SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- All the eating was a little much for Rockies outfielder Raimel Tapia in the beginning.
“At 6 a.m., 9 a.m., at noon, 4, 8 and 11 p.m., so [many] different meals throughout the day,” Tapia said.
But this spring, Tapia is up about 15-20 pounds (to around 190) from last season, thanks to his dietary changes, a training program and a maturing 6-foot-3, 26-year-old frame. And he's letting his swing eat, to the tune of a .355/.394/.613 slash line (11-for-31).
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the Rockies’ home park, is the only one in the Cactus League that measures Statcast data. The technology is new this year, meaning there is no point of comparison for past springs. But so far this year, Tapia’s exit velocity on his four extra-base hits has measured an average of 105 mph. Last season, Tapia’s 37 extra-base hits (nine home runs, including one inside-the-parker, five triples and 23 doubles) averaged 95.3 mph.
For perspective, last year’s exit velocity was right along the definition of a hard-hit ball. Of the 277 hitters with 25 or more extra-base hits, Tapia’s average ranked 264th.
As evidenced by the above photo from his private Instagram (shared with his permission), Tapia arrived with bigger arms and more defined muscle thanks to the program of fitness trainer Alex Madrigal in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
This is more than cosmetic. One always looks better playing than sitting the bench.
“At first it was a little hard for me, and I really didn’t want to follow it, but he’s the trainer and he had my best interests at heart,” Tapia said. “But I knew that following that schedule was going to make me a better baseball player and was going to help me support my family and follow my dreams.”
A logical look at roster construction suggests the left-handed-hitting Tapia (.275/.309/.415 last season, his full year in the Majors) and right-swinging Ian Desmond could platoon in left field. Tapia also could move to center or right, depending on rest days for Charlie Blackmon and David Dahl.
But the volume of Tapia’s opportunity will depend on pairing his muscle with a strong approach. Last year, his fortunes seemed linked to playing time; however, it’s better to be consistent and justify playing at all times.
The problem was that at the start of Spring Training, Tapia’s swing was full of timing issues. It featured something between a leg kick and a hover, which created a lean toward home plate. All the motion made it difficult to decipher pitch and spin. An off-balance swing with a long finish may make it look like he was trying to hit home runs, but often he was trying to recover from lateness and poor decisions.
Hitting coach Dave Magadan, who speaks fluent Spanish and has productive conversations with Tapia, and assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar, who has worked with Tapia since his Minor League days, gave a no-uncertain-words edict. Be in better position to hit; playing time depends on it.
The coaches respected Tapia’s instinct and his willingness to listen. Tapia came up with a deliberate toe-tap. And the ball began to fly off his bat.
“He took that to heart,” Salazar said. “So when we played at Texas [March 8], he led off the game with an opposite-field home run.”
The improved timing showed up during his two-run double Tuesday off the Reds’ Dylan Rheault.
Under the new setup, according to Salazar, Tapia has chased (swung outside the strike zone) on just nine of his last 26 opportunities, or 19.2 percent. Tapia’s career chase rate, according to Statcast, is 41.8 percent, and last season’s was 40.9.
“He’s worked hard on his swing, but his essence of hitting is bat-to-ball skills,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “From the time he was hitting on the back fields of the Dominican, he was able to put bat to ball.”
And oh yeah, he's stronger.
“Shoot, I don’t know if he can gain an ounce of fat,” Salazar said. “I’m sure if he eats cake and ice cream, he burns it right off.”
Not to worry. Rice, bananas, chicken, fish and crab -- he has taken his big league earning to help fund a family crab farm to honor his father, who would hunt for crabs to feed the family as he grew up.
Now, he’s crushing baseballs.
“It’s not easy,” Tapia said. “But that’s all the work that I’ve been putting in over the offseason, making myself stronger.”