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Can Tapia earn a long-term starting role?

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New plate approach has Tapia leading off

Raimel Tapia is turning heads in Rockies fandom, and it’s not just people looking for his helmet that’s flown off his head while he zooms around the bases (see video below, courtesy of MLB.com). Over the last two weeks, the Rockies outfielder is becoming a force in the Rockies lineup.

Including Tuesday night, Tapia has started 14 games in a row for the Rockies — a team looking for the right lineup to awaken their offense. Through August 25, the native of the Dominican Republic is hitting .292/.397/.338 with nine runs scored, one double, one triple, seven RBI, four stolen bases, and 11 walks. Even in spite of their small sample size, the numbers are impressive.

While the Rockies’ offense has set a low bar this season, odds are most people wouldn’t have guessed that Tapia would be near the top of the team’s hitting stats at the midway point in the 60-game season. Tapia only has 79 plate appearances, which is eighth most on the team (still more than 50 shy of everyday players like Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, and Nolan Arenado). However, he is still third on the team in batting average (.292), which is notable considering only two Rockies are batting in the .300s and the next highest average is Daniel Murphy (.256). He also ranks second in on-base percentage (.397) and third in walks (11). Tapia is also second in stolen bases at four and his 13 strikeouts are fewer than Sam Hilliard’s 21, Matt Kemp’s 19 and Tony Wolters’ 16, despite fewer at-bats than each of them.

Going into the odd 2020 season, the Rockies’ left fielder position wasn’t set in stone. Ian Desmond opted out, which seemingly gifted more playing time to young players like Tapia and Sam Hilliard. Now 30 games in, the Rockies have lost 10 of their last 14 games, but have won back-to-back games against the Diamondbacks and are back to a .500 record. David Dahl started off in a massive slump and is now on the Injured List with a back injury, which has opened up the leadoff spot in the lineup that Tapia is vying to keep. Paired with the team’s hitting inconsistency that has made watching games absolutely maddening, a carousel of lineups has given 26-year-old Tapia a chance to shine and he’s trying to make the most of it.

From bench to starter

After playing in only six of the Rockies’ first 14 games, the left-handed hitting Tapia has since played in the last 16, including 14 starts in a row. In his first 15 at-bats of the season, Tapia struck out seven times. Combined with a .133 batting average, that ratio moved him out of the lineup and onto the bench.

He used the time to work with Rockies coaches Dave Magadan and Jeff Salazar on plate discipline to reduce strikeouts and increase walks, backing off the “swing-out-of-your-shoes” style and moving to a more controlled approach that can lead to more base hits. He has a lot of determination to do so because it’s a short season, and with depth in the outfield — even with Dahl’s injury — he has to produce or he’ll be back on the bench.

In a feature from MLB.com’s Thomas Harding, Tapia was quoted as saying, “I’ve been working on looking for my pitch and not swinging on a pitch that may not be the one I need to be swinging at. I’m just being really diligent about working on my swing and knowing what to swing at.”

Salazar says Tapia is very coachable and takes instruction well, and Magadan speaks Spanish so he is able to advise Tapia in his native language.

In the offseason, Tapia put on 15 pounds of muscle. In spring training, Tapia took the advice to ditch his big front leg kick. But he and the coaches have now brought it back along with a very bouncy approach filled with movement from his back to front leg, which is kicked back more towards first base before the pitch. He still has the crab-mimicking tapping elbows and crouched legs, but a better eye that has landed him on base more often. Even though he has since cooled down, he returned from his benching to go 8-for-17 from August 11-16. In Monday night’s losing-streak-snapping win against Arizona, Tapia went 3-for-5 with an RBI.

With Dahl sidelined and Hampson hitting later in the order after taking his turn at leadoff hitter, Tapia has led off in six straight games — two wins and four losses.

In six games as the leadoff hitter, Tapia has hit .273/.448/.273 with six walks, two stolen bases, one RBI, one runs scored, and four strikeouts in 29 plate appearances. In four games in the sixth spot, Tapia is hitting .231/.333/.391. But in seven games in the seventh spot, Tapia has hit his best: .304/.370/.391. Regardless of where he hits, Tapia is fun to watch and brings more possibility to each at-bat or appearance on the base paths.

Finding his place

In 2019, Tapia flashed power and his speed, hitting .275/.309/.415 with nine homers, 23 doubles, five triples, 44 RBI and 54 runs scored in 138 games. He has filled out more and is gaining more experience every day, but still needs to find his consistency to earn a long-term starting role for the Rockies.

When Tapia faces off against left-handed pitching, he smashes, as evidenced by his six hits in 14 at-bats. This includes his only extra-base hits of the season (a triple and a double), as well as four of his six RBI. As opposed to hitting .426/.529/.643 against lefties, Tapia is only hitting .255/.361/.255 against right-handed pitching. The inconsistency is just as stark when he’s at Coors Field vs. on the road as he’s hitting .407/.529/.519 at home and .211/.295/.211 away.

One area where Tapia is shining is with runners in scoring position, where he’s hitting .444/.500/.556 in 12 plate appearances. Again, it’s a small sample size but vastly better than the Rockies as a team, who are hitting .263/.333/.387 with runners in scoring position. One of Tapia’s best highlights of the season came in the 10th inning against the Astros on August 18. After Houston intentionally walked Daniel Murphy to get to Tapia, he made them pay with an RBI single, which put the Rockies ahead (even though they eventually went on to lose). Tapia is even better with two outs, hitting .471/.591/.647 with four RBI and his double and triple in 22 plate appearances.

With his speed in the outfield, Tapia has the potential to make great plays and chase down hard-to-get-to fly balls and line drives. In an analytic breakdown of the Rockies’ outfield play so far this season (in a feature that is well worth a read), Purple Row’s Renee Dechert points out that Tapia is two outs about average as a fielder, which is tied for the best on the team with Hampson. He has 23 putouts this season and one outfield assist, though he also has to work on his defensive consistency in the small things like hitting the cutoff man and fielding balls cleanly.

Off the field, Tapia revealed his desire to help his community, stepping up to provide aid in the COVID-19 pandemic when he organized a food drive and distributed food and supplies to 150 families in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris in April. He also shared a video of him hitting into a net with his farm animals in the background, while he continued training in the Dominican Republic.

As a side note, Tapia’s crab batting stance is entertaining and even more likable considering how much he loves eating crab and because he helps “fund a family crab farm to honor his father, who would hunt for crabs to feed the family as he grew up.”

‘Tap’ping his potential

On July 14, Thomas Harding wrote a feature about Tapia’s lofty goals of winning MVP and his driven work ethic, including a quote from Magadan that seems to be on its way to coming to fruition:

“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.”

While the Rockies’ 2020 postseason playoff hopes might be slipping away unless they can right the ship quickly, Tapia is showing flashes of why he could be an integral part of the Rockies’ success not only this season but down the road. If he can start to hit and field more consistently, he could be a catalytic spark for a team that badly needs a jumpstart.