Oscar Taveras is like a sad birthday gift.
He’s the big one. The first gift you asked your parents for, like, seven months before your birthday. You knew it was coming. You were even pretty sure it was that giant box in the back of your parents closet that you stumbled upon while you totally weren’t snooping around for presents. But you couldn’t open it yet. No, no. It just toiled there, right in front of your eyes. Big and beautiful. But you couldn’t play with it. No, you had to wait, damnit.
Then, finally, your birthday came.
You shred apart the wrapping paper with childlike wonder and excitement despite knowing exactly what the box contained. It was amazing! On the surface, it appeared to be everything you ever wanted. Look what happened the first time you played with it!
But you’re a picky kid. After you opened it and played with it a couple times, you realized it wasn’t the exact model you asked for. “This isn’t the one all the kids at school have!” How are you ever going to impress little Suzy with this model?! You’ll get laughed right out of home room if you keep using this one! You demand your parents send it back.
So now you wait. You wait for the right model to again arrive at your doorstep.
But what really was wrong with your model of the gift?
After several years of being the number one prospect in the Cardinals organization and arguably the number one prospect in all of baseball, Oscar Taveras finally made his long-awaited debut in St. Louis on May 31, thanks to a calf injury sustained by Matt Adams. Taveras promptly homered in his second major league at-bat, as seen above. Yay. Taveras didn’t do much of anything in his next 38 major league plate appearances and was demoted back to Triple-A when Adams returned from the disabled list on June 13. Boo.
Obviously, through just 11 games and 40 plate appearances, all of the numbers and data we’re going to be looking at here come from a very small sample size and can’t be used to draw too sound of conclusion as to what Oscar Taveras really is. At the same time, it’s Taveras’ entire major league career to date, and the same sample the Cardinals had before determining he needed to go back to Triple-A.
Taveras was hitting .189 with a .225 on-base percentage. He has a .231 wOBA and his wRC+ is at 43. That homer is his only one. That’s all ugly. But oftentimes, when dealing with a sample this small, the actual results are not nearly as meaningful as what lies beneath.
Taveras walked in five percent of his plate appearances. That’s a figure well below the league average, but that’s also just who Oscar Taveras is. His walk rate over the last two seasons in Triple-A was 5.8% and his performance was still good enough to maintain his top prospect status and earn a call to the big leagues. The Cardinals aren’t expecting Taveras to get on base with a ton of walks, they’re expecting him to get on base by mashing baseballs. He’s a bit of a free swinger with great bat-to-ball ability. His strikeout rate over his first 40 major league plate appearances was 17.5%. That’s quite a bit better than league average and reinforces a strength of Taveras’, who rarely struck out in the minor leagues.
Maybe something jumps out in his plate discipline numbers?
This is a strange plate discipline profile, but somewhat fitting given Taveras’ unique approach and skillset. He’s actually been pretty selective, swinging at fewer pitches than league average, especially pitches out of the zone. He wasn’t chasing. That’s a good sign.
The contact numbers are where things get a little wacky. When he’s swung, he’s made contact over 92% of the time, way above league average. He’s 21 years old and major league pitchers have not been able to get him to swing and miss. That’s good too! On the other hand, he’s made contact on balls more often than he has on strikes, demonstrated by his insane 95.5% O-Contact rate. The only qualified hitter who has made more contact on balls than strikes is Mike Moustakas, and we know how that’s worked out. O-Contact is a tricky subject, as there is no “right amount” to strive for. Generally, swinging at and making contact with would-be balls leads to weak contact. On the other hand, guys like Vladimir Guerrero have made a career of hitting pitches out of the zone.
Baseball America’s scouting report of Taveras calls him a bad-ball hitter. He’s going to be a lot closer to the Vladimir Guerrero end of the spectrum than the other end. It’s supposed to be a strength of his. All succesful hitters mash pitches inside the strike zone. Taveras is supposed to mash pitches outside of the strike zone, too.
Thing is, the “mashing pitches inside the strike zone” part was actually Taveras’ problem. I needn’t say much about this Oscar Taveras heatmap:
Although Oscar Taveras made contact on 91% of pitches he saw within the strike zone, he didn’t do anything with them. Oddly enough, it pretty much starts and ends with the fastball. Against “hard pitches” – fastballs, sinkers and cutters – Taveras hit just .115 with three singles. Against breaking and offpseed pitches, Taveras had a .364 average that included his only two extra base hits – a double and a homer. Seems like pitchers may have known about this, as Taveras saw hard pitches 74% of the time, 11 points higher than the league average of 63%.
“But batting average can be fluky because of BABIP!” Could be. But out of the 70 fourseam fastballs that Taveras has seen, he hasn’t hit a single one of them for a line drive. For whatever reason, Oscar Taveras was not able to barrel up a major league fastball. I’m not a hitting instructor. It’s not my job to figure out why or to fix it. It’s my job to point out to you what’s going on. Taveras has a wide stance and bit of a leg kick, so there could be something mechanical going on. Upon Taveras’ demotion, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny noted “there are a couple of things our hitting guys noticed that probably could be worked on. They could help him with the consistency needed at this level.” In order to be a consistent major league hitter, you’ll probably have to be able to hit a major league fastball.
Again, this is only 40 plate appearances. Just 11 games. What Taveras did in those 11 games should barely change what anyone thinks of him moving forward. Oscar Taveras, likely, still has a very bright future ahead of him. Hell, we can’t even say for sure the demotion was purely a performance thing. When Adams returned from the DL, it sent Allen Craig back to the outfield, giving the Cardinals four competent outfielders in Craig, Matt Holliday, Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay, so part of the demotion was likely just to ensure that Taveras continued to receive regular playing time.
But, after a long wait, the Cardinals finally got a glimpse of Oscar Taveras at the major league level and they didn’t quite like what they saw. Some things went as expected: He physically resembled Oscar Taveras, waited for his pitches and made contact with almost all of them. Other things didn’t go as expected: He couldn’t square up a fastball and struggled mightily overall.
So the Cardinals have shipped their exciting birthday gift back to the manufacturer in Triple-A with dreams that the model sent back to them is the one they ordered. And they’re hoping the new model can do more than just impress little Suzy in home room. They’re hoping it can help them win another World Series title.
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