The Colorado Rockies are in first place. This is good! But they are not there on the strength of their offense, which has been not good. While the team is (as usual) still good at scoring runs, they are 27th in baseball in wRC+ (82) and 19th in fWAR (5.9). Really, were it not for the combined efforts of Mark Reynolds, Charlie Blackmon, and Nolan Arenado, the Rockies would likely be wasting the great pitching (seventh in fWAR) they’ve gotten thus far.
Manager Bud Black has tried just about everything to get the offense going, short of pulling the lineup out of a hat. Finally, on Wednesday, he decided to bench one of the team’s most struggling sluggers, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (.215/.292/.336). With Gerardo Parra on the DL and David Dahl so far from coming back Rockies fans are beginning to wonder if he was some sort of beautiful fever dream, Black put in rookie outfielder Raimel Tapia.
Tapia (no. 4 PuRP) has earned himself a devoted following among prospect hounds, setting the record for the most times the word “preternatural” has been invoked to describe a player’s swing. Since coming stateside in 2013, Tapia’s worst batting line in a season was when he hit .305/.333/.467 in Modesto in 2015. In 276 Triple-A plate appearances, he’s hit .354/.380/.512. So, yeah, he can put the bat to ball with the best of them.
Until this week, though, it hadn’t gone too well for Tapia at the major league level. He’s been called up three times now, twice for players taking paternity leave, and didn’t earn his first hit until June 10 against the Cubs, a stretch of ten games and 16 plate appearances. Then on Wednesday he filled in for CarGo and made an immediate impact: 4-for-4 with a double and three runs scored in a win. Then on Thursday night, he went 2-for-5 with two runs batted in, including the game winner in the bottom of the ninth.
It shouldn’t be considered a coincidence that Tapia started hitting the once he was guaranteed two starts in a row. There is legitimate fear that when a player of his caliber and pedigree gets pulled between Triple-A and the majors a team risks stunting his growth. Couple that with the lack of regular playing time for the Rockies, and it’s no wonder he struggled. But now that he’s proven—both to himself and to the rest of the world—that he is, indeed, capable of hitting major league pitching, he could be the spark the Rockies offense needs.
On Thursday night, Rockies hitters struck out 13 times over nine innings. Players like Desmond (.318 OBP, 71 wRC+), CarGo (.295 OBP, 49 wRC+), and Trevor Story (.308 OBP, 68 wRC+) are struggling to put the ball in play, something that Tapia, during his minor league career, no trouble with. His
bizarre unique two-strike approach has helped him keep the ball in play; his career-low BABIP came during his time in Double-A last year, when it was .349.
The value of “putting the ball in play” can be debated based on an individual player’s skillset. But when fellow outfielders Desmond and Cargo are struggling as much as they are, it makes sense, at least in the short term, to find every opportunity for Tapia, the likely right-fielder of the future, to get regular at-bats.
In a contending year, it is imperative that the Rockies are quick to cut down on playing time for guys who are drags on the roster (looking at you, bullpen). Every plate appearance, every batter faced has to be optimized. Sometimes that means riding a young kid who is hot, especially if he shows the history and skillset to keep it going, regardless of how much his veteran peers are being paid.
Look, just let him start until he stops hitting. But with a preternatural hitter like Tapia, don’t be surprised if that turns into a Wally Pipp situation for the Rockies.