Yesterday, Jose Tabata put one on the roof of the batting cages over the left-field fence at Pirate City. Today, he added two more. By that pattern, he should hit three over the high fence in left in batting practice tomorrow.
It’s only batting practice, but the power to left field is surprising. Tabata didn’t hit any home runs in 186 plate appearances in the majors last year, and didn’t have any in 163 plate appearances in the minors. He had 13 homers in almost 1100 plate appearances in the majors from 2011-2013, but only two went to left field. Here is his spray chart from 2014, taking out all grounders, pop ups, and singles (via MLB Farm).
That’s a lot of going to opposite field, and not much pulling the ball. So to see him pull the ball for power two days in a row was surprising.
I asked Clint Hurdle about this after practice, to see if the team had Tabata focusing on a different approach this year. Hurdle said that the approach isn’t specifically for Tabata to pull the ball, but to create some drive in his swing.
“It was always a forward-down stroke,” Hurdle said of Tabata’s swing. “Slow line drives, a lot of ground balls have come off his bat.”
Tabata has a 59.9% ground ball rate in his career. Last year the league average was 44.8%. There’s not really a good way to compare the speed of his line drives to the rest of the league, but we can get an idea from the numbers. Last year he had a .500 BABIP on line drives, and an .097 ISO. The league averages were a .683 BABIP and .190 ISO. That means Tabata is seeing fewer line drives drop in for hits, and his line drives are generating much less power than average.
Hurdle said that the Pirates suggested to Tabata that he should talk with former teammate Marlon Byrd about a specific adjustment which could help Tabata.
“Marlon Byrd made an adjustment a few years ago,” Hurdle said. “He went down to Mexico, re-created his swing, incorporated — I don’t like to use the word ‘lift’ — but actually some leverage to his swing. We talked to Jose about increasing a little bit of leverage into his swing. He’s worked very hard with that throughout the winter, and brought it into mini-camp. I think the reps are just giving him a better feel for it, and he’s shown a liking for it, and understands the reason why we’re asking it from him.”
The talk with Byrd wasn’t when he was with the Pirates in 2013, but came during the past off-season. The two didn’t work together, but just had a conversation so that Tabata could get an idea of what adjustments Byrd made. The goal isn’t for Tabata to have an upper cut swing, or a chaotic hack at the ball, but to hit it with a marginal angle to give him a bit of leverage.
“He had the same problem as me,” Tabata said. “He figured it out, and he now is one of the best hitters in the big leagues. He changed everything. So I’m trying to do the same thing as him.”
Tabata said that he’s trying to hit the ball harder, pull it a bit more, and that he’s trying to get stronger.
It’s way too early to tell whether this adjustment will work for Tabata. I don’t even know if he can crack the Opening Day roster. The Pirates created an extra bench spot when they traded Travis Snider. Andrew Lambo seems to have the inside track for the job, especially since he’s left-handed, and provides a different look. But Tabata is owed $8.75 M over the rest of his contract, which is only guaranteed through the 2016 season. You can bet that if he starts hitting for power in games, and starts putting up numbers, the Pirates will find a way to get him to the majors to see if that change is legit.
“He wants to find that game he had a couple of years ago,” Hurdle said. “I believe he’s lost a few pounds. His agility work has been very diligent and very hard. I believe he’s come in hungry. It’s the best shape he’s come in. It’s the best focus that he’s had. That doesn’t mean it was ever bad before. It’s just, there comes a point in time where you get a little bit hungrier, you get painted in a corner a little different way. There’s a little more fight on your hands.”
**Hurdle announced the pitchers for the Black and Gold game on Monday. Each pitcher will throw one inning, and the game will last five and a half innings. Here are the pitchers for each team.
Black: Nick Kingham, Josh Wall, Collin Balester, Charlie Leesman, Adrian Sampson, Wilfredo Boscan
Gold: Arquimedes Caminero, Deolis Guerra, Jeremy Bleich, Angel Sanchez and Blake Wood
**Hurdle was asked about how he would manage to get all of their pitchers innings this Spring. He said that they already have one B-game on the schedule, and are hoping for a total of four this Spring, which would give pitchers more chances at innings. He also said that relievers who have a spot locked down will likely pitch multi-inning appearances in minor league games at Pirate City, which would allow the Pirates to get a look at the guys battling for spots in Major League games.