If James Rowson were an NFL coordinator, he’d be famous.
His name would populate the news crawls at the bottom of the screen on every sports channel. Opposing teams would be talking to his agent. Opposing coaches would be trying to steal his secrets.
Rowson is an offensive coordinator, of sorts, as the Twins hitting coach. Because baseball coaching in general and the coaching of hitting in particular is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, Rowson is as anonymous as an accountant’s assistant.
He shouldn’t be. Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez are at the heart, or at least the calluses, of the Twins’ transformation. Last year, the Twins finished 23rd in the majors with 166 home runs. This year, they rank first in the majors in home runs with 104 — averaging two per game, putting them on pace to hit 324, which would break the MLB record by 57.
The baseball is harder. More players strive for optimal launch angle. The deep Twins lineup wears down opposing pitchers. Those elements would explain improvement. They don’t explain the most stunning development in baseball — the Twins putting themselves on pace to break home run marks while building the game’s best record.
Before the Twins beat the White Sox 7-0 on Sunday, Rowson tried to explain the inexplicable.
“The fact that the ball is leaving the ballpark is a pretty cool thing right now,” Rowson said. “But the approach is not to hit home runs. The approach is to get good pitches and hit them hard, and more than anything to be yourself in each at-bat.”
You would think that a key member of a highly analytical organization would emphasize the launch-angle angle, but Rowson insists the home runs are a result of experience, talent and work habits.
Catcher Mitch Garver put it this way: “A lot of us blend together well because we want to hit the ball hard, in the air. That’s where baseball is at these days. Defenders are so good, guys are so fast, you want to hit it over their heads or in the gaps.”
Does Rowson emphasize launch angles? “No,” Garver said. “We’re not teaching that, not at this level. We’ve brought in guys who know how to impact the baseball.”
Conversations with others in the organization supported this view. Players are taught mechanics in the minors. The best big-league hitting coaches emphasize preparation and psychology, because there is no time to learn a new swing while playing every day in the majors.
Right fielder Max Kepler, who hit his 12th home run Sunday, said he has not changed his swing or approach. He credited the arrival of veterans such as Nelson Cruz, and the maturation of young hitters. Rowson agreed.
“I think the environment that we’ve created here as an organization allows everybody to feel comfortable in their own skin,” Rowson said. “Each guy is just worried about having the best at-bat they can and there’s nothing holding them down mentally. They’re clear-minded, and that creates good at-bats, and that gets contagious.
“Will the home runs continue at this pace? That would be pretty cool, but you don’t know. What we do hope is that the quality of the at-bats stays there and the aggressive mentality stays there, and then we feel like we’re going to be really good from this point moving forward.”
In 2014, the Twins hired Hernandez as their assistant hitting coach. A Venezuelan, he gave the staff a Spanish-speaking coach. “He’s right in the middle of this,” Rowson said. “Rudy does a phenomenal job. It’s like a 1-2 punch. We’re one and the same. We look at it as a hitting department. We talk and collaborate every day, and that’s a big deal.”
Rowson said he’s too superstitious to choose a nickname for his hitters, but he wasn’t too superstitious to look into the future.
“Take it day by day, every day, and hopefully by the end of the regular season those days will get us into the postseason, and deep into the postseason,” he said. “And then maybe all the way to a World Series trophy.”