The top two hitters in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers this year were Keston Hiura and Trent Grisham. Neither of those names should come as big surprises; Hiura entered the year as a consensus top prospect league-wide and Grisham is a former first-round draft pick. But the organization’s third-best hitter by wRC+ in 2019 is a name that you probably won’t immediately recognize, and that is just fine by Cooper Hummel.
“I would say I was always the underdog growing up,” Hummel told me in a recent interview. “I always said I would be a Major League Baseball player. I knew that I would play professionally and believe now that I will make it to the major league level like I’ve always said. I was usually the smallest on all my teams, which meant I had to work harder than the others to compete.”
Hummel was born in Portland, and he gravitated towards the Seattle Mariners while growing up in Oregon. “My dad painted a mural of their logo on my bedroom wall. I grew up loving Ichiro, Griffey, and A-Rod. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved baseball.”
Hummel doesn’t model himself after any one player, but a tip that he received as a youngster has resonated with him throughout his life in baseball. “I started switch-hitting in fourth grade because I had a hitting coach tell me that being a switch-hitting catcher was the second-best way to get drafted. At that point forward, I was a switch-hitter and have never looked back, even when people have told me they like a certain side better.” His Little League team made it to the World Series in 2007, where they finished third in the United States and fifth in the world. But the doubters started to make themselves more apparent as he got older.
“As a freshman in high school, I was told that ‘I wouldn’t amount to anything in baseball’ because I was too small. I was also told that I shouldn’t switch-hit anymore. I transferred to the rival high school and was more motivated than ever before.” Hummel threw himself into working on his body and his hitting ability to become as fundamentally sound as possible. “I remember going to the high school hitting barn with my dad for hours. I would hit after school and then go again after my homework was done. It was all I wanted to do.”
Cooper landed at his hometown University of Portland to play college ball, and after hitting .320/.422/.490 in 54 games as a junior in 2016, he was ready to see if his game would translate to the next level. “The draft process was a lot of fun...at least until the day of the draft. I was a nervous wreck. I was told I would be drafted higher than I was and it didn’t happen, so the more catchers that came off the board, the more anxious I became.”
Hummel was finally selected by the Brewers in the 18th round, which came as a bit of a surprise to him. “I had minimal contact with Milwaukee before the draft. I knew the Brewers scout, Shawn Whalen, fairly well because his son Caleb played ball with me in college. Because of that, I didn’t think too much into of some of our conversations before the draft. But when Milwaukee drafted me, I was beyond excited.” He signed his first professional contract shortly after the draft and headed to Helena, Montana to get his career started in the Rookie-level Pioneer League.
The Brewers skipped Hummel over the Class-A Midwest League the following year in 2017 and sent him straight to Class A-Advanced Carolina, where he appeared in 59 games as the backup catcher. But that would mark the end of Cooper’s days donning the tools of ignorance, though the change in positions caught him a little off-guard. “Well, I can’t say that I was ever told the transition was going to take place. During Spring Training in 2018, Joe Ayrault — my manager in Carolina the previous year — told me that he wanted to try me in the outfield a little so that I could get more at-bats during the year. Outfield wasn’t totally new to me, I had played a little in college. I was in left field the next day and the first ball that came to me, I hosed a runner at the plate. After that, we didn’t really look back.”
Hummel continued to participate in catching drills and made eight appearances behind the plate in 2018, but he became a full-time outfield by this past season. “I definitely miss catching, but being in the outfield has been a lot of fun and I really get to focus on what I love, and that’s hitting.” Still, Cooper recognizes the value that comes with being able to play multiple positions, especially within his current organization. “During Spring Training 2019, I think I played more infield than outfield and catcher combined. This offseason I’m really focused on my defense and having the ability to play as many spots as possible. The more places I can play, the more I can be in the line up and help the team win.”
Now four years into his professional career, Hummel is a career .244/.383/.404 hitter in nearly 1,200 minor league plate appearances. He exudes confidence at the plate. “I don’t think any pitcher is good enough to get me out. That’s always been my mind set and it will never change. I’m always looking for ‘my pitch’ to hit.” If that offering doesn’t come, he isn’t afraid to keep the bat on his shoulder. “I’m not consciously trying to walk but I am more than happy to take the walk if a pitcher doesn’t give me something I want to hit. I think my eye at the plate is my biggest strength, but sometimes that can get me into trouble because I can get too selective.” Hummel has earned a free pass in nearly 16% of his trips to bat as a pro.
Entering his age-24 season in 2019, the organization challenged Cooper with what many consider to be the most difficult developmental jump a prospect can experience — moving from A-ball to Double-A. But none of that seemed to bother Hummel, or hinder his performance. “There is definitely a lot of talent at all levels. In 2018 at high-A, I played against a lot of very good players. Many of those players have moved up to Double-A and some to the big leagues. I’m not sure how big of a hurdle it was, I’d just say players are more consistent and obviously I need to be more consistent to compete as I move up. The skill difference as you move up isn’t very much, but it’s how consistent you can be.”
In 121 games for the Biloxi Shuckers of the Southern League, Hummel hit .249/.384/.450 (147 wRC+) while mashing a career-high 17 home runs, the first time he surpassed double-digit dingers in a single season. But unlike many other players who have experienced power surges in recent years, it wasn’t an attempt to join the “fly-ball revolution” that helped boost his power numbers. “I think the biggest adjustment I made was in my effort, and direction. I stopped trying to do too much and really tried to focus on staying up the middle. I think this helped me be more consistent barreling up the ball. Home runs are pleasant mistakes. For me, I like to think that they are line drives that I just missed.”
“As far as my belief fun things like launch angle and exit velocity, that goes much deeper than just the terminology. Every swing as a launch angle, and every swing has an exit velocity, if you make contact. Obviously as hitters we want to hit the ball hard, so exit velocity a great thing to look at to understand how consistently players are hitting balls hard. It can also help you determine what places in the zone you hit hard, and what pitches.”
“Launch angle, on the other hand, is something that I try not to look at as much. Launch angle is just a byproduct of where you hit the baseball. My biggest issue with people talking about launch angle is that when you’re teaching younger kids to hit the ball in the air because of a “better launch angle”, you aren’t actually teaching them how to hit. You’re just telling them to hit a pop up and a lot of people are dumping their barrel, which makes for an inefficient swing.”
“With professional baseball players, as long as a player continues a proper approach and doesn’t try to consistently hit the ball in the air with a long swing, I think the idea of launch angle is okay. By focusing on getting the ball in the air with the wrong approach, someone could create many holes in their swing. I have definitely told myself to hit the ball in the air before, but I do it by where I hit the baseball, not by manipulating my swing. Personally, I think the idea behind looking into launch angle is a great thing, but how people get to the angle that they want is not always beneficial to being a good hitter.”
Despite his stellar season in 2019, the Brewers elected to leave him off the 40-man roster and therefore unprotected in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. But Hummel remains extremely positive about what his future holds. “I’m ready to help the team win whenever they want to call me up. I think that I can make an impact right now on a major league roster, but obviously we have a lot of very talented players and I will continue to be ready for whenever my name is called.”
Hummel recognizes everything that he has accomplished and how far he has gotten in the game, but he still hungers for more. “I’ve gotten to play at some of the highest levels of baseball, I would consider what I’ve done so far to be a successful career. That being said, I’m not one to settle. I will be happy when I’ve played as long as physically possible and I would love to help a team in the big leagues win a World Series.”
When he does decide it’s time to hang up the spikes, Hummel anticipates remaining involved in the game. “Baseball has always been what I’ve wanted to do. But if I wasn’t playing, I would want to do something in baseball. I would really enjoy working as an agent, or in the sports marketing department for Nike.” His real dream for his post-playing days, however, is to move into a front office role. “What I would really want to do, and hope I can one day when I’m done playing, is to become the general manager of a major league organization. I’ve always wanted to do that and teammates even joke with me and sometimes call me ‘GM Coop.’”
As both a current up-and-coming player as well as a future executive, Cooper understands the value that sabermetrics and advanced statistics have in today’s game. “There are a lot of great statistics such as WAR and wRC+ that can help you determine how much a player is actually benefiting the team. I know that some teams are creating their own stats to in order to do this as well. I think they’re great, and there are some interesting ways of implementing them right now. I think people need to better understand hitting before looking into the stats or metrics, because they only tell you part of the story.”
“As a GM in the future, I think I would look more at something like exit velocity consistency and stats like wRC+, because these things can help you understand the whole hitter. Obviously all these new metrics are very important, they all tell something about what the hitter is doing and can all be used in a proper manner to help hitters. But I think some people go about it the wrong way, more so at the youth and high school level.”
Hummel turns 25 in a few days, and barring something unforeseen, he figures to begin the 2020 season in the mix for at-bats at the Triple-A level. That would put him right on the doorstep of the big leagues, which isn’t a bad place to be for a kid who has been told all throughout his life that he would never make it. “Whether it be size, injury, or playing time, all the way from Little League into professional baseball, I have had to deal with different bumps in the road. Nothing has stopped me, and nothing will!”
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference