Can Raimel Tapia's Unorthodox Swing Trump Baseball's Conventional Wisdom?
Raimel Tapia hits unlike anyone who has ever played baseball. How he's regarded says as much about baseball as it does him.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan McMahon will never forget the first time he saw Raimel Tapia hit.
It was 2013, rookie ball in the Colorado Rockies organization, and McMahon, then an 18-year-old third baseman, watched from the dugout as Tapia, a 19-year-old outfielder, stepped to the plate. The swing was quirky, but not in a bad way. Rolando Fernandez, the Rockies' vice president of international scouting and development, compares Tapia's swing to Rod Carew's famously fluid motion.
Then the at-bat reached two strikes, and things got weird. The left-handed Tapia, who until then was hitting with his back leg mostly straight, and with a moderate bend in his front knee, lowered into a deep crouch, his chin resting nearly level with the catcher's mask. In the span of one pitch, he had dropped his eye level nearly six inches. His body contracted into something of a human question mark.
"I said, 'What the hell is this guy doing?" McMahon recalls. "Is this a joke or is he for real? Like, did he lose a bet?'"
McMahon doesn't remember whether Tapia got a hit in that particular at-bat. What's certain is that he didn't have to wait too much longer to see Tapia's funky two-strike approach pay dividends, because all Raimel Tapia has done in five seasons of minor league ball is hit. Over 1,972 career plate appearances, his career slash line is .314/.363/.443. He hasn't batted below .305 since he was 17 years old.
So it isn't too surprising that, today, the Rockies see Tapia alongside McMahon, outfielder David Dahl, and 2015 first round pick Brendan Rodgers as future tent poles of their major league lineup.
The outside world is more bearish. McMahon and Dahl are consensus top-100 prospects. Tapia, despite his otherworldly production, is not. While ESPN's Keith Law ranked him inside his top 80 and Baseball Prospectus inside their top 50, Baseball America and MLB.com omitted him from their lists entirely. Noted prospect guru John Sickels tabbed him as only the ninth-best prospect in the Rockies organization. FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth, in his own (positive) assessment of Tapia, concedes that "his swing has been scrutinized by evaluators for years now." Even Baseball Prospectus, Tapia's most dogged advocates, cannot arrive at a consensus: In January, one expert described Tapia's hitting ability as "preternatural," eight days after another declared that "the longer you see him not change his approach at the plate, the harder it is to be optimistic."
To some degree, debate goes hand-in-hand with any sort of prospect evaluation. In Tapia's case, some of the criticism is based around the qualities he's still missing— body mass and power, in particular. But it's unusual for so much of the skepticism around a prospect to center around that player's very best quality. Rangers prospect Joey Gallo is blessed with one of the most powerful swings in the world and has demonstrated it countless times over, so evaluators concern themselves with his strikeouts rather than his ability to bash home runs. It's anyone's guess whether Yankees shortstop prospect Jorge Mateo's glove will eventually force a position change, yet no one expends energy debating his foot speed after he stole 81 bases across two levels last season.
But with Tapia, there are as many questions over his calling card—hitting—as the rest of his game. Few legitimate prospects, if any at all, have inspired such rampant distrust of their abilities despite wild success.
Of course, none of them go about it the way Tapia does, either.
"I've never seen anybody in a deep crouch hit like that with two strikes," says Zach Wilson, the Rockies' senior director of player development. "And so if you've never seen that before—which most people haven't—and all of a sudden that shows up, you're going 'Whoa, what is happening?'... It's easy to look from the outside and go, 'That's not going to work.'"
There's no case study to point to as evidence that it can. But Wilson and the rest of the Rockies organization expect it will for Raimel Tapia. To them, Tapia's skeptics have allowed conformity to overwhelm common sense. "This is not a guy you want to 'cookie cutter' with," Wilson argues.
Whether or not you agree depends on how liable you are to believe Colorado's assertion that Tapia's skills and makeup transcend the way they're packaged.
The Rockies never saw Tapia's unorthodox approach as an impediment to signing him out of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. When he was 16, Frank Roa, the scout assigned to the area told his bosses: "I got the best hitter in San Pedro de Macoris." It later led to Fernandez negotiating a contract directly with Alfonso Soriano, a former teammate of Tapia's older brother who serves as Raimel's mentor.
When you ask people in the organization now about Tapia's stance, and his two-strike crouch, they all return to the same talking point as Roa. Bring up the swing to Nolan Arenado, and Colorado's franchise player discusses how his own motion was scrutinized, too, and that players like Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield were blueprints for how unconventional hitters can thrive. Ask Carlos Gonzalez, and he simply says, "Man, he can hit."
Back in San Pedro de Macoris, Tapia was as thin as a greyhound, and while his hand-eye coordination immediately stood out to scouts, he was too weak to dependably knock the ball out of the infield. Initially, the Rockies slapped a "follow" designation on him instead of signing him outright. But a few months later, they brought him back for another tryout. The catch: He would be hitting against Rockies pitching prospects Esmil Rogers and Juan Morillo, each of whom sat in the mid 90's with movement and had already pitched in the U.S.
"And he did not swing and miss once," Fernandez says. "As a matter of fact, he hit a couple of bullets up the middle. And that's when we said 'we've got to sign this kid'... Kids that age don't do that."
There was something else, too: Before Tapia settled in against each pitcher, he pointed his bat directly at them. It was a challenge and, as the Rockies would come to learn, the first manifestation of an unwavering confidence that Tapia wears like armor. "The more credentials the pitcher he faces [has], the more excited he is about approaching that guy," Fernandez says. Dahl still remembers the time he quizzed Tapia on his approach to facing left-handers. "Mucho swagger, papi," Tapia told him.
That, not the loose swing or the goofy crouch, is what makes the Rockies so sure Tapia will hit in the majors. They believe that along with his overall athleticism and hand-eye coordination—physical traits that even Tapia's most ardent critics agree are exceptional—that the intangibles will dictate his success or failure, the way they would with any other player.
"It was clear, easily, that Tapia was the right type of guy, both who he was from a makeup and character standpoint, but also how he played the game," Wilson says.
"He's not worried about what anybody thinks," he says. "He's not worried about how it looks. He's not worried about who's pitching. When he's in the box, you're in a fight with Tapia. And a lot of times, he's going to win."
The two-strike approach is Tapia's brand of guerilla warfare, literally digging in for every extra inch he can take. Accordingly, he is an aggressive swinger. Tapia has walked in fewer than four percent of his career plate appearances. This, unsurprisingly, only makes evaluators even more squeamish: Cracking the big leagues as an extremely contact-dependent hitter is difficult enough. Trying to do so with serious mechanical questions looming about your swing is borderline impossible.
But Colorado believes that the same quirks some analysts hone in on as warning signs also distract them from something they'd notice with a more conventional prospect: Tapia possesses a natural aptitude for hitting. There's no other way to account for the batting averages he has compiled while maintaining a strikeout rate below 20% every season. He's willing, and able, to make adjustments: His base, once so wide it engulfed the plate, has drawn noticeably tighter, while the deep crouch is gradually evolving into more of a hunch.
"This is not a guy you have to talk hitting with a whole bunch," Wilson says, and for the most part, the Rockies don't. Fernandez recalls a recent conversation he had with Duane Espy, the 45-year baseball veteran who serves as Colorado's minor league hitting coordinator and the final arbiter on players' swings. "Espy mentioned, 'You know what? I just tell Tapia, keep hitting. Keep doing your thing. I tell Tapia nothing. I enjoy watching Tapia.'"
The looming question is what happens if—or when—it stops working.
On one hand, Tapia has already proven capable of adapting after pitchers tried to exploit his stance—in two strike counts and otherwise. On the other, he's still a long way from conforming to baseball's established norms. If Tapia finds himself overmatched at higher levels, no one can even say for certain if "cookie cutter-ing him," to borrow Wilson's parlance, would even jive with someone so unique.
Raimel Tapia looks like he's 22 going on 14.
He stood 6-foot-1 at the time of his signing but since sprouted to 6-foot-3; the rest of his body is still catching up. Tapia is wiry strong but his uniform still sags and he patrols the outfield on tapered legs. Perhaps his most striking physical feature is his ostrich-like neck. The least is his head, which gets swallowed up by the brim of his hat. His cheeks are barely smudged with facial hair. He eats like a teenager, too: Dahl says that Tapia regularly badgers teammates during spring training to dine with him at Oregano's, an Italian chain in Phoenix, where he exclusively orders their half-pound pizza cookie dessert.
But as young he appears, and still is, Tapia has his convictions. He cheerfully but steadfastly believes he will be a big league success, so much so that Fernandez gets a kick out of needling him about still being a minor leaguer. ("Oh, how that drives him," he chuckles.) And he has zero intention of abandoning his two-strike approach.
"They can work on my swing or something else but not with that with two strikes," he says through minor league teammate Carlos Estevez, acting as an interpreter. "The best advice I got is when things start going backward and you're hitting the ball well but not landing, just keep being aggressive and keep swinging because they're going to start landing at one point. Don't destroy what you created in five years now by changing your stance or your mechanics or your whatever."
According to Tapia, he's hit this way since he first picked up a bat at age five. There is a method to his madness: Crouching down not only shrinks the strike zone but shortens his swing so he can flick his already quick wrists even faster. Even he can't figure out what inspired him to try it. "It just came from my heart," he says. "This thing is like a gift that God gave me... even if it's ugly."
It matters to him that he succeeds doing it his way. And the more he dominates doing it, the more plausible it becomes to wonder whether Tapia is the sort of occasional oddity that shatters baseball stereotypes. Nobody figured 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve could become the best second baseman in the game, much less knock 15 home runs in a season. Chris Sale's praying mantis frame and Jai alai delivery should be a recipe for Tommy John surgery; instead, he reigns as one of baseball's most durable aces. Maybe Tapia can be an anomaly like them.
Even after Frank Roa gave his lofty assessment of Tapia's abilities, Fernandez was taken aback the first time he saw the two-strike approach. He figured it needed to be junked, because that's what two decades of scouting drilled into him. Sooner or later, he imagined he'd instruct Tapia on the proper fundamentals.
Instead, Fernandez says, "I think he's teaching us."
Sports are also a bottom-line business. If Tapia can manage to climb high enough, quick enough, he'll safely cross the arbitrary threshold for what's aesthetically possible in baseball. He might even set a new baseline.
"When you have success, nobody's going to question it," Arenado says. "When he gets older and starts getting into the league, people are going to be asking him how to hit like him when he starts putting up his numbers."
It's already begun. According to outfielder Brandon Barnes, much of the clubhouse has learned to stop what they're doing and pay attention when Tapia takes batting practice. Arenado proudly counts himself among that group; recently, after leaving a spring training game, he delayed his postgame lift to watch Tapia finish an at-bat from the clubhouse television. All last year, little kids across Modesto, Calif.—home to the Rockies' High-A affiliate—pantomimed Tapia's deepest crouches at games.
None of them—not Fernandez or Wilson, Arenado or Barnes or those kids in Modesto—have a clue why, and how, Raimel Tapia can do the things he does. That goes for Ryan McMahon, too. Three years after that first encounter with Tapia, he's no closer to cracking the code.
"I have no idea," he says with a bewildered sigh. "But the kid rakes."