'Born to hit': Rosario finally getting his due

October 26th, 2021

HOUSTON -- was 15 years old when the Tornado found him and changed everything.

He was just a shy kid from small-town Guayama, Puerto Rico, at the time. His parents Eddie Sr. and Maria, along with his grandmother Maria Angelina Vazquez, were busy laying the foundation for his life. Eddie played baseball just for fun.

But veteran scout Hector “Tornado” Otero, who oversaw South Florida and Puerto Rico for the Twins at the time, saw something special in the skinny teen.

“He could do it all,” said Otero, now an international crosschecker for the D-backs. “We knew he would be the right guy for us.”

Flash forward 15 years and the humble Rosario, the National League Championship Series MVP, remains mostly the same even as his profile has skyrocketed. His circuitous path to this point can be traced back to his Puerto Rican roots and Otero’s discovery on a backfield in Jupiter, Fla.

With the Braves seeking their first World Series title since 1995, Rosario is the perfect fit at the perfect time for Atlanta. He could be the best player nobody knows.

“This was something I've been dreaming for my entire life,” Rosario said. “It never stopped because I always had faith in myself. I believe in my ability. It had to happen this way.”

Rosario, who turned 30 on Sept. 28, was born and raised in the Barriada Marin neighborhood of Guayama, on the coast near the capital of San Juan. When he was 4, he joined a local tee-ball team, known locally as La Liga Pampers. By age 6, he was representing Guayama in all-star games against neighboring towns and municipalities. His parents, who both worked in the fast food industry, rarely missed their son’s games.

He had a fierce swing, even as a young boy, and he played with unbridled joy. Those two attributes stuck with him through his career in the big leagues.

“Our son has always had a lot of heart, even as a little boy, and that’s one thing you can say about him,” Eddie Sr. said. “He has confidence. He works hard and he never gives up in anything.”

As a teen, Rosario starred in the showcase baseball circuit. That’s where Otero, who earned his nickname because of his dogged pursuit of players, spotted him. The scout also played a large role in the scouting and signing of Danny Valencia, José Berríos, and Dereck Rodríguez. Otero, who is from Carolina, Puerto Rico, is also general manager for Mayaguez in Puerto Rico’s Winter League, but his most rewarding job has been as Rosario’s mentor.

We've had a very strong relationship and our stories are tied together,” Rosario said. “He's always supported me, he's always encouraged me and been there for me for all these moments. He's a big reason of why I'm here.”

At Otero’s urging, the Twins selected Rosario in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft. He went on to spend parts of five seasons in the Minors and made his big league debut on May 6, 2015.

“On every team, there is a handful of guys that can handle the best pitching thrown at you, and he’s one of those that can handle the best of the best because his hands are fast as lightning,” said Jeff Smith, who now manages in the Rays’ system but spent 22 years as a member of the Twins’ organization. “Being around him in the Minors and on staff in the big leagues, you see that he loves the big moment and he thrives in that type of situation.”

Minnesota was good for Rosario. In six big league seasons with the Twins, he slashed .277/.310/.478 and became a fan favorite along the way because of his personality, penchant for big hits and the way he could carry the team for weeks. He finished his time in Minnesota with 119 home runs, 738 hits and a .788 OPS in 697 games. On defense, he racked up 57 outfield assists.

It was common to hear chants of “Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!” echo throughout Target Field on the days he thrilled the crowd, a tradition that has resumed this month at Truist Park in Atlanta.

But sometimes, Rosario would leave the Twins faithful scratching their heads because of a reckless approach that would lead to weak contact at the plate or mistakes on the basepaths. But that is the Rosario paradox. His aggressive nature is one of his best assets, but it can also work against him.

Consider this: With the Twins, Rosario’s 57.8 percent swing rate was third highest among 291 batters from 2015-20 (minimum 5,000 pitches seen). That contributed heavily to a 4.7 percent walk rate that was far below the MLB average (8.3 percent). But despite that impatience, Rosario still made consistent contact. His 24.1 percent whiff rate -- the percentage of his swings resulting in a miss -- was almost exactly average.

“The bottom line is this kid was born to hit and that’s what he does,” Otero said. “In clutch moments, that’s where he wants to be, and he has shown it all of his life. He hits when it matters.”

Otero has a point. Rosario hit an opposite-field home run on the first pitch he saw, a 91 mph fastball off Oakland’s Scott Kazmir, in his big league debut. He called the shot.

“He told me before he went to the stadium that day that he was going to swing at the first pitch and that we all needed to record it,” Otero said. “That’s why we all have our phones recording, because he told us he was going to do something special. That’s just crazy, but it also tells you how confident this kid is.”

Rosario has always had a flair for the dramatic.

He hit three home runs in a game against Cleveland on June 3, 2018, including a walk-off shot to center field, with his parents watching in the stands. He also hit three home runs against the Mariners on June 13, 2017.

Rosario’s offensive prowess is understandably making headlines now, but every opposing third-base coach in the game knows he better think twice before challenging Rosario’s arm. On Sept. 5, 2019, he played a carom off the monster at Fenway Park perfectly and threw out Rafael Devers at home to end the game on what would have been a game-tying hit.

But as good as he was in Minnesota, the analytically minded Twins and the stat-savvy fans knew his run there could not last forever. With outfield prospects Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach on the horizon, the club non-tendered Rosario last December, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. Minnesota eventually replaced him in left field with a platoon of Luis Arraez, Jake Cave and Kyle Garlick on Opening Day '21 and moved on.

There was no tearful goodbye. There was no time. Rosario had to find a job.

Two months later, he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Cleveland in a move designed to pair him with Franmil Reyes in the middle of the lineup. His acquisition was supposed to bolster the club’s offense. That’s not how it played out.

“He worked hard, and his daily preparation was consistent. He really wanted to do well, but it seemed like he was trying to do too much, trying too hard,” Cleveland assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “He was let go by the Minnesota Twins and I think with us, he was up there trying to show baseball how good he was and everything he could do because he had done it before.”

In 78 games with Cleveland, Rosario hit just seven homers and drove in 46 runs. He was hitting .254 with a .685 OPS and was on the injured list for three weeks with a right oblique strain when he was traded to the Braves for Pablo Sandoval and cash considerations on July 30.

The one-time star in Minnesota had been downgraded to a salary dump.

“He struggled with us batting average-wise, but in the situations when we needed a hit, he got the key hit, and he always had productive at-bats with runners on base,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, he’s taking pitches, working counts and when he gets his pitch, he’s not missing it. It doesn’t matter if it’s against lefties or righties because he’s in a good position to hit and that’s what you really want on your team if you want to win a World Series.”

With the Braves, during the regular season, Rosario was a bit less aggressive, dropping his swing rate to 54.1 percent. He pushed his walk rate (8.5 percent) to roughly league average, while swinging and missing even less often than before (18.4 percent whiff rate). During the NLCS, Rosario became one of only five players to record 14 hits in a postseason series. He’s slashing .474/.524/.789 in 10 postseason games this year.

The presence of sluggers like Freddie Freeman, Joc Pederson, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall in Atlanta's lineup has also alleviated some of the pressure. And while Rosario might seem like a new man at the plate, in many ways, he’s still the same player he has always been. He’s just on a hot streak.

“He’s controlling the strike zone, using the whole field, and swinging at good pitches,” Rodriguez said. “He’s always been able to hit and anyone that’s been around him knows that.”

The eyes of Guayama, Puerto Rico, will be glued to the television when Rosario steps into the batter’s box Tuesday at Minute Maid Park for Game 1. His parents will join him for Game 3 in Atlanta. And somewhere in the Dominican Republic, a force of nature will pause long enough from his scouting trip to celebrate the moment.

“Manny Machado and Rosario were the best hitters in my [scouting area] that year,” Otero said. “I told everybody Rosario was right up there with Manny and everybody was like, ‘Who?’ This kid has always been a special hitter.”