Midseason Superlatives: Some shine, struggle in Marlins’ first half
Garrett Cooper doesn’t feel like his approach has changed since he got healthy and became a fixture in the Miami Marlins’ lineup in May. Cooper prides himself as a contact-first hitter, unconcerned with launch angle and content to rip line drives up the middle for a season-long parade of singles.
Only circumstances have changed for the oft-injured slugger. The 28-year-old is now comfortably a .300 hitter, entrusted now as the regular No. 3 hitter in the Marlins’ lineup, whether he’s starting in right field or at first base. Cooper is an old-fashioned hitter and he has an old-fashioned mentality when it comes to lineup construction.
“I’ve always felt like it’s a guys job at three, four, five to be driving in all those runs,” Cooper said. “A corner outfielder, infielder, you better put some homers or doubles up on the board. That’s just part of baseball.”
Since the All-Star break ended, Cooper has unlocked this part of his game to a before unseen degree. Cooper blasted a solo home run in the eighth inning of the Marlins’ 12-7 win against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, giving him three home runs in four games since the break after he homered in the last game for Miami (35-57) before the break, too.
He’s now up to 11 home runs in 200 at-bats and he hasn’t sacrificed batting average, either. Sitting at .315 entering a game against the Padres (45-49) at 7:10 p.m. on Wednesday at Marlins Park, Cooper would have the eighth best average in the Majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title.
At this point, the contact portion of his game is approaching known-commodity status. He was a contact-first hitter in the minors, batting at least .292 in each of his final three minor-league seasons. Even with the New York Yankees in 2017, Cooper batted .326 in 45 plate appearances, which were a career high before this season. Power, however, was always a question mark — he only cracked double-digit homers once in six professional seasons prior to 2019 and he still averages just a 1.7-degree launch angle, which counteracts his above-average exit velocity of 89.4 mph.
The recent homer binge is enough to make Miami once again wonder what Cooper’s ceiling might be. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-handed hitter has the physical profile of a player who should hit 20 or 25 home runs with a full season of at-bats. Streaks like the one he is on should be able to come thanks to his approach and his natural strength.
“I think that’s the way Coop is really going to be better off, if he hits them like the way he’s hitting them now,” manager Don Mattingly said Tuesday, “because it’s like, gets his hits, gets his hits, starts catching the ball out front a couple days and it’s a homer.”
Even though he said his approach hasn’t changed, Cooper said he’s making a more concerted effort to drive the ball. Some of it comes from confidence — he now feels comfortable getting his hits, so getting extra-base hits is the next step — but it also comes from how the lineup is structured and performing. Cooper has batted third in 19 of his last 21 games, including Wednesday, and he’s getting opportunities with runners on base thanks to infielder Miguel Rojas’ and outfielder Harold Ramirez’s ongoing flirtations with .300 batting averages as the usual first two hitters in the lineup.
“I’m trying to do a little more damage,” said Cooper, who has five of his 18 total extra-base hits in his last five games entering Wednesday. “It’s just part of getting your hits first and trying to drive more balls.”
If there’s one reason to think this streak might be more than just a random occurrence, it’s because of how Cooper has adjusted as pitchers have gotten used to him. Cooper said the biggest thing he has learned in his longest Major League stint yet is how to formulate a plan with the broader access to information MLB affords players.
Now a fixture in the heart of the Marlins’ order, Cooper spends his time watching how each pitcher handles other heart-of-the-order hitter. Right now, it has him trending in the right direction.
“He’s been a nice surprise,” Mattingly said. “I think once we were able to get Coop on the field, keep him on the field, we’ve gotten to see a better picture of him and what he can be, so it’s been a good evaluation moving forward where Coop fits in.”