When the Toronto Blue Jays sent Randal Grichuk to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Raimel Tapia, it was obvious what their intentions were.
A high-contact, speedy, left-handed hitter, Tapia offered a dramatically different skillset than Grichuk, which was important because Toronto was looking to balance its roster before the year began. Except now, about a quarter of the way into the 2022 season, Tapia’s previously neutral approach at the plate has turned into one of extremes.
Instead of rolling with his ground-ball-heavy offensive profile, which worked in Colorado, Tapia has changed himself as a hitter. MLB’s leader last season in ground ball percentage (68 percent), the 28-year-old has whittled that rate down to 45.1 percent in 2022, while his fly ball and line drive rates have climbed back to the league norms.
It’s a 180-degree flip from who Tapia has been the last several years. In theory, these splits should make him a better hitter, but the numbers haven’t translated to success — his slash line of .228/.261/.276 through 38 games reflects that.
The advanced stats aren’t kind to Tapia either. His walk rate has dropped from 7.5 percent in 2021 to just 4.4 percent this season, and his strikeout rate has climbed from 13.1 percent to 19.9 percent in 2022. It’s obvious the Blue Jays are remaking Tapia’s swing, and he’s still getting comfortable with it.
“He's adjusting to, I think, trying to free himself up a little bit more,” Blue Jays assistant hitting coach Hunter Mense said. “He’s very hit-oriented, in terms of just wanting to move balls in play and hit balls on the ground, I think, in Colorado.
“So [Jays hitting coach] Guillermo [Martinez] has done an unbelievable job of helping him to be freed up to allow himself to drive balls or try and drive balls in the air.”
The process of freeing Tapia up has been made easier by the outfielder’s excellent feel at the plate, Mense said. Within a game, Tapia will move around in the batter’s box until he feels comfortable, and that willingness to adjust his approach so often is rare for a hitter nowadays.
“The adaptability and competitiveness you see in those situations,” Mense said, “sometimes guys have a hard time doing it because they're so set in one way, and they're worried about what's going to happen if they get away from it. So [Tapia] is good with being able to make those adjustments on the fly.”
Tapia’s shiftiness at the plate is where his nickname, "The Crab," came from. Despite owning a farm in the Dominican Republic that houses lots of crabs, it’s the way Tapia twitches his elbows in his batting stance – mimicking the opening and closing of a crab’s claws – that earned him his crustaceous moniker.
Now the Blue Jays are hoping to translate all that energy and movement into some legitimate results at the plate. At a slender 6-foot-3, Tapia packs a surprising amount of power into his swing, using his long arms to create a lot of torque on balls close to his body.
Mense estimates Tapia’s hit between seven to 10 balls this year with an exit velocity of between 106 and 109 miles per hour. That mark is supported by Tapia’s improved average exit velocity, which has ticked up a touch to 86.4 miles per hour. The freed-up, harder-swinging approach hasn’t come without its pitfalls, though.
Tapia is chasing pitches out of the zone at a career-high clip. Only Javier Baez of the Detroit Tigers chases more frequently than Tapia’s 44.7 percent, and Tapia’s 68 percent chase rate with two strikes is a startling career-high.
“That's probably the biggest thing,” Mense said. “He's chased a lot in his career, but not as much as he has this year. And I think that's just him taking more chances and wanting to try and catch balls out front a little bit more, and so he's committing to pitches a little bit earlier.”
Mense explained the Blue Jays are comfortable with Tapia chasing and whiffing more because it shows he’s trying to do a bit more damage with each swing. When runners are on or he’s hitting in a clutch situation, it’s okay for him to expand the zone because, ultimately, his contact ability is his best tool. Mense pointed to Tapia’s nine-pitch walk-off sac fly against the Boston Red Sox on April 27 as a good example of his swing-heavy approach paying off.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) April 27, 2022
A strong structure of support has also helped Tapia buy into these adjustments, even if they aren’t working just yet. That’s not to say Tapia’s coaches in Colorado didn’t back him, but he feels a unique connection with Toronto’s staff.
“Here, I feel the chemistry with the coaches, like I said, with [Guillermo] and Hunter,” Tapia said through a team interpreter. “It's their confidence. They give me confidence, and when you give that to a player, you've been successful.”
The instructions are there — they’ve been there all season — now it’s time for the hitter to execute, because this slumping Blue Jays lineup desperately needs a hot streak from someone like Tapia.
“He's got an innate ability to be able to hit the ball, and he’ll get back to it,” Mense said. “It's just a matter of time.”
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