July 8, 2014
Super Hits of the 70s
Raimel Tapia has a 70 grade hit tool. There will be other scouts, evaluators, etc. who will debate that grade, but that’s not unusual. People discuss prospect grades all the time. The real discussion here is about the nature of a 70 hit tool; Tapia is just our muse.
Putting a double-plus grade on something like power, speed, or arm strength is, while not easy, more procedural than going that high on hitting ability. You can watch Joey Gallo, Kris Bryant, Miguel Sano, Javier Baez take BP and you know the raw power is at least a 7.
For arm strength you simply need to watch guys like Bryce Harper, Gallo, or Bubba Starling unleash a throw. Sometimes you don’t even need that perfect moment in a game, as they will show of the arm in pre-game activities. Sometimes you don’t even need to be at the yard, as so many of these guys were pitchers in their amateur days and services like Perfect Game remind you that at one time these guys pumped mid-90s off the mound.
For foot speed you need your eyes and a stopwatch. Stopwatches don’t lie, so a simple check of the Accusplit will remind you that yes, Billy Hamilton is an 8 runner on a bad day.
For hitting you need the whole package. You need to see pre-game BP and cage work if possible. You need game action against multiple types of arms to make sure they aren’t feasting on poor minor-league pitching. You need to be up to date on the hitter’s history to make sure he isn’t just on the hot streak of his life.
I asked other scouts to recall the times they had put a 7 on a guy for hitting, and while the answers differed slightly there were several main points that all these scouts mentioned. Of the six scouts nice enough to help, five work for big league teams and one is a professor in name only.
Very few hitters have earned that grade. Only three of the six were able to name a hitter they had gone that high on. Even the hitters who had earned that grade did not do so in an instant. It took time to arrive upon that grade. All provided a framework for how a hitter could earn a 7. All mentioned balance, plate coverage, bat speed, and consistency. Mechanically these scouts looked for the proper bat plane and an innate ability for hard contact. This innate ability was labeled differently. Some labeled it barrel manipulation, others called it bat-to-ball skills, and others called it a neurological skill All of them also mentioned that a 7 hitter has to exude confidence.
I was lucky enough to see a 7 bat in person. I saw him in spring training and knew the bat was good. In May I saw him tear up a strong Charleston pitching staff. A month later he tore it up to the point that I was forced to put a 7 by his name.
Tapia starts from a wide stance that gets wider as the situation becomes more adverse. It’s a natural progression; he doesn’t force himself into a new stance. He might not even be aware of the change. Compare his stance in BP vs. down in the count. This is not a pattern I would advocate for most hitters, but Tapia makes it work.
From his stance he begins his swing by a backward sway. I’m not a huge fan of this movement, and it took me several viewings to understand how Tapia made it work inside his own swing. Most hitters who sway back are doing so in the hopes they can sway their weight forward and get more force into the baseball. Bad idea—it requires precision timing and can be easily disrupted. Tapia’s sway is not a movement based on throwing more force into the ball, but a timing mechanism done extremely early in his sequence.
While I’m not fond of a big negative movement like Tapia features, he doesn’t impede himself in any fashion during his gather. While his hips do float back they only go back as far as his back knee (maybe an inch or two further on some swings, but nothing to worry about). In the batting practice GIF, look at the metal pole running through his back knee. See how the pole runs through the middle of his knee and only exposes a tiny portion of his back hip? If he swayed back too far you would see much more hip drifting behind that pole.
The sway is done mostly for timing. When Tapia reaches the deepest point in his sway he takes a small stride both in height and distance out to a pointed toe. As he strides out he begins to set his hands. His bottom hand moves down and back. This movement helps get the bat to a better height and creates a strong angle in the barrel. Jose Bautista is the big example of this movement. Tapia synchs his hands and feet very well. Even with the sway he waits to move his hands until the moment his stride foot begins to do something.
The crucial time in Tapia's swing is from when his toe first plants to when his heel drops. This is where Tapia tracks the ball and gets his body in position to deliver the barrel. When his toe first touches, Tapia coils his hips inward, independent of his shoulders. His hips are primed and ready. While his toe is still planted he moves his hips forward. His hands do not drift forward even as his body does, which is a very good thing. A hitter should wait to until their heel drops and lower body fires before launching his hands.
Even though Tapia is a 7 bat there are three things I don’t like. I don’t like the stance because of the tendency of wide-stance hitters to have hip drift problems. I don’t like the negative sway because it’s another obstacle a hitter has to get past in order to have some weight transfer while maintaining timing. I don’t like the two-phase stride where he takes a small stride then rocks on a pointed toe before heel plant. I can look past all these things because Tapia makes his swing work every time despite these factors, and each of these factors can be “fixed” if Tapia's results ever were to slip.
That being said, those three things are all tied together in Tapia’s swing and do serve a purpose. The wide stance helps his balance, the sway helps establish timing, and the first portion of his stride occurs at the end of his sway. He makes it work now and his current swing requires all those movements. These movements aren’t superfluous “hitches” that occur in a vacuum. There are improvements that can be made, but they need to be small and incremental.
I can live with the irritating parts of Tapia’s swing because of the magic that happens when his front heel finally plants into the ground. As his heel begins to drop, watch how his backside is already starting to fire. Even on takes he is getting the lower body going. It’s a small moment in the swing but a very telling one. Tapia is dying to hit even when he’s taking a pitch. When he decides to swing at an offering he does so in a quick and powerful fashion.
His back elbow and back knee work in harmony. As his back knee begins to track forward and down, his back elbow is beginning its turn down from shoulder height to about waist high. His lower half works a split second in front of his top half, which is ideal. His lower half engaging first is what builds torque in swing. Remember how the hips can coil independent of the top half? This is how a hitter Tapia’s size can drive the ball with such authority. Imagine the hips as a wound rubber band. When they coil they help store energy in the swing. When the hips uncoil they whip the upper body around:
I have my issues with how Tapia uses his lower body before he launches the bat, but as soon as he does his lower half is a work of art. Every hitter has much bigger and stronger muscles through their hips and legs than in the upper body. Using those big muscles in the legs can be tough. Lots of hitters I’ve worked with think turning their back foot or forcing it off the ground means they are engaging their legs. Not entirely true.
Look for the back knee to be driven down and end up lined up (or even a bit in front of) the back hip. Tapia gets to the position in a perfect fashion. The pictures below show Tapia as close to contact as my camera could pick up. The obvious difference is the hand position. This is due to a difference of pitch location. The more meaningful difference is found from the waist down. These pictures show Tapia is using his legs properly. The cooler thing is how he is not only able to manipulate his bat to drive the ball but also manipulate his lower body.
In the batting practice swing his back knee has been driven forward in front of his back hip. This was the last swing of BP and he was trying to put on a show. What this points to is the idea that when Tapia wants to truly drive a ball he does so with his legs. He doesn’t try to jump the back shoulder or open the hips further; he just drives the backside more aggressively. Dig it.
In the first game picture we see Tapia get solid hip rotation on a pitch that caught the heart of the plate. His back knee has been driven forward under his back hip and the extra leg drive has pulled his back foot onto a pointed toe. He drives his backside and arrives on a pointed toe, as opposed to getting on the toe early and just spinning on the backside.
The last picture is crazy impressive. His back knee is driven forward almost directly under the back hip. It’s limited when compared to his other swings due to the pitch being outside and Tapia having enough body control to delay hip and trunk rotation. This is how elite hitters reach that outside corner and still have force left to drive into the baseball.
Look how the back knee has been driven forward but the back foot is far less pointed than in his other swings. Tapia is manipulating his lower half naturally. This is poetry in motion.
Even with the ability to manipulate his swing one thing never changes. Tapia is always balanced. He finishes in a strong position and is able to get out of the box quickly because he doesn’t have to chop his feet to take off. Even in BP when he tries to go yard on his last few swings he’s not falling all over the place. Balance is very important in hitting and Tapia has it.
Raimel Tapia was born to hit baseballs. Watching how he goes about his craft provides insight into how a “natural” hitter is able to move his body and bat to do maximum damage. The Rockies have an extremely special hitter on their hands. It will be fascinating to watch Tapia progress through the minors and arrive in the big leagues with a skill set many big leaguers can only attain in their dreams.