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Domingo Tapia: One Pitch Wonder?

New York Mets pitching prospect Domingo Tapia is in the midst of a breakout season for Savannah of the South Atlantic League. With nearly eight strikeouts per nine innings and a ground ball rate of 65%, his 2.65 FIP is good for second best in the league behind San Francisco Giants 2011 supplemental first round pick Kyle Crick. So what’s driving his success? A mid-to-upper 90’s fastball with heavy sink which rates as one of the single best pitches I’ve scouted in person. But what about the rest of his arsenal? It lags significantly behind, but Tapia may be taking a rather unique approach to to starting as an attempt to maximize what the young right-hander does well.

On the mound, Tapia is a massive presence as his listed height/weight of 6-foot-4, 186 pounds appears an inch short and thirty or more pounds light. Many pitchers blessed with Tapia’s natural size would be pushed to use more conventional mechanics including a higher arm slot to maximize the potential for downward plane on pitches. Not Tapia, however, as his low 3/4 arm slot would be considered unconventional for a starting pitcher. This low slot maximizes movement and Tapia’s biting, downward action is responsible for his heavy ground ball tendencies. In terms of arm action, few pitching prospects can generate the whip and arm speed Tapia does. At first look, he appears to have plenty of effort in his delivery. But after watching his video — especially from a side angle — I’m convinced my reaction was more due Tapia having such an unconventional throwing motion and not perceived injury risk.

Tapia featured two fastballs in this outing. His four-seam fastball was consistently 95-97 MPH, topping out at 99. The pitch was flat and command was just okay, but I’m convinced he used it primarily to change the eye level of opposing hitters. With a two-seamer and changeup which both feature natural sink, upper-90’s fastballs up are a great way to keep hitters honest who may be looking location.

After the start, I spoke with Toby Hyde of Mets Minor League Blog who also serves as radio broadcaster for the Savannah Sand Gnats. In discussing Tapia, Hyde mentioned the right-hander’s increased reliance on the four-seam fastball throughout the season and something clicked with me. With his low arm slot, a true breaking pitch may very well be impossible to develop fully. Is it possible Tapia will begin utilizing his two-seamer as a de facto breaking pitch with its heavy natural sink? It’s possible, if not probable.

Speaking of his two-seam fastball, it was consistently 94-95 MPH range with heavy sink and a few inches of arm side run. Tapia was adept at starting it off of the outside corner to right-handed hitters and working it back across the outer black. At present, one is able to project Tapia with above average command of the offering. It’s rare for one pitch to stamp a ticket to the major leagues, but this may be one of those instances. For me, it crosses the imaginary line between two-seamer and sinker. Yes, I know the terms are used interchangeably, but there’s just something about using the term “sinker” that alludes to an increased level of nastiness.

In between innings, Tapia dabbled with a sweeping slider which was not replicated in game action. For him to have any success with this pitch, the slowing of Tapia’s arm action needed would be the equivalent of tipping it.

At 88-89 MPH, Tapia’s changeup was arguably the hardest I’ve seen this season. Early in the outing, he shortened his delivery some and the left the changeup up in the zone. As the outing wore on, the pitch improved to the point where he felt confident enough to double and triple up on the offering. When down in the strike zone, Tapia’s changeup featured similar depth and fade to his sinker, albeit not nearly as sharp. With increased confidence and usage, I see no reason why Tapia would not be able to develop the pitch into at least an average offering.

Without a doubt, two variations of mid-to-upper 90’s fastballs are a great base to work from in terms of developing a pitcher. However, Tapia’s inability to throw a breaking pitch screams bullpen projection at the moment. This leaves Tapia in a tough spot as changing his arm slot may yield a decent breaking pitch, but take the bite out of his impressive sinker. Keep the low slot and his path to a big league starting rotation will require success with an arsenal not seen in starting pitchers. For now, the sinker is strong enough to yield results at the low levels of minor league baseball on its own. Within a couple of years, the Mets organization will need to decide whether the risk of changing what works for Tapia is worth the pay off of a viable starter. I’m glad I don’t need to make that decision.