- Twins hitting coach James Rowson was a virtual unknown when he became the Minnesota hitting coach this season. Ask the Twins' young hitters, and they'll say he may be the key to their surprising season.
The Twins didn’t have to wait long to realize their new hitting coach was a little different. At 41, James Rowson is the youngest man in his position in the majors by nearly three years, and the bulk of his experience came as a minor-league instructor with the Angels and Yankees before Minnesota hired him in December. The man his hitters call J-Ro plays loud music in the cage and tells his pupils that there are no rules.
Their first clue that the Rowson Era would be a unique experience came just a few days into spring training. During a drill to work on one approach he would suddenly insist they try another; as they practiced a mechanical change he would abruptly propose something completely unrelated.
“I wanted to see who would ask me why,” he says. “One thing I tell players all the time is if I ask you to do something and I can’t tell you why, you shouldn’t it.”
At first no one did. A few guys looked at him oddly, but baseball players have been well trained over several generations to seem coachable, so they tried not to argue. Rowson’s suggestions got crazier and crazier until finally he gave up. “Are you gonna ask me why?” he demanded. “Question everything I tell you!”
That’s Rowson’s philosophy: You’re in charge. That approach makes sense with veterans like first baseman Joe Mauer and second baseman Brian Dozier, who have combined for 20 years of MLB service time, but most of the rest of the team is young. The lineup’s average age of 27 is second youngest in the league; four starters have not reached their 25th birthdays. Those players expect to be told what to do … until they get to Rowson.
“It’s not my swing,” he says. “It’s their swing. I want them to own it and be comfortable with it.”
He considers himself as much shaper of young men as of swings. To that end, he defines success and failure differently than many. He is proudest of a young player not when he is raking but when he is scuffling yet sticking to his approach. When 23-year-old shortstop Jorge Polanco struggled at midseason—he chased anything within a sight of the plate and hit .078 in July—Rowson sat him down during a trip to Los Angeles. “I know you’re struggling,” he said. “I know it’s hard, but I want you to look for the pitch you know you can hit. It doesn’t matter if they throw you a fastball down the middle. If down the middle’s not your zone, don’t swing at it.”
Polanco has hit .322 and slugged .568 since that trip. He was reaching for pitches outside the strike zone 31% of the time before the talk; since then it’s 22%. Familiarity with Rowson seems to be affecting the whole team: The Twins have the second-best offense in the game since the All-Star Break. A year after they lost 103 games—and at least a season ahead of schedule in their rebuild—they are heading to the AL Wild Card Game against the Yankees on Tuesday night.
After an April game the Twins won behind strong performances from pitcher Ervin Santana, third baseman Miguel Sanó and Polanco, Rowson walked past them all. He told 25-year-old leftfielder Eddie Rosario, who had gone 0-for-4, that he had been the star of the game. The 15 pitches Rosario had seen from White Sox ace José Quintana had given his teammates a good look at him and had helped chase him from the game in the seventh inning.
“He did a lot of things that aren’t gonna show up in a box score,” says Rowson. “In a game it’s so negative sometimes offensively—it’s really tough to get a hit and there’s not a whole lot of things you can do—I think it’s important that young hitters understand that the details matter. Don’t just judge it on whether you get a hit, because I think you’re selling yourself short.”
Rowson cultivated this perspective—ideal for a team that was originally not expected to contend this year—as an outfielder in the Mariners’ and Yankees’ systems who never made it past High-A in three seasons. He studied the swings of everyone around him, picked coaches’ brains and spent hours in the cage, but nothing seemed to work. He hit .193 and was out of affiliated ball at 21. It was a disappointing playing career, but in some ways it freed him. As a coach he is able to keep things light because he knows failure will not kill anyone.
He encourages players to take a risk every day: Swing at a pitch you might normally take, dive for a ball you might ordinarily let bounce. They practice feeling exposed, and they practice surviving that feeling. When they mess up, he teases them rather than yelling at them.
Rowson and centerfielder Byron Buxton, the 23-year-old face of the franchise who had underachieved until this season, tinkered with his swing almost weekly earlier this season. At first Buxton felt hopelessly lost, but eventually he learned to enjoy the process. “He said, ‘Things are gonna come around,’” Buxton says. “’Just take the pressure off yourself.’ Once being uncomfortable becomes comfortable, you start feeling like a more complete player.” Buxton entered the season with a career .672 OPS; since the beginning of July, it’s .899. Even now, though, he will occasionally swing at a terrible pitch. When he turns to the dugout, Rowson will often make eye contact and then double over laughing at him.
Rowson focuses almost obsessively on his hitters’ mental states. No matter who is pitching, he informs the team that it is facing “just another clown with a red nose.” When 24-year-old rightfielder Max Kepler lined a 103-mph Aroldis Chapman fastball into the leftfielder’s glove earlier this month, Rowson beamed at him. “You squared Chapman up!” he said. “You can hit anyone!” Kepler laughs now. “Whenever you do something good around James he blows it out of proportion, in a good way. You feel almost invincible.”
The culture Rowson endeavors to create means allowing hitters to be themselves. “You never want to take the athleticism away from the player,” he says. Instead of instructing a free-swinger to take more walks, Rowson will encourage him to use his aggressive approach to learn what he can and can’t hit. Sometimes that will work, and sometimes the player will make a mistake and lunge at something out of the zone. And Rowson will laugh from the bench and yell to him, “So what? Next pitch!”