Screenshots of Alex Rios' second at-bat on Monday, pre-pitch (left) and loading up.
Upon his arrival to spring training, Alex Rios would only speak in vague terms about potential changes in his swing:
"Every time I talk about the good things that I'm working on, I feel like .... I'm very superstitious," said Rios, speaking to the media Saturday morning after reporting four days before White Sox position players officially are due. "Every time I say something, I feel like everything I've done goes away."
In perusing videos from '06 and '07, Rios made it clear that he wasn't trying to copy what worked for him five or six years ago. He simply is picking up things that might get him back to where he was before a dismal .227 showing with 13 homers and 44 RBIs in 2011.
He's left it up to us to put the pieces together, and we got our first look on Monday. At first glance, you can't help but notice he's holding his hands much higher than usual. They're also a little more away from his head. That's kind of a big deal, because two years ago, his hands were so low that visiting broadcasters speculated about them like a mystery half-mast flag at the post office ("Memorial Day was four weeks ago. Did they forget to put it back up? Maybe we missed a death?").
But the one hint he gives us in that Scott Merkin article suggests his wandering hands might serve as a distraction from another change. After all, his hands were face-level when he joined the Sox in 2009, and he also did the Cal Ripken bat-on-shoulder thing in 2010. If he's speaking the truth, the technique he's trying to rediscover was utilized two years before either of those changes.
Fortunately, we can also look at video from 2006 and 2007. Judging from some highlights I watched from those years, it looks like he made his biggest adjustment with his lower half.
Taking screenshots of Rios' stance at two stages -- waiting for the pitcher, then loading up -- then arranging them into filmstrips, something jumped out at me: He used to have an open stance, especially in 2006.
He was a monster that year, hitting .330/.383/.585 through the end of June before a staph infection knocked him out for almost all of July. After an understandably weak August (the infection was described as "pus-filled," after all), he recovered to post a four-digit OPS again in September. That season put him on the brink of stardom, and deservedly so.
Rios gradually closed off his stance over the next two years, and it remained varying degrees of closed until Monday's game.
It's wise to be skeptical about Rios' ability to reverse course, no matter how he stands in the box. He owns a .250/.293/.392 for his White Sox career, and that didn't happen by accident. And hell, if the arthritic toe is a bigger deal than he's made of it, there might be no sustainable bounce-back in sight.
But if you want to be optimistic, an open stance might help address his biggest problem. He used to use the whole field, but since we've seen him, he's developed a bad habit of pulling his body towards third base as the bat's coming through the zone, which results in a ton of grounders to the left side.
Theoretically, an open stance might encourage him to step towards the pitch more. Small sample caveats abound, but he didn't pull the ball in either of his two at-bats on Monday -- Chad Billingsley snagged a comebacker in Rios' first at-bat, and he hit a flyout to right-field foul territory in his second.
At the very least, Rios is giving us something to watch this spring, and without the usual sense of dread. Keep an eye on whether he keeps his stance open, and whether it results in fewer weak grounders to short. Spring training stats don't carry over, but new habits might.