Narrowing the zone: Tapia shifts approach
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies’ Raimel Tapia has some of the nicest eyes you’ll ever see -- as in a 20/13 vision reading.
“It's not something you know I really focused on. I was just really blessed with it,” Tapia said in Spanish, translated by Rockies bullpen catcher Aaron Muñoz.
Talk about Tapia’s true focus -- unabashedly, the National League batting title -- and those eyes light up.
“I’m going after it,” Tapia said.
In 2020, his first season as a regular, Tapia finished seventh in the NL with a .321 average. This came with an early slump that curtailed his playing time for a few days and some hit-chasing at-bats in the final two weeks. For much of the year, Tapia, playing left field and topping the Rockies’ order, hit like someone who is a legitimate threat to lead the league.
With an expansive Coors Field outfield into which balls can fall, the Rockies can say batting championships are a tradition. The Rockies have won 11 in the team’s 28 seasons.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “I wouldn’t count him out.”
Tapia, 27, may be able to see at 20 feet what someone with normal human vision can see at 13. But in a baseball sense, he needs to improve his eye when it comes to the strike zone.
Tapia possesses not only elite vision but quick hands that coordinate with it and a 6-3 frame that he can contort to unleash different swings. Any discussion of his tools highlights what they call “bat-to-ball” skills. He seemingly make contact no matter where the ball is thrown. This Statcast graphic depicts contact Tapia made outside the strike zone in 2020.
While Tapia is above average at making contact and getting hits out of the zone, which can be found under “PLATE DISCIPLINE,” it’s still a low-percentage method. He hit .179 with a .214 slugging percentage out of the zone -- both above MLB average, but nowhere near the effectiveness of selecting a pitch in the zone.
But Tapia is improving. His out-of-zone swing rate went down by 4.1 percentage points from ’18 to ‘19, and 3.8 percentage points from ’19 to ’20. And his strategy is sharpening. Information from past plate appearances is allowing him to sharpen and narrow his strike zone.
"He bought into that last year,” Rockies hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “Shoot, at one point, you know his first 80-90 at-bats, he was leading the team in walks or was right up there -- 80, 90 at-bats and he had, like, 14 walks. Then he went his next 100 at-bats and I think he was [walked] once or twice because he felt so good swinging the bat.”
Right fielder Charlie Blackmon, himself on the list of Rockies batting champions (2017), said, “[Tapia] came out in a position of need and really was a good leadoff hitter -- super-competitive in the box. That might be his best quality: he's just hard to get out.”
In Blackmon, Tapia has found a kindred spirit. When Blackmon arrived, the two joked on the field about hair -- Blackmon’s iconic beard, Tapia’s braids; this year, it's dyed the color gold of the NFL's New Orleans Saints helmets. But it’s really good when they put their heads together about hitting.
“You’d be surprised,” Tapia said. “Even though we don’t speak the same language, Charlie and I can have a great conversation, especially in the [batting] cage when we can rely on each other. During the game, sometimes I have faced a guy a certain number of times, Charlie will come up and say, ‘What do you got on this guy?’
“Same with [Trevor] Story. And I’ve played with Ryan McMahon since Rookie ball. We can keep each other in line and bounce ideas off each other.”
Tapia’s speed could help with another batting average-chasing activity -- bunting for a hit. From the advent of tracking sprint speed via Statcast, the D-backs’ Tim Locastro is fastest at 30.7 feet per second on plays that require full speed. Tapia is close at 28.2 feet per second. Tapia used that speed for 12 infield hits last season, but was 0-for-1 on attempts for bunt hits. In his career he has 24 infield hits and is 1-for-6 going for bunt hits. Bunt hits are in his Minor League history.
“When you don't feel good at the plate , lay down a bunt -- especially the way he can control the barrel and if the third baseman is up the first baseman is up,” Magadan said. “You know he can slap it right by them.”
Tapia homered just once last season after finishing 2019 with nine (one inside-the-parker). The Rockies say the power will come, but a key to Tapia’s development was in his abandoning mechanics designed to manufacture power, and the Rockies expressing that they appreciate his gap-to-gap game.
“It’s a really good feeling knowing that I know what type of hitter I am, and they know what type of hitter I am,” Tapia said, with clear-eyed ambition.