Alex Rios just passed Josh Hamilton in wRC+ for the season.
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) August 4, 2012
That statement establishes two things; that Josh Hamilton has fallen hard back to Earth since his prodigious May, and that Alex Rios is one of the first to greet him as he arrives.
When Paul Konerko nearly bounced into a double play with the bases loaded in the 1st inning Friday night, it was a disappointing result, but didn't signal a spurning of the team's only real chance of doing damage like it has the last couple of years. If anything, it brought the real thunder to the plate--Alex Rios.
On May 23rd, Rios bemoaned the lack of power his 'whole-field' approach was yielding, and announced his intentions to pull the ball more. He was floating around a .700 OPS at the time, which was still better than being the worst hitter in the league that he was in 2011, so I worried what trouble he might get himself into.
As it turns out, it was the type of trouble where he hits .348/.362/.652 with 17 HR over his last 256 plate appearances. That's easily the best performance of anyone on the team, and combined with A.J. Pierzynski hitting .285/.353/.582 over that same stretch, it's served to cover up a mid-season lull from Konerko and Dunn.
Unlike A.J., who has transformed himself completely, Rios' breakthrough is happening how one would expect. He's not walking at all (just seven over this stretch), he's not striking out (just 31 times), he's just making contact with absolutely everything. In fact, if you had to chart through Rios' career, and find the closest comparable stretch in terms how often he's swinging, and what pitches he's swinging at, it'd be his disastrous 2011 season. The only difference is that this year, the contact is absurdly hard.
He apparently always had the tools to be a hitter who could rake for power and average despite seemingly little plate discipline, but only now is in the position to do it. As hitting coach Jeff Manto--who's launching his professional reputation off of this season--intimated in an interview with FanGraphs' David Laurila in July, everyone who mocked Rios' batting stance last season was barking up the right tree.
"...In talking to [Rios], his batting stance didn’t match what he wanted to do with the ball. He wanted to drive the ball to all fields, get on top of some breaking balls, and on top of some fastballs. Being spread out didn’t allow him to do that. As we talked, he moved himself and stood up taller. Now he sees a lot differently and isn’t missing a whole lot of pitches."
The results are unbelievable:
Rios is spraying the ball to all fields but also tapping into his big power to left.
Using the word "sustainable" might imply that Alex Rios can slug over .600 for the rest of the season; something he never even pulled off in the minors. But right after a season he spent hopelessly lost, he's made a point of opening himself up to adjustments, and snapped into the best groove of his career
Coupled with Adam Dunn not being worthless, and Jake Peavy being an innings-eating horse, it's just the type of miracle switch that has enabled this entire season.