The Alex Rios Renaissance

"I've been concerned a little bit about my home runs and extra base hits. It's something I would like to improve. I'm not a big home run guy, but I can hit plenty of doubles in years before. Hopefully I get it sooner than later."

-- Alex Rios, May 23, 2012

At that time, Alex Rios might have been his harshest critic. Yes, he carried an even .700 OPS into the game against the Twins that night (.268/.331/.369). That's not particularly impressive for a right fielder, especially the "1" in the home run column. Then again, beggars can't be choosers, and given his yearlong struggles in 2011, many fans were happy that he even showed a pulse.

But Rios did find the power, and on the sooner side. As in that night, with a two-run homer off Scott Diamond. And then the next night. And then another homer two games later. That's three homers in four games, after starting the season with one over his first 41.

The boost in power coincides with Rios fully shedding the playing-a-piano-standing-up routine and settling into an upright stance, which he hasn't done before (at least as far as I can go back on video). It's been a gradual process throughout the season -- he started the spring with an open crouch, and look where he is now.

Given how often he changed his stance and hand position, it seemed like the search for his comfort zone was quixotic at best. But since that homer off Diamond, Rios is hitting .361/.372/.657 with 11 homers, 13 doubles and a pair of triples. Combine it with his fine defensive play in right field, as well as his baserunning (9-for-9 in stolen bases since the Diamond homer), and he's leading all Sox position players in both WAR measurements, and by a sizable margin.

So, I think he's finally found his balance.

Balance has been a big deal for Rios, because when he doesn't have it, he's not much of a hitter.

He spent the 2011 season falling away from the plate, which left him extremely susceptible to pitches on the outer half of the plate. This year, it's a much different story. Remember that new Pitch f/x tool I used on Adam Dunn in Monday's post? Well, it paints an even more vivid picture for Rios. Take a look at his batting averages by zone, and you can get an idea of how much better he's covering the plate from the wall of red on the right.

Riosmaps_medium

(If you want a closer look, here are his pages for 2011 and 2012.)

Last year, pitchers didn't have to get creative to get Rios out. They could just pound the outside corner over and over again, and he'd most likely roll it over to the left side. When he tried to take the pitch the other way, he dropped the bat head and popped it up to the right side.

This year, it's a different story. While we're doing side-by-side comparisons, check out what his spray charts look like from each season at July 8:

Rioscharts1112_medium

That is using the whole field. Really, in his current form, Rios' game is just about perfect with one exception:

He has completely stopped drawing walks.

That almost makes his offensive accomplishments even more impressive. He has a 1.029 OPS since breaking his homer drought against the Twins, and that's while walking just three times over 172 plate appearances. He drew one walk in the entire month of June, and he has one in July (while hitting .444 and slugging .852).

At 3.37 pitches per plate appearance, he's seeing the fewest pitches of any White Sox hitters -- fewer than Alexei Ramirez, A.J. Pierzynski and Dayan Viciedo.

Unlike those guys, however, he doesn't give the impression that he's hacking. He's actually swinging a hair under his career rate. He's just making the most contact of his career (88 percent contact rate, 95 percent on pitches in the zone). And with a line-drive rate of 23 percent, he's making by far the best contact of his career.

Watching Rios at the plate, he gives the impression that he can sting any strike. And given that he's batting behind two slumping sluggers, it's great that his approach is stuck on "attack mode." The Sox are drawing walks from that part of the lineup, but (extra-base) hits are in short order. Rios is seriously picking up the slack.

Star-divide

"I’m not worried about power numbers; I’m just trying to have a good approach and put good swings on the ball."

-- Alex Rios, June 16, 2012

Nothing eases the mind like a 1.000 OPS.

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