What Detroit Tigers’ Eric De La Rosa learned from Spencer Torkelson in Arizona Fall League

Detroit Free Press

Eric De La Rosa didn’t know what to expect when Detroit Tigers director of player development Kenny Graham called him out of the batting cage.

Players were competing in a hitting drill as part of the instructional league in Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers’ spring training complex. De La Rosa was coming off a much-needed strong 2021 season, hitting .273 with eight home runs and 34 stolen bases in 104 games in the minor leagues.

“What did I do?” De La Rosa muttered. “I ain’t do nothing wrong.”

Graham asked De La Rosa, a 6-foot-3, 186-pound outfielder, what he thought about joining the Arizona Fall League. A spot opened up when Tigers outfield prospect Riley Greene withdrew because of a concussion.

“At first, I was in shock,” De La Rosa said Jan. 5 from his home in California. “It might be a little surprising, but I was skeptical about it. I was told I was only going to be playing twice a week. But I came to my senses and was like, you know what, let’s do this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I ended up playing more than two games a week. One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life was saying yes to that.”

So, De La Rosa made his way to Scottsdale, Arizona. The 24-year-old joined the Salt River Rafters and teamed up with Tigers prospects Spencer Torkelson, Ryan Kreidler, Chavez Fernander, Wilmer Flores, Zack Hess and Garrett Hill.

“My last week of the season I was struggling,” De La Rosa said. “In instructs we’re not even facing live hitters. And then to find out I’m going to the Fall League, and these pitchers are the real deal. I was nervous. A little scared. But once I got there and played my first game, that’s when everything kicked in. It was like, I need this. It’s a great thing I’m here.”

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De La Rosa, a seventh-round pick in 2018 from Grossmont College in California, didn’t have an easy path to Double-A Erie and the AFL. His main sport was martial arts until he turned 14 years old. As far as baseball goes, he said he never participated in high school showcases.

For Mount Miguel High School, De La Rosa wasn’t a starter until his junior year. “I was just this long, lanky kid who didn’t know what his body was doing,” he said. He exploded his senior year and walked-on at San Jose State. He took a redshirt as a freshman, but the coaching staff got fired. De La Rosa said the new head coach, Brad Sanfilippo, cleaned house and “told me I wasn’t able to play Division I baseball.”

He finished the semester and transferred to Grossmont College.

“If it wasn’t for that coach cutting me, telling me I wasn’t good enough to play Division I baseball, I wouldn’t even be where I’m at today,” De La Rosa said. “I’ve always been in and gone through adversity.”

He played 53 games and hit .232 in 2018, his first year as a pro for the Tigers. In 2019, he posted a .148 batting average for Class-A Short-Season Connecticut in the New York-Penn League. The minors were canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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During the shutdown, De La Rosa trained with personal hitting coach Doug Latta at Ball Yard in Northridge, California. He often swung alongside Kreidler, who hit .270 with 22 homers in the minors last year, advancing  to Triple-A Toledo.

“Kreidler was excelling, and I was hitting with Doug before Kreidler,” De La Rosa said. “What Doug was teaching was helping Kreidler more than it was helping me. I’m more of a wiry, twitchy guy. Doug teaches a lot of similar movements. If you’re a Latta guy, you’re going to know if somebody else is a Latta guy.”

Minor-league spring training started in April 2021. De La Rosa found a new hitting coach in San Diego just three months before camp. He credits Latta for setting the foundation for his improvements, but he didn’t think Latta’s style worked for him.

The new personal hitting coach, David Popkins, worked in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization until the Minnesota Twins hired him in November as their co-hitting coach.

“When I started hitting with him, that’s when I started to feel like me again, instead of watching (Justin) Turner all the time,” De La Rosa said. “When you first start hitting with Doug, you’re always looking at Turner.

“Now, I look at me. I looked at videos from when I was going good. (Popkins) works a lot with the lower half. As long as your lower-half mechanics are right, then you can try other things. Your swing starts from the ground up. We were figuring out what was working for me. One day, I wanted to do the hover. I did the hover, and I was hitting balls harder than I’ve ever hit in my life. So then, we started right there. I started to develop my own little rhythm, but it just came like human nature to me.”

The Tigers put De La Rosa in Low-A Lakeland for the beginning of his age-24 season. Featuring a brand-new swing, he hit .276 with two homers in 16 games for the Flying Tigers. A promotion in May pushed him to High-A West Michigan; he hit .293 with three homers and 22 stolen bases in 59 games.

His final test came in August, when the Tigers sent De La Rosa to Double-A Erie. He hit .226 with three homers, nine walks and 32 strikeouts in 29 games.

De La Rosa played 44 games in center field, 31 games in right field and 22 games in left field. His instincts on the bases separated him from other speedsters and helped him record 34 steals in 43 attempts.

“I think I have shown I can hit,” De La Rosa said. “There are times where I can hit for power. There are times where I can hit for average. I can steal bases. I play good defense. I have a good arm. It’s about tightening everything.”

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De La Rosa continued his 2021 season in the Arizona Fall League.

He hit .220 (13-for-59) with one double, two home runs, seven RBIs, five walks and 19 strikeouts, adding four stolen bases. He homered Oct. 22 off Oakland Athletics prospect Jeff Criswell (105.7 mph exit velocity) and Oct. 23 off Tampa Bay Rays prospect Matthew Peguero (113 mph exit velocity).

Apart from the in-game reps, De La Rosa learned from being around top prospects. Conversations with Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick who reached Triple-A Toledo last season, made a big impact on what De La Rosa plans to do in the batter’s box moving forward.

“What I found out in the fall league is everybody’s good there, so now it’s about your approach,” De La Rosa said. “What’s your pitch? What are you trying to do? You’re trying to make damage with your pitch and not trying to hit every pitch. When I got to Double-A, I struggled a little bit. I was trying to hit everything that was a strike.

“These guys are taking pitches that are strikes. Torkelson is very patient. He controls his at-bats very well. He waits for his pitch. He understands that if he has a strike, it’s OK because you got another two strikes. … It’s about hitting the mistake.”

The Tigers did not add De La Rosa to the 40-man roster this offseason,  exposing him to the MLB Rule 5 draft, scheduled for Dec. 8 but indefinitely postponed because of the MLB lockout. If it’s rescheduled, a different organization could draft De La Rosa, but that would mean keeping him on the active roster in the majors for the entire 2022 season.

It’s more likely De La Rosa opens 2022 in Double-A Erie.

“My expectation is to prove I belong,” De La Rosa said. “My goal is not to be an everyday Double-A player. My goal is not to be an everyday Triple-A player. My goal is to be a big leaguer, so I’m going to continue to work hard and learn this game. I’m on God’s time.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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