Lakeland, Fla. — You should have seen Eric De La Rosa tearing up the west coast JUCO circuit in 2018. The kid was unbelievable. Long, lanky, hitting right-handed in the three-hole for Grossmont College, a ridiculously high leg kick, just turning and burning on any pitch in the strike zone.
And doing damage. Rickey Henderson-type damage. He produced 133 total bases, 14 homers and 60 RBIs in 188 plate appearances. He also, because he could, stole 24 bases. Raw, yes. Skinny, about 170 pounds on a 6-4 frame, yes. But talented, hell yes.
That’s why the Tigers took him in the seventh round.
Hard to believe, though, that he thought his baseball-playing days were done after high school and that his first college coach looked him square in the face and told him he wasn’t good enough to play Division-I baseball.
“Oh, I’ve been doubted,” the personable De La Rosa said Sunday. “But I’ve been raised to never give up and I always keep working. That’s just fuel. When people say this or that, or they post this or that, that’s fuel. It’s like, ‘OK, we’ll see.’”
He put himself on the Tigers’ radar last season, jumping three levels in the system, finishing his age-24 year at Double-A Erie. The speed-power combination he flashed at Grossmont started to show at the pro level. He finished the year with a .367 on-base average, slugging .440 with an .807 OPS. He produced 22 doubles, seven triples, pro-career high eight homers with 50 RBIs and 34 stolen bases (caught just nine times).
And you feel like he’s just scratching the surface.
“I consider myself a late-bloomer,” De La Rosa said. “I didn’t play on Perfect Game (showcases). I didn’t play on big travel teams. Before going to JUCO, I was going to college just to be a student.”
True story. De La Rosa was off to San Jose State to attend classes like a regular civilian. No scholarship. But his high school coach at Mount Miguel in Spring Valley, California, L.B. Havird, said hold on. He contacted San Jose baseball coach Jason Hawkins and told him about this speedy, long-limbed athlete named De La Rosa.
“My coach went out of his way to push me to play baseball,” he said. “And after I played (at SJSU) in the fall, I was like, ‘I can play Division 1.’ Granted, I was like a buck-fifty-five (weighed 155) and I was a freshman and there were four seniors in the outfield. So I redshirted my first year.”
And got the surprise of his life when he went back for his second fall season.
“Coach Hawkins said, out of his mouth, ‘You can’t play D-1 baseball,” De La Rosa said. “That’s when my journey started.”
It’s been a journey, for sure, and he’s not even halfway to his destination.
De La Rosa found out what a lot of raw hitters discover when they get to pro ball. Those massive hacks you took that produced all those big numbers against lower-velocity pitchers in college may not get it done at the next level.
His eyes were opened big-time after he hit just .148 in short-season A-ball at Connecticut, striking out 51 times in 157 plate appearances. He would spend most of the next two years searching for the right hitting mechanics.
“The pandemic year (2020) was actually a blessing for me,” he said. “It gave me more time to fix myself.”
First stop was California-based hitting guru Doug Latta, who has worked with numerous Tigers over the years, most recently Jake Rogers and Ryan Kreider.
“I went to Doug Latta, basically on my hands and knees,” De La Rosa said. “I told him, ‘Hey, I’m all in.’ I was so vulnerable. I had never failed like that before.”
For the next 18 months, De La Rosa would drive three hours both ways in Los Angeles traffic to Latta’s lab in Northridge, three or four times a week. Latta broke his right-handed swing down and rebuilt it. He simplified his mechanics, got him to lose the bad shoulder turn he had, straightened his stride and got his swing path more direct through the ball.
Still, it didn’t feel quite natural. Latta had him watching video of the Dodgers’ Justin Turner, a squat, 5-11, 210-pound slugger with a high leg kick.
“Me and Justin Turner have completely different body types,” De La Rosa said. “He’s short-limbed 5-11 and I’m long and lanky.”
It wasn’t him.
“I’d have really good days and I’d have really bad days,” he said. “In baseball, it’s about that easy medium. I couldn’t keep feeling super good and then super bad.”
That’s when, just two months before spring training last year, De La Rosa turned to hitting instructor David Popkins, formerly with the Dodgers and now the new hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins.
“When I started hitting with Pop, I started to feel like the old me again,” he said. “Hitting with Pop, we started looking at video of me instead of video of other guys. I’ve got to be me.”
Popkins got De La Rosa to ditch the leg kick in favor of a more hovering movement with his front foot — simpler, less eye and head movement, and it still facilitated his natural whippy swing. He started to develop a quicker twitch which allowed him to start turning on and getting the barrel to inside pitches, which had bedeviled him in 2019.
“Me working with Latta was a part of my journey,” he said. “So when I went to Pop, I could skip a few steps. A lot of things I did with Latta, I still do. It was just that evolution for me. But when I went to Pop, it just all clicked.
“He gave me confidence. He got me to maximize my body to where I could react to the inside pitch. And last year, I was super confident hitting those inside pitches.”
So, welcome to baseball, when he got to Double A last year, pitchers used that confidence against him. They’d pitch him in, but off the plate in, letting him barrel up as many foul balls as he wanted. Then they’d get him out with softer pitches on the outside corner or fastballs up in the zone.
He hit .226 in a limited dose of Double-A pitching, striking out about a third of the time.
So, this offseason, he went back to the lab and worked on covering hitting other quadrants of the plate — up and away, specifically. This is what a work-in-progress looks like. He will have to learn to adjust to higher spin rates as he gets through Double A and into Triple A. He will have to learn to adjust to nasty velocity changes and tighter breaking balls.
But after two years of refashioning and refining what has always come natural to him, hitting, he feels he is on the right path.
“I feel like I’m a five-tool guy,” he said. “I just have to show it, continue to work. … It was great I had the year I had last year, but I don’t want to be a minor-leaguer. I want to be a big-leaguer. And I’ve got to work for that.”