DUNEDIN, Fla. — In swapping Randal Grichuk’s high-power, low-OBP, right-handed bat for Raimel Tapia’s high-contact, low-whiff, left-handed one, the Toronto Blue Jays feel they’re addressing multiple roster deficiencies at once.
They’ve made their lineup more balanced; they’ve given manager Charlie Montoyo a late-game pinch-running option; they’ve added a contact bat that can consistently put balls in play in two-out situations when a strikeout could end an inning. In a fourth outfielder who will see inconsistent playing time and often come off the bench, Tapia simply does more things the Blue Jays need.
“Yeah, Tapia is exciting. He's extremely talented. There's a lot of tools. A lot to like about how he complements us. The contact ability, the defensive ability, the run tool. Obviously, being left-handed,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said Thursday after sending Grichuk and cash to the Colorado Rockies for Tapia and 19-year-old prospect Adrian Pinto. “It's just a better complementary piece. Randal Grichuk's a great baseball player. But his skill set was very similar to our other outfielders.”
While Grichuk’s a strong outfield defender and well regarded for his consistent effort level regardless of what the scoreboard reads, his offensive profile was redundant among the powerful, right-handed outfield bats already on the Blue Jays roster. Tapia provides a completely different look, having posted whiff and strikeout rates within MLB’s 95th percentile last season, which helped produce his sky-high 87 per cent contact rate.
But that doesn’t tell the full story of just how radical a divergence Tapia is from Grichuk, who might flirt with a 35-homer season if given regular playing time at altitude in Denver.
While Grichuk has been constantly trying to get balls in the air, finishing with the 22nd highest fly ball rate across MLB in 2021, Tapia’s bat has been producing completely opposite results. The 28-year-old’s 67.4 per cent groundball rate last season didn’t only lead MLB by nearly 12 points — it was the highest single-season groundball rate posted by any qualified hitter since 2001.
Meanwhile, his -4.4 degree average launch angle was the lowest of any MLB hitter by five degrees. Only one player — Yandy Diaz in a small-sample 2020 — has posted a lower single-season launch angle than that since Tapia entered the league in 2016. And over that span, only nine have posted a negative launch angle at all — two of them pitchers.
It was like Tapia was trying to dig a hole to the centre of the earth one groundball at a time. It’s a less-than-ideal contact profile in the modern game, which sees teams positioning infielders more optimally than ever, converting higher and higher rates of groundballs into outs.
Tapia’s speed, bunting threat and ability to put the ball in play to all fields counteracts that to some extent. He faced a shift in only 13 of his 532 plate appearances last season, as teams often chose to play their third baseman close to the line and infield grass to guard against a bunt attempt.
Still, speed tends to erode quickly as players age. And it stands to reason that Tapia will want to get the ball in the air more often going forward in order to prolong his career.
“He also hits the ball really hard,” Atkins said. “So, we’ll see. The more that I'm in this game, the more confident I am that, not just the Toronto Blue Jays, but the industry can help players continue to improve. And if there's ways for us to help him, we'll certainly look to do that.”
Atkins is right — Tapia posted an impressive, 109.9-mph maximum exit velocity last season, which ranked among the top 30 per cent of MLB hitters. And when he connects, he really connects. Tapia’s average home run distance last season — on a sample of only a half-dozen long balls, mind you — was 414 feet, the ninth-highest mark in baseball.
Remember how many times you watched Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit no-doubters deep into the night sky last year? Guerrero’s average home run distance was five feet less than Tapia’s at 409.
So, there’s obviously quite a bit of pop here. But Tapia’s yet to tap into it consistently over the course of his career, putting up average exit velocities of 85.3 per cent in 2020 and 85.7 in 2021, both of which ranked in the bottom six per cent of the league. And no matter how hard he hits the ball, all that force will only serve to flatten out the Rogers Centre turf if he’s going to continue hitting pitches directly into the ground nearly 70 per cent of the time.
Do the Blue Jays see some ways to help Tapia realize more of the power he possesses and drive the ball to the outfield more often? Or is the groundball part and parcel to his high-contact, speed-predicated approach?
That much remains to be seen. It’s likely that an effort to hit for more power would lead to more swing-and-miss, sacrificing some of the contact ability that drew the club to Tapia in the first place. And if the Blue Jays want another high-power, low-contact outfield bat, they ought to trade for Randal Grichuk.