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August 8, 2014

Painting the Black

Seven Days with Oscar

by R.J. Anderson


Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak accomplished two goals when he traded Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Red Sox for John Lackey and a prospect: 1) he improved a distressed rotation, and 2) he ensured additional playing time for Oscar Taveras. Deducing which development excites St. Louis fans more requires no poll, as Taveras is not just a fascinating young talent with star potential, but a fascinating young talent with star potential who fans feel has been mismanaged.

Taveras, now considered a key to the Cardinals' competitive hope, had an uncertain role before the trade. He had started in just five of the 10 games preceding the trade—an unusual rate for any left-handed hitter, let alone a top prospect. The sporadic playing time, however vexing for Taveras and fans, appeared designed by manager Mike Matheny to appease his veterans and motivate his rookie. “We’re going to continue to give Oscar opportunities, hoping that he takes off and plays the way he can play," Matheny said on July 23rd, eight days before the deal. "Oscar could be one of those guys that force our hand if he starts taking advantage of the opportunities he gets.”

Though the trade, not Taveras, forced the Cardinals' hand, he has taken advantage of the opportunity. Taveras has started and notched a hit in each of the six games since, resulting in a .300/.391/.550 line. Whether this the beginning of his ascent or simply a well-timed hot streak is anyone's guess. (The Cardinals, who rank 29th in runs scored, no doubt pray for the former.) Free from doubt is Taveras's increasing status as must-see MLB.tv. For proof of that, consider these highlights from a recent seven-game stretch.

Taveras hits a home run

Most scouting reports on Taveras warn that his aggressive, bordering on overconfident approach could make him a liability against shrewd pitchers. If so, a matchup against Odrisamer Despaigne, a junkballer, ought to expose Taveras. But that's not what happened in their first meeting. Instead, Taveras watched the first two pitches he saw in the at-bat—a cutter high and tight and a fastball off the plate away—then yanked a misplaced changeup into the right-field stands for his second big-league home run.

The home run, though not a moon shot or even aesthetically impressive, was interesting for another reason: it was the product of scouting. "I was looking for a changeup, and he threw it," Taveras told reporters after the game. Why he looked changeup is unclear. Despaigne's seasonal numbers suggest that Taveras—or any left-handed hitter ahead in the count—should have expected a fastball or cutter. Despaigne had provided no in-game hints that a changeup was likely, as he had thrown only one—on a 1-0 count to the previous batter—prior to the home-run pitch.

That leaves three possible explanations: 1) Taveras focused on a different sample when scouting Despaigne (i.e. aggressive batters); 2) Taveras guessed and got lucky; 3) Taveras knew his own scouting report well enough to believe a pitcher would alter his usual pitch selection in order to throw something slower. No matter the reason, it was a nice job by the rook.

Taveras whiffs on an offspeed pitch

One might suspect a week of Taveras would include many swings through changeups, over curveballs, and inside sliders. Yet, as with the Despaigne encounter, that belief proved incorrect. In fact, Taveras whiffed on one secondary pitch all week—a Jesse Hahn curveball. Hahn stayed true to the scouting report, starting Taveras with consecutive changeups before dropping the hammer for the strikeout. The kicker? Taveras tipped the pitch, according to the umpire.

Taveras records extra bases on a pitch outside of the strike zone

No Dominican bad-ball hitter can hang around for long before eliciting Vladimir Guerrero comparisons. Taveras has evoked them in the past for plays like this one.

The pitch is a 2-2 backdoor slider—albeit not a good one—from Kyle Lohse that never has a chance to sneak over the plate. That's in part because it started too wide, and in part because Taveras refuses to risk the strikeout. Somehow, he not only manages to make decent contact with the pitch, but hits it to the second baseman's left side. Terms like bat control and plate coverage are used a lot these days. This is what those attributes look like:

By the way, Taveras turned that into a double thanks to the defense's positioning and handling of the ball.

Taveras whiffs on a pitch he shouldn't have

The violence and torque in Taveras' swing belies his precision with the bat. He made contact on almost every swing he took during the week, and so when he did miss, it was a noteworthy occasion. The empty swing he regretted the most came against Blaine Boyer. Taveras watched Boyer's first two fastballs catch the outside corner and sail wide. He then got a gift in the form of a thigh-high fastball on the inner half of the plate. Unfathomably, Taveras swung under the pitch:

If Taveras saw that exact pitch in that exact spot 100 times in a row, he would probably relate better to Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day." He would also split the gap or send it over the fence more often than not. Oh well. Taveras singled up the middle on the next pitch.

Taveras adjusts to a pitcher

When Joe Magrane called Devil Rays games, he implored James Shields to double- and triple-up on his changeup. "Don't give the hitters too much credit," he'd say. Taveras received little to no credit from Wily Peralta, who threw him five outside sinkers on six pitches. After watching and fighting a few off, Taveras adjusted and slapped one down the left-field line. He then advanced to second after the ball squeezed through Khris Davis' legs. "Nice piece of hitting," an announcer worse than Magrane would say.

Taveras takes a walk

There are four varieties of walk: intentional, unintentional intentional, selective, and by attrition. This Taveras walk was a combination of the last two sorts. He passed on four consecutive Marco Estrada pitches, working his way to a 3-1 count, before fouling off two fastballs. He then yawned at a high changeup, thus earning the free pass. Taveras walked just twice during the seven games, but then, he struck out only once.

Taveras pulls velocity

Upper 90s, inner half, no problem. Not to take anything from Taveras, but he had seen four high-powered fastballs in a row (including two inside), so he had time to gauge the speed. Still, he had to react quick enough to put the bat on the ball and line it to right-center. He did just that.

Taveras goes the other way

The inverse of the previous play. Taveras is facing a pitcher, in Wesley Wright, who should cause him issues. Wright is left-handed, throws from a lower slot, and uses a lot of sliders. What does Taveras do? Slaps a two-strike slider through the left side of the infield for a single. "Nice piece of hitting," said Al Hrabosky. Yup. It's worth noting that Taveras had faced Wright earlier in the series, and had hit an outside fastball to roughly the same location. The kid can hit.

Taveras makes a defensive play

Taveras botches a defensive play

Taveras recovers from a botched defensive play to make a different defensive play

The kid can't field—at least not as well as he hits. Taveras has been accused of defensive indifference in the past, and he's not the kind of athlete who can atone for route inefficiency with speed. Obviously his bat will obscure the defensive shortcomings—particularly if he continues to like he has recently—but that doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Taveras uses telekinesis

The preternatural bat control makes sense now.

Many thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for visual assistance.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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