GENEVA – Rock Shoulders’ award-winning name circulated further through baseball when the parent Cubs announced him as their top organizational player for April last week.
The Cougars’ designated hitter/first baseman batted .370 with five home runs and 16 RBIs in 22 games during the month. The blog and social media novelty posts that stemmed from his success were tougher to tally.
A friend’s mother struggled to say Shoulders’ given name, Roderick, during his formative years in Tampa, Fla., so she turned to brevity to make things easier. These days, Shoulders is all about branching out. A guy who goes by “Rock” should be able to hit, right? Why not throw in defensive reps at third base and left field, too?
“I don’t mind where I play,” Shoulders said. “As long as I’m in the lineup, I’m good with it.”
Shoulders had appeared in each of the Cougars’ 29 games entering Friday’s doubleheader at Burlington, batting fifth to round out a formidable heart of the order.
The trio of first baseman Dan Vogelbach, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and Shoulders also was together for much of last season at Short-A Boise, helping the Hawks to the Northwest League championship series. Vogelbach got most of the starts at first base then, too.
Vogelbach’s standing as one of the organization’s higher-profile prospects – earlier this season, Cubs president Theo Epstein discussed him as a hypothetical when Chicago reporters pondered the possibility of the designated hitter in the National League – puts Shoulders at first base sporadically.
Citing a need to “get him out on the field and play,” Cougars manager Mark Johnson pushed to extend Shoulders’ defensive value. While the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Shoulders might personify the imagery of a name that won MiLB.com’s 2012 Moniker Madness fan voting tournament, he’s shown good range and nimble feet after working with Cubs minor league outfield/baserunning coordinatur Lee Tinsley in spring training.
“With my size, I mean, I’m not a fast guy, but to play the outfield, as long as I can get my jumps off the bat good and just get to the ball and get it in as quick as possible and make the routine plays, that’s pretty much all everybody has to do,” Shoulders said. “The spectacular plays will come as you get better at it, but from my standpoint, I just want to make my routine plays, get the ball in as quick as possible.”
His approach to hitting is less perfunctory. During the offseason, Shoulders harnessed a toe-tap approach that precedes his swing and puts him in a power position, more prone to drive the ball to all fields.
The results – which include a .343 average and a 1.015 on-base plus slugging percentage through Thursday – also can be attributed to another change. Shoulders, a 25th-round pick of the Cubs in 2011 after he did not agree to terms with Boston in the 20th round out of high school the year before, stopped switch hitting and worked exclusively on the left side of the plate.
“It was important that he had a chance to try to make it work first, because it is nice to have a switch hitter in there and stuff,” Cougars hitting coach Tom Beyers said. “But if it doesn’t work, then there’s no value in it.”
A career .232 hitter (58 for 250) before the season, Shoulders projects more confidence as a left-handed batter. He simply feels comfort in baseball, his lone sport in high school after playing football and basketball growing up.
Vogelbach, another slugging lefty, often teams with Shoulders to provide a lift to the clubhouse.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that sometimes may need that push or that person to smack them on the butt and get them going,” Vogelbach said. “I think that Rock and I just try to keep everybody up.”
Shoulders, who is hitting .263 in his past 10 starts, hopes that outlook offers an edge in busting what has been his first mini-slump of the season to date.
“I’ve never been the type to have that attitude that when they get out, then they slam stuff. Yeah, I hate losing. I hate losing more than I love winning, but at the same time, this is baseball,” Shoulders said. “You’re going to lose some and win some.”
A guy named “Rock” wouldn’t figure to be so even-keeled.
Then again, isn’t this Rock also a “Rod” bidding to land in the city of broad shoulders?