DENVER -- Rockies manager Bud Black has a catch phrase for the intermittent bolts of lightning, occasionally thunder, outfielder Raimel Tapia provides: “Tap Time!”
With his first clear opportunity for regular starts, Tapia, 26, believes 2020 is truly his time.
“My goal would be to win MVP,” Tapia said in Spanish through a translator on Tuesday -- but he was sure to say the three magic letters clearly, so they would be understood in any tongue. “I’ve worked a lot and I’ve worked really hard. During the break, I was training and getting myself strong. I think that’s a good goal to have for myself.”
Forecasters already are musing that this 60-game, pandemic-affected season could produce strange Award winners. If he realizes his dream, Tapia would qualify.
From 2016-18, Tapia bounced between the big leagues and Triple-A, always with blazing Minor League numbers and variable Major League performance. Out of Minor League options last season, Tapia had wild production swings, but he finished with a .275/.309/.415 slash line and nine home runs. A unique 2020 factor -- veteran Ian Desmond’s decision to elect not to play -- gave Tapia his clear shot at playing time, as opposed to being the left-handed feature of a platoon.
There is competition, with power-swinging, lefty-hitting Sam Hilliard hoping to build on a solid two-month debut in 2019, although the grueling condensed schedule and the designated hitter in the National League could help many folks get an opportunity.
But Tapia feels prepared after an apprenticeship as a prospect and a fledgling Major Leaguer. And two factors fuel Tapia’s dream, and make it not seem so crazy:
• He hit upon an adjustment during Spring Training -- a halting toe-tap -- that had the ball leaving his bat with velocity unseen at this level. And the compulsion to chase pitches outside the zone began melting away.
• Since the Rockies began play in 1993, nine different players have won 11 batting championships. Tapia’s bat-to-ball skills and Coors Field could make him a threat to become the 10th in a 162-game season. And who knows what oddities can occur in 60 games?
Black has challenged Tapia to be on time for "Tap Time."
“He’s had enough time in and around the big leagues to know what this big league competition is all about and how he needs to play his game to be a contributor. And he’s ready for that. He’s ready for production. His expectation is that, as is ours for him.”
Tapia took that adjustment to the Dominican Republic after the March 12 shutdown to continue the quiet work on his swing and in the weight room -- to maintain the muscle he added during the winter. And while stardom is still Tapia's dream, he contributed to his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, like a star -- quietly, before a fan Instagram account publicized it.
Watching Tapia progress as a hitter has been visual eye candy. He popped up in Spring Training games displaying a crouch, known as “The Crab,” with two strikes and extended his at-bats to notable proportions. He has adjusted that, but his mannerisms, from smelling the bat to some bat-pointing and shoulder touching, give off a quirky nature.
Tapia prefers Spanish in interviews, so English speakers feel they aren’t getting the whole story. But those close to Tapia say he is methodical and analytical in the vein of teammates such as former batting champion Charlie Blackmon and sluggers Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, and much like Ryan McMahon in that big production seems like a distinct possibility.
Tapia's family features youth coaches and former Minor Leaguers, and he was trained in the Dominican by former big leaguer Rafael Soriano. Tapia doesn’t just dream about hitting. He dreams hitting specifics.
“My routine every night before I go to bed is to put on video of the pitcher I will be facing the next day,” Tapia said. “I’ll watch that, study the pitcher, watch the pitches.
“My brothers will help me out and send me video.”
Rockies hitting coach Dave Magadan has grandparents from Spain and speaks the language with enough aplomb to have deep conversations with Tapia. Having seen Tapia from the other side when he was the D-backs' hitting coach, Magadan was happy to join the Rockies last season and connect.
“With ‘Tap,’ and he’ll agree with this, but when he’s under control and he’s controlling the strike zone, I’m not going to say he’s going to be a 100-walk guy, but when he’s swinging at the pitches that he needs to swing at and he’s got his effort level under control, he can do a lot of damage in this league,” said Magadan, who noted that Tapia was one of the team’s better hitters after last year’s All-Star break, when Tapia slashed .290/.321/.375 overall and had a .304 average in July and .351 in August.
Tapia needs to smooth out his full game. For example, his baserunning could stand improvement, although he his refusal to become tentative is seen as a plus. There were some fielding mishaps and his tracking of balls toward the wall needed improvement, but to Tapia's credit, he put in extra work pregame and maintained his game energy.
Now is Tapia’s chance to move from apprentice to certified starter, at least. His aspirations are bigger than that.