reached twice on errors and flied out to left field in his three plate appearances.

Rosario came to Spring Training with the same dyed blond hair that he and his Puerto Rico teammates will be sporting during the World Baseball Classic. Fortunately, that is not why Snitker and many other members of the Braves organization are buzzing about how different the veteran left fielder looks this spring.

When Rosario went 5-for-30 with nine strikeouts during Grapefruit League play last year, there was some hope the 2021 National League Championship Series MVP might have just struggled to get going.

But there were signs, he might be dealing with something more than just a rusty swing. That was confirmed when Rosario went 3-for-44 with 10 strikeouts over his first 15 regular-season games.

“I kind of feel whatever happened, happened in the middle of [Spring Training],” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “I’m not a doctor, but from a swing standpoint, it was getting worse and worse. We were doing machine work, we were doing drill work, and he just couldn’t barrel a ball. And it was soft toss. When guys are having that kind of trouble in the cage, it’s like, ‘This isn’t normal.’”

Rosario’s issue didn’t become clear until he visited a retinal specialist in Atlanta on April 25. Tests showed the left-handed hitter needed laser surgery to fix swelling and blurred vision in his right eye.

“I don't think we pay enough attention to what [Rosario] went through last year and how hard it had been to have been for him with where his eyes were,” Snitker said. “I’ve seen a different guy this year.”

Rosario missed more than two months, returned in July and continued to perform below expectations. He produced a .659 OPS over 65 games after returning from the injured list. It took time for his vision to adjust, and he had to mix and match contact lenses looking for the right fit.

Opponents took advantage by feeding Rosario an array of sliders and curveballs. He hit .291 with a .488 slugging percentage against breaking balls in 2021. But he batted just .152 with a .252 slugging percentage against them last year.

“The doctor told me (the vision would adjust) slowly,” Rosario said. “But everything is good now. I feel really good and I see really well.”

Seitzer has been thrilled to see Rosario get back to where he was before the vision issues.

“Everything looks like it did when we first got him,” Seitzer said. “His live [batting practices] have been great, and his regular batting practices has been normal. Last year, we were trying to figure out what was wrong with his swing, and he was like, ‘I can’t see,’ and it played out. This year, he’s looked like a different guy from Day One.”

Rosario produced a .903 OPS over 105 regular-season plate appearances after the Braves acquired him from the Indians at the 2021 Trade Deadline. He then became a force in helping Atlanta win the World Series. He batted .383 with a 1.073 OPS during the postseason.

Nobody is expecting Rosario to produce those kinds of numbers over an entire season. But as he enters a free-agent year, he is certainly capable of getting back to where he was when he produced a .813 OPS and averaged 28 homers a season for the Twins from 2017-19.

“I’m so happy for him,” Seitzer said. “I hope he goes off in the WBC and looks like a normal guy.”