Hitting in back end of the Philadelphia lineup, Aaron Rowand has raced out to a .383/.468/.617 start, helping keep the Phils afloat while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley find their swings. Rowand’s batted ball data doesn’t suggest he has found the swing that propelled him to his excellent 2004 season, however; his .425 BABIP is more than a wee bit higher than his .321 career BABIP. After bouncing between league average and very productive over his career, where does his true production level rest?

Aaron Ryan Rowand was selected by the New York Mets in round forty of the 1995 amateur draft, pick number 1,113 overall. He declined to sign, and attended Cal State Fullerton. In 1998 the White Sox grabbed him in the first round of the draft, at number 35 overall. He quickly signed and was assigned to Hickory in the Sally League at age 21:

Year Team               AB  AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
1998 Hickory(A)        222 .342/.410/.495   28%  .153   16    8.6%  14.8%
1999 Winston/Salem(A+) 512 .279/.336/.504   45%  .225   40    6.1%  17.2%

His debut was successful enough, so the White Sox promoted him to High-A for the 1999 season. The differences in these two campaigns are pretty clear: Rowand’s patience dipped to a level you hate to see in a developing player in the low minors, and although his power increased a bit, this did not look like a breakout season for a corner outfield prospect. His batting average in his debut was a bit of a mirage, thanks to a .392 BABIP; .279 is much closer to his true talent level, a figure that he floats around even today.

Baseball Prospectus 2000 praised Rowand for taking a key developmental step for an improving hitter: see your pitch, whack your pitch.

Rowand took the step in 1999 that Carlos Lee needs to take: he learned which pitches he can hammer. For his trouble, he was named the Carolina League’s best hitting prospect by Baseball America. He needs to improve his command of the strike zone…if he survives the jump to Double-A, he’ll be ready by 2001.

Rowand did not make the jump up Double-A cleanly; instead, he lost out the power that made him an attractive prospect in the first place:

Year Team            AB   AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2000 Birmingham(2A)  532 .258/.321/.438   37%  .180   31    6.4%  19.8%

His batting average was the problem here. If he had hit 20 points higher,a .278/.341/.458 line would have looked more like a guy who could use a shift to center field than someone who clearly didn’t have it, as Baseball Prospectus 2001 seemed to think:

This draft pick isn’t turning out as hoped. Scouts emphasize Aaron Rowand’s tremendous bat speed and great arm, but a corner outfielder with this much trouble getting on base has no future in the majors as a regular. He struggled around the Mendoza line with no home runs against left-handed pitchers, so a platoon role isn’t an option. In a couple of years, he could be ready to be a fourth outfielder on a team with a good everyday center fielder.

Rowand may have been judged too harshly by his first year in the high minors, and as I said before, batting average was more of a problem than his on-base percentage in this specific instance. He definitely needed to improve upon his discipline in order to succeed a bit more at the higher levels though. Baseball America noted that there were problems, but they were much more optimistic:

He generates power from a short, quick swing and tremendous upper-body strength. He has decent speed and has used his instincts to develop into an above-average baserunner, though he doesn’t project as a basestealer. He’s a good right fielder with an arm that managers rated the best in the Southern League. Rowand may feel that he must hit home runs to get attention. His strikeout-walk ratio has gotten worse for two straight years, with his on-base percentage declining to .321 in 2000.

For the 2001 season, Rowand was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte despite his pedestrian 2000 season in Double-A.

Year Team           AB   AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2001 Charlotte(3A)  329 .295/.353/.526   45%  .231   28    5.8%  13.0%
2001 Chicago(MLB)   123 .293/.385/.431   25%  .136    5   10.9%  22.8%

Despite his rough time in Birmingham, Rowand rebounded to put together a fine season at Charlotte. His walk rate continued to drop a little at the time, but he also cut into his strikeout rate significantly while posting the highest Isolated Power figure of his professional career. His BABIP was around the league average as well, so this was legitimate progress for Rowand. Upon promotion to the majors, Rowand increased his patience even further and posted a .316/.400/.484 line. Unfortunately, that’s when outfield walls at the major league level began to consider Rowand a marked man. He aggravated his shoulder crashing into one, and lost his power from there, hitting just .222/.344/.259 the rest of the way. All in all, it was a solid major league debut that rescued his prospect status. Baseball Prospectus 2002 detailed the next challenge Rowand would have to face:

Rowand is getting squeezed, with two good corner outfielders ahead of him and Joe Borchard coming up hard behind him. The pressure might have been good for Rowand, as he showed much improved plate discipline in 2001 and played very well in September with the Sox. Spring training will be huge: if he can establish himself as at least a platoon center fielder, he should have a career. If he tanks, Borchard will pass him, and Rowand could easily end up on the Chad Mottola career path.

Rowand failed to put together a quality season in 2002, but with the White Sox dealing Kenny Lofton, the playing time for him in center was there:

Year   AB   AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B   BB%   K%
2002   302 .258/.298/.394   32%  .136   18    3.8%  17.9%

There are few hitters who are capable of being productive when they’re as aggressive as Rowand was at the plate in 2002, and they usually have something else going for them, such as the ability to send pitches well outside the zone into orbit, Vlad Guerrero-style. Rowand’s 3.5 pitches per plate appearance resulted in a lower line-drive rate than Rowand was accustomed to in his career. Add in over 50 percent of his batted balls winding up grounders along with a paltry 3.8 percent walk rate, and it is easy to see why he struggled so.

It was initially thought that Rowand did not have the bat for a corner outfield spot, but also lacked the glove work to play center regularly. We now know that the latter proposition was incorrect. As he came up, it was Rowand’s arm that was deemed standout quality, not the range that has saved his defenses run after run the past few years, as well as earning Rowand the occasional broken bone. In 2003 that defense was not quite there yet, as he was still learning the ropes. He did manage to get his bat somewhat back on track:

Team           AB   AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
Chicago(MLB)   157 .287/.327/.452   31%  .165    8    4.3%  13.4%
Charlotte(3A)  120 .242/.316/.392   41%  .150    9    7.9%  12.4%

Rowand only brought his walk rate up by half a percent, but his strikeout rate dropped a bit. Given his tendency to flail the year before, that was at least a good sign, although an increase of less than 0.2 on his P/PA isn’t very encouraging. Sometimes, progress comes in small doses. He was a reserve for most of the year when he wasn’t at Charlotte; hence the lack of playing time.

After losing the starting job in center, he was demoted to Charlotte, and when he was called back up to Chicago that summer, it was as a backup outfielder. The White Sox had acquired Carl Everett in the meantime, meaning Rowand was now squeezed by an additional veteran player. Baseball Prospectus 2004 was not excited about Rowand at this point, writing that he was “a championship-caliber reserve, and a replacement-level regular… we’ll see if Ozzie Guillen knows the difference.”

Rowand would eventually win the starting job in center for the White Sox in 2004, sticking in The Show for a full season, thanks to an offensive outburst that led some to overrate his bat:

Year   AB   AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%   K%
2004   487 .310/.361/.544  42%  .234   40    5.8%  18.7%

Even with the .310 batting average, his OBP was just .361. It was a good sign that his walk rate climbed back up to around six percent, and he displayed some of the power he had shown at various times in the minor leagues, although a lot of his batting average was BABIP-driven. He was still only around 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, but the hits were falling in for him, and it appeared as if he finally nailed down center field, posting a +5 according to John Dewan’s The Fielding Bible.

Even though the offensive wheels came off in 2005, his defense more than made up for the drop in plate production. Despite hitting just .270/.329/.407-thanks to a more regular-looking .318 BABIP and 3.6 P/PA again-he was +30 in center via The Fielding Bible. This certainly contributed to the White Sox rotation’s success-every starter reached at least their 75th percentile PECOTA forecast-and helped the White Sox bring home a long-awaited World Series title.

Rowand was dealt to the Phillies following the World Series in a deal that put Jim Thome in Chicago while clearing out first base for Ryan Howard. Rowand instantly became a fan favorite in Philadelphia when he smashed into the (then significantly underpadded) center field wall and broke his nose. He obviously had to make a trip to the disabled list, but he had quickly gained his new home crowd’s favor by holding onto the game-saving catch.

Year    AB  AVG/OBP /SLG   XBH%   ISO  2B+3B  BB%    K%
2006   405 .262/.321/.425   39%  .163   27    4.3%  18.8%
2007    94 .383/.468/.617   33%  .234    7   11.3%  17.0%

The 2006 season was standard-issue production for Rowand, but he is off to a hot start in 2007. His plate discipline, as it now stands, would easily be the best mark of his professional career, although at this stage it is difficult to tell the difference between legitimate improvement and small sample size. He is still taking only 3.6 P/PA-an improvement on his even more hurried 2006-yet his walk rate has more than doubled his career rate so far. Expect regression there.

His batted-ball data also strongly suggests he will return to earth:

Year P/PA   FB%  LINERD%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP Diff.
2002 3.5   30.0%  18.9%  51.0%  13.7%   9.6%  .295   .309  +.014
2003 3.6   33.1%  23.3%  43.6%  15.9%  13.6%  .300   .353  +.053
2004 3.6   34.9%  19.5%  45.6%  12.5%  17.6%  .341   .315  -.026
2005 3.6   27.9%  20.9%  51.2%  14.1%  10.2%  .318   .329  +.011
2006 3.4   33.8%  22.0%  44.2%  10.8%  10.8%  .297   .340  +.043
2007 3.6   38.0%  22.8%  39.2%  10.0%  16.7%  .425   .348  -.077

Rowand underperformed in 2006-if balls had dropped in at their expected rate, his line should have been around .305/.364/.468, which makes sense given he was heading to the easier league. Normalizing his BABIP for 2007 should bring his line to .312/.391/.540, with the extra slugging coming from his increased HR/F. This means he has either rediscovered the swing that gave him home run power back in 2004, or he’s taking advantage of his home park, or it is another small sample that will smooth over as the year progresses.

His AB/HR is 17.0 at home against 19.5 on the road, which isn’t a very significant difference. He is hitting more flyballs than he usually does while cutting out some grounders, which is probably the profile that would make him most effective based on his park and skills. Is he hitting the ball further so far? We can look at some of the data from Hit Tracker in order to see this:

     Avg True Dist.  Avg. Speed off Bat  Avg. Std. Dist.  Avg Apex
2006  396.6 ft.        107.7 mph           392.8 ft.         105.7
2007  376.4 ft.        105.5 mph           379.2 ft.         103.6

A few notes: The Average Standard Distance is for standard weather conditions; for example, in 70 degree weather with no wind. Average True Distance is the actual (or estimated, if the ball managed to crash into something before returning to field level) distance the ball actually traveled, regardless of conditions. It appears the balls he’s smiting aren’t traveling any farther. Although average apex may be misleading in some cases, they’re not traveling higher-more loft on a ball could give it longer life sometimes-during 2007.

If I had to venture a guess, I’d say Rowand is off to a quicker start in power thanks to the competition he has faced so far. Besides a homer off of Anibal Sanchez, the other four came off of Shawn Hill, Saul Rivera, Victor Santos, and a struggling John Patterson. Once we have more than April to work with, we will probably see Rowand on pace for 15-18 bombs rather than a season approaching 30. While Rowand is a better hitter than he showed in 2006, he is most likely not turning into a serious power threat. The Phillies can afford take his current production, plus what he probably does from here on out, combined with what he gives them on defense.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles. You can find some of Marc’s other work here.

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