The First Glimpse of Oscar Taveras

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!

taveras1

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?

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Taveras 25.9% 61.1% 42.0% 95.5% 90.9% 92.4% 45.9% 60.0% 2.5%
League 29.3% 62.8% 45.6% 62.9% 87.4% 79.3% 48.7% 60.4% 9.3%

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:

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 3.54.50 PM

Ouch.

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 notedthere 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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August covers the Cleveland Indians and their Double-A affiliate, the Akron RubberDucks, for the Akron Beacon Journal and ohio.com. He tweets often about the Indians, assorted nerdy baseball things and also other stuff, too. He'd like it if you followed him on Twitter @AugustF_ABJ, but you don't have to.

26 Responses to “The First Glimpse of Oscar Taveras”

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  1. vivalajeter says:

    It was the Winter of ’92. I had passed the point where I could list dozens of toys that I wanted for Christmas. As a 13 year old, I struggled to find one or two things that I eagerly asked my parents for. The lone exception was Sega CD. I distinctly remember begging my parents for it, and I was thrilled to see a wrapped box in early-December that could only fit the Sega CD. My 8th grade classmate had also asked for it, and we took off for Winter Break with a quick “good luck!”.

    Christmas morning finally came, and I opened that box last. After going through socks, t-shirts and little knickknacks, I started to tear the important wrapping paper a little at a time. The first letter I saw was ‘V’. I though it must have been for “Video Console” or “Video Game’. Next, I saw the letter ‘C’. That just didn’t make sense. When the last letter showed ‘R’, I nearly wept. After weeks of anticipation, I was left with a VCR? How was I going to face my classmate, knowing that he undoubtedly received the holy grail of video consoles?

    Epilogue: Things took a turn for the best a few months later when I stumbled upon Inside Jennifer Welles in the back of a closet. Let’s hope that things turn out OK for Taveras as well.

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  2. Chris says:

    To be fair, Suzy is kind of a bitch.

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  3. The phrase “made contact on balls more often than he has strikes” makes it sound like the majority of the balls he makes contact with are outside of the zone. In reality, because of his low swing rate outside of the zone, this isn’t the case. When you factor in swing rate to look at contact rate for all balls and strikes (as opposed to the traditional Contact%, which is on a per-swing rate), you see the following:

    Player / % Contact on Balls / % Contact on Strikes
    Taveras / 24.7 / 55.5
    League / 18.4 / 54.9

    This doesn’t change the key point – Taveras is making contact on balls out of the zone more than the average player, which isn’t always a good thing.

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  4. Alex says:

    Great article.

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  5. KCDaveInLA says:

    Congratulations to the Cardinals for having the The Best Way-to-demote-an-underachieving-prospect In Baseball.

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  6. Miles says:

    This child has yet to realize the futility of investing emotion in inanimate objects.

    And with a profile like this, I don’t expect Taveras to be struggling for too long. He’s a natural at doing something with the worst pitches to hit, and I bet there’s plenty of people in the Cardinals organization who can teach him how to hit a fastball down the middle. Keep at it, rookie.

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  7. Z S says:

    Taveras’ demotion had everything to do with Mike Matheny’s inability to figure out how to get Taveras regular playing time with the return of Matt Adams.

    Taveras consistently put great swings on the ball (better than most of the rest of the Cards’ lineup during the same period, that’s for sure) and was the victim of a fair amount of bad luck. He mashed several balls directly to OF, and if only 3 of them would have dropped in (or continued to the wall) his batting avg would be sitting at .270 instead of .189.

    Kolten Wong was similarly punished by Matheny for his poor start earlier in the year, and Matheny and co. trotted out the same BS about “needing to work on mechanics”, and Taveras looked much, much better in his brief stint in the big leagues than Wong did in April. The difference is that 2B isn’t blocked for Wong like OF is for Taveras, so Wong was able to make it back up and have enough time to demonstrate his ability. Until one of Jay, Bourjos, Craig or Adams is traded away or injured, Taveras won’t get that chance.

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    • Lanidrac says:

      While you have a point about Taveras’s demotion, I disagree with your assessment of Wong. Wong’s demotion did help him out, as he’s hit much better since then starting immediately with his recall.

      As for Taveras, I agree that he’s simply blocked by Holliday, Craig, and Adams (although his lack of performance didn’t help), and he will remain so for quite a while outside of a major injury to one of the three, who are all under contract or team control until at least 2016. Taveras will be back but probably not until September barring another injury to one of those three.

      Without such an injury, I see the Cardinals with only two real options this offseason:
      1) Trade Craig to open up RF for Taveras (assuming nobody’s willing to pick up most of Holliday’s remaining contract).
      2) The much more preferable but harder to obtain option: Teach Taveras to play a decent CF, and then trade Jay while demoting Bourjos to 4th outfielder / defensive replacement / pinch-runner extraordinaire.

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      • rebel.lion says:

        None of Wong’s peripheral statistics changed before, during, or after his demotion that would indicate he was a different player upon his return to the majors.

        The only aspect that did effect anything was the consistent playing time upon his return, which even then was only won through an arbitrary small sample success.

        The Wong-Taveras connection is a matter of needed playing time, not the need for a minor league jumpstart.

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        • MercuryThe says:

          I think this ‘minor league jumpstart’ meme is overplayed.
          As is this examination of Oscar’s 11 game ‘cup of coffee’.
          Matheney appears to prefer veterans to younger guys.
          The Cardinals are a better team offensively and defensively (and the roster therefore pinch hitting) when Oscar plays instead of Jay and Wong instead of Ellis.

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        • Lanidrac says:

          Oops, I accidentally voted for the post when trying to hit reply. Wong does play a lot more than Ellis at this point. Taveras may possibly already hit better than Jay (which has yet to be seen, as Jay hits pretty well), but his defense is not CF ready and may never be. We’d be sacrificing too much defense just to add a little extra power. That’s the kind of experiment that only a rebuilding team can afford to try.

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  8. Vision says:

    I think they always knew they were going to send him back once Adams’ was ready to go. There’s more than one way to manipulate service time and the fact he struggled only made that decision that much easier.

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  9. MG says:

    Matheny isn’t ‘Ned Yost bad’ as a manager but as someone who loves to root against the Cards I’m glad he is their skipper.

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    • gnomez says:

      Even as a Cardinal fan, I’d argue that when it comes to handling pitchers, Matheny truly is “Ned Yost bad.”

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    • I covered this.

      “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”

      “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.”

      Thanks for reading though!

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      • johnnytwotimes says:

        But then you went and overanalyzed and made conclusions, like saying Taveras can’t hit a fastball. This article is pretty useless as far as meaning observations are concerned.

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        • Did I say that he can’t? Or did I say that he didn’t?

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        • MWoeppel says:

          “Other things didn’t go as expected: He couldn’t square up a fastball and struggled mightily overall.”

          He said ‘couldn’t.’ ‘Can’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ are not the same. People LOVE to take things out of context (or just not read the article and immediately scroll to the bottom) just so they can make asinine comments.

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      • On the other hand, I haven’t read a peep about Gregory Polanco and his .387 .406 .484 .395 155 line in his “first glimpse”.

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  10. arescan says:

    The title makes him sound like a magical unicorn. The plate discipline numbers seem to back it up.

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  11. Eno Fan says:

    Big Taveras fan. Watched every AB in the Toronto series and he was late on fastballs.

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  12. Eno Fan says:

    Especially high fastballs

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