Jose Tabata made his way through the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, from one end to the other, stopping along the way to greet and chat with his teammates. He sat down with Francisco Liriano for a brief minute, pointed at Josh Harrison and greeted others he played with in years past.
Tabata reached his locker, closely located to the corner space he used to occupy — Starling Marte has that one now, along with the starting corner outfield position that used to belong to Tabata. But that stuff doesn’t matter anymore.
Rather, the 26-year-old veteran, once considered a key cog in the Pirates Outfield of the Future, is just glad to be back in the big leagues. That’s especially true after spending the majority of the last calendar year with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, following his demotion and Gregory Polanco’s major-league debut.
It was a long, hard fall for a player considered a regular as recently as 2013, and it was a fall that threw a twist into Tabata’s career, challenging him on and off the field. It’s not hard for him to describe the toll the demotion took.
“It’s difficult, man. It’s difficult,” Tabata said. “When you play in the big leagues you don’t want to go back because everything changes in minor leagues. The balls, everything. The game is different.”
All the while, getting back to the majors was the light at the end of the tunnel for Tabata even if he couldn’t immediately see it.
“I’m working hard because I don’t want to be [there],” Tabata said of his time in Indianapolis. “I want to come back to the big leagues.”
Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle isn’t a stranger to what Tabata is going through, with Hurdle having never delivered on the expectations heaped upon him when he was a top prospect. As a result, Hurdle can give perspective on how a player re-visits his core values when making a number of trips between levels.
“What he set out to do was to take the opportunity to go back to Triple-A and I think not re-invent, just re-visit,” Hurdle said. “What was he good at, how’d he get good at it, what was in play as far as preparation, focus.”
Between his excellent performance to start the season in Indianapolis and the Pirates needing some extra help off the bench, Tabata gets to wear a Pirates uniform once again. He hit .352 in 91 at-bats this season with a .422 on-base percentage for the Indians.
Hurdle noted he spoke with two people inside the organization and another out of it, and each gave him a report on Tabata he said was the best he’d ever received on the outfielder.
Now back in Pittsburgh for the time being, Tabata says he wants to get back to the “old Tabata.” Meaning, the Jose Tabata who posted an OPS+ over 100 in three of five seasons and hit .282/.342/.429 with six home runs in 2013 — his best year as a pro.
The “old Tabata” was a regular during the majority of those seasons.
Some note his power has disappeared as he hasn’t hit a home run at any level of baseball since Sept. 20, 2013, when he homered against the Cincinnati Reds. The lack of home runs derives from a different focus for Tabata in the batter’s box than earlier in his career.
By not trying to hit home runs, the Pirates think Tabata can become a markedly better hitter.
“My swing is still at right field and if I’m thinking homer then I hit a lot of ground balls,” Tabata said. “I’ve gotta stay focused on the middle of the field and see what happens and do a good job.”
Tabata began making adjustments in the spring, which Hurdle says carried over well into the season.
“He put some leverage in his swing in spring training that I thought has played out for him,” Hurdle said. “It’s not about home-run leverage, it’s just about a different swing because over time he almost moved into a ground ball machine or almost a line drive part played out.”
In his first game back, Tabata pinch hit in the second and drove in a run with a sharp ground ball to the right side that Minnesota second baseman Brian Dozier couldn’t handle cleanly. Tabata received plenty of cheers when his at-bat was announced and the official scorer awarded him a hit on the play.
There won’t be many starts available with Marte, Polanco and Andrew McCutchen firmly entrenched in the outfield. For now, though, he can focus solely on playing and helping become a part of the team’s success rather than thinking about getting back to the bigs.
“I need an opportunity to be like that,” Tabata said. “I’ve gotta continue working and it’s more important for me is to win the game. I want to be throwing champagne like last year.”