Lancaster, California —— Brendan Rodgers isn’t going to read this piece.
When you’re a prospect to the degree the young Colorado Rockies infielder finds himself in 2017, you don’t read most of what gets written about you. But your mom might.
“All the stuff people write online, all the Twitter stuff, my parents are all over it and my mom loves to post every article on Facebook and everything,” the Colorado Rockies’ top prospect told Baseball Census on Monday afternoon in Lancaster, laughing about his parents’ social media savvy. “But I’ve spoken to guys who have gone through this same process and have played in the big leagues, and they really told me to focus on the game. The people writing stuff, those people are giving their opinions, and that’s fine, but I can only stay locked in on the game every day.”
To say Brendan Rodgers has been “locked in” is, well, an understatement. The shortstop (and Colorado Rockies’ top prospect, per MLB Pipeline) enters play on Thursday in the middle of a 22-game hitting streak with the Lancaster JetHawks in the California League. Over 44 games this year, he’s slashing an absurd .405/.424/.697/1.122 with 20 doubles and 11 home runs in 195 at-bats. He hit .409 in May, but must have decided that wasn’t good enough; so far, he’s hitting .431 in June. And at home—granted, in one of the best hitter’s parks in all of professional baseball—he’s slashing an almost inconceivable .495/.522/.883/1.406 in 103 at-bats.
As the calls for his promotion to Double-A Hartford get louder and louder, and the Player of the Week accolades keep piling up from the league office, what is there possibly left for Rodgers to accomplish in Lancaster?
“Honestly, I’ve really been thinking about what we have to do to win this first half,” Rodgers said, referencing the JetHawks’ pivotal series that took place this week at home against the Lake Elsinore Storm. “I want to do all I can to get this first half under our belts so we have a sealed deal into the postseason.”
Lancaster started play on Monday just one game ahead of the San Diego Padres’ affiliate in the Cal League’s South Division, but the JetHawks’ clean sweep over Lake Elsinore across the last three days now leaves Brendan Rodgers’ crew on the door step of clinching a first-half title, and an automatic playoff berth in September. With four games left in the season’s first half, Rodgers and Lancaster begin their final series tonight on the road in Rancho Cucamonga against a Quakes team that is now in second place, just two games behind the JetHawks.
But isn’t it a little weird that a top prospect all but guaranteed to see Double-A in the second half is thinking about the playoffs and not, you know, his own personal future? The way Brendan Rodgers is going, there’s no chance the Colorado Rockies keep him here in July or August, let alone September—so why worry about the Cal League playoffs?
“I want to be a winner,” Rodgers said when pushed on that exact point. “I don’t want to be a guy who gets his at-bats and hits for himself, I want to get on base for my guys and help out any what that I can. Look at our pitching here. Our pitchers are busting their tails trying to pound the zone in a place like this, and when you see them doing that it makes you want to field every ground ball and make every play behind them.”
On Brendan Rodgers’ huge first half… in Lancaster
There’s always a big asterisk about a place like Lancaster. Hit .400 for a full month and inevitably the calls come: yeah, but he’s doing it in Lancaster, so does it really count? Hit .500 at The Hangar, and the calls get louder: yeah, but this kid is only hitting .305 on the road, is he a fraud? Tally 33 extra base hits in your first 44 games at the level and hear more skepticism about the environment: So is he just hitting the ball in the air and letting the wind carry it out? Go on a 22-game hitting streak and Twitter loses its mind. Coors!
There’s no question that Rodgers, like everyone else in this JetHawks’ lineup that scored 72 runs on their most recent seven-game homestand, benefits from the wind-swept environment. There are lazy fly balls that carry over the fence, weak pop flies off the end of the bat that carry past infielders’ gloves in shallow right field, and the occasional ball hit a few hundred feet foul down the left field line that catches the wind right and carries all the way back into fair territory—and all the way over the fence.
Lancaster gets miserably cold at night, even in early June—the product of relentless winds that sweep through the Antelope Valley even well after the sun goes down. The Hangar is situated so that the wind blows straight out to right-center field, too, making it tempting for hitters to get out of their approach and go for the moonshot. Last year, when the Houston Astros were in town, the ballpark’s game day staff would pass the hat around to fans every time a JetHawks player hit a home run. It ended up being a good deal for the players: hit a ball up in the air, use the wind to your advantage, add a homer to your stat line, and make some money for your efforts.
When the Colorado Rockies got to Lancaster, they quickly nixed pass-the-hat.
“I try to stay middle of the field, right-center, all the time,” Brendan Rodgers said about reacting to the hitting environment in Lancaster—an approach the Rockies no doubt like to hear for his long-term future. “But if I get ahead in a count 2-0, or 3-1, and I get a fastball right inside over the plate, I’m not going to try to inside-out it [to right field].”
“That kind of happened [Sunday against Inland Empire],” Rodgers continued, shaking his head and clearly still bothered by a 13-10 loss to the Los Angeles Angels’ High-A affiliate. “They got a few weak hits and then you get a 3-1 count, and get a left-handed hitter cheating a little bit on a 3-1 fastball. One of their guys hit a ball to the shed out there [past the right field wall], and it’s like, man, that’s a routine pop fly anywhere else.”
Rodgers continued to shake his head.
“Every time a ball goes up [in the air], I kind of cringe a little bit for our pitchers,” he said. “You never know with that. It’s always got a chance.”
About that hitting streak…
When you’re in the middle of a long hitting streak, things just seem to work out. On Monday night against Lake Elsinore, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the third inning, Brendan Rodgers hit a bullet down the third base line.
Ruddy Giron never moved at third base. Lineout. Inning over.
Four innings later, facing Padres righty Zech Lemond’s hard-running mid-90s fastball and unpredictable high-80s splitter, the Colorado Rockies prospect hit a weak blooper off the end of his bat that fell in front of hard-charging center fielder Michael Gettys. Baseball’s a funny game like that.
“The other day in my first two at-bats, I lined out, too,” Rodgers said, acknowledging more weird luck. “There was a 2-1 changeup that I lined out to center field, and then a hard line drive I hit right at the third baseman. But those aren’t bad at-bats for me. I’m hitting the ball hard, and seeing it well, and the next thing you know, you hit a little flair over the first baseman, and there’s your hit.”
“I don’t stress out if it happens, though,” he continued. “I know I’m getting at least four more at-bats in a game. The past few games I’ve even been getting six at-bats. Especially [in Lancaster], you just never know with this place. You’re going to get five, maybe six at-bats a game. You’re going to get your chances.”
There are a few more components to Rodgers’ hitting streak—and Lancaster’s hitting environment—than just the friendly wind. For all the flak tossed The Hangar’s way by those who’ve never been, it’s a nice, clean, modern facility that succeeds in spite of its surrounding environment. There are days where the wind is relatively tame, if you can believe it—it happened on back-to-back day games a few weeks ago—and The Hangar’s big dimensions suddenly play as though no one will ever hit another home run here again when the wind finally dies down.
This week marked Lake Elsinore’s first trip to The Hangar, a place I’d been talking up all season long to the San Diego Padres’ power-hitting catching prospect Austin Allen. And so with this being Allen’s first venture to The Hangar, I made sure I was on hand to watch him hit a moonshot or two out past the right field shed during pre-game batting practice.
“Pretty good place to hit, just like I said,” I told Allen as he walked off the field after batting practice on Monday.
“Yeah it is,” he grinned. “But 350 feet to right field? That’s killing me.”
A little like the big league field the Colorado Rockies call home, Lancaster has a lot of outfield grass thanks to 385-foot gaps, a 410-foot shot to center field, and 350-foot foul lines. But as far as hitters like Rodgers, or Allen, are concerned, The Hangar has one far more important thing: good sight lines.
“Our lights are good, and we have a good batter’s eye, and from a hitter’s perspective that’s a huge part of it that a lot of people don’t think about,” Rodgers said. “I can see very well here. Take a place like Stockton. It’s tough to see in that place because they don’t have a hitter’s eye, and when you’re facing A.J. Puk, and he’s 6’7” and the ball is coming straight out of the clouds, it’s tough to pick up, especially when he’s throwing 97 miles an hour. It’s not fun.”
Facing A.J. Puk with no batter’s eye may be the only time Brendan Rodgers hasn’t been having fun this year. The stats help tell the story of a young player starting to come into his own, and though he’s probably not going to hit .400 in Double-A—whenever he gets there—you’d still be right to get excited about the Colorado Rockies’ best prospect and his white-hot start to 2017. Just don’t expect him to get too excited about it.
“I really try not to think too much about stats or anything like that,” Rodgers concluded. “I just try to go and hit the ball hard every bat, no matter home or away, or wherever it may be. But yeah, to be honest, the wind does make it fun. I love hitting here.”
“And hopefully,” he started, before stopping himself and flashing a quick grin. “Well, hopefully I’ll hit anywhere.”
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