Oscar Taveras hasn’t gotten hot yet, but the 22-year-old rookie is getting close.
Taveras was the reason St. Louis felt comfortable dealing Allen Craig, one of the team’s more accomplished run producers, to the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline. Craig had been stealing playing time in right field from Taveras prior to the trade, but neither player was producing in the shared role.
In trading Craig, however, the Cardinals officially turned over right field to Taveras, who long has been considered the team’s long-term answer at the position as well one of the baseball's premier prospects.
But Taveras hasn’t made the impact in the major leagues that was expected following his highly anticipated promotion on May 31. Instead, the promising young outfielder has struggled during his 60 games with the Cardinals, batting .224/.268/.292 with nine extra-base in 205 plate appearances.
Taveras’ production has started to pick up since taking over as the Cardinals’ everyday right fielder, albeit only slightly, with a .240 batting average and .611 OPS over his last 28 games. While his numbers still aren’t great, Taveras has shown more consistency by putting together hitting streaks of five- and seven-games during that span.
And based on his vastly improved .275/.327/.314 batting line over his last 15 contents, it appears as though Taveras is finally settling in and on the verge of turning the corner.
Taveras’ pitch recognition has been his most obvious weakness in the major leagues, as he’s shown a tenuous grasp of the strike zone in regards to secondary pitches. Specifically, his aggressive approach made him vulnerable to secondaries low and away during the first few months of his career, in turn making it difficult to catch up to velocity on the inner half.
Taveras also tried to crush everything to his pull side when first promoted, as his tremendous plate coverage enabled him to cast around the ball and drag his barrel behind too many hittable middle-away pitches. And while it was cool, it probably didn’t help his first hit was a booming home run to right field.
The left-handed hitter really struggled to barrel the ball from the time of his first call-up (May 31) through the start of his recent hot streak on Aug. 15. As you can see on the below heat map, Taveras’ issues stemming from his recognition and approach caused him to roll over the ball—he posted a 55.7 groundball percentage and grounded into five double plays during that span—or weakly loft it to the outfield.
One of the reasons Taveras has such a high offensive ceiling is he’s always kept it simple at the plate, driving any pitch to any part of the park. He’s specifically shown a preternatural ability to smash outside pitches to the opposite field with power, both fastballs and secondaries, consistently getting through the ball so as to generate backspin carry.
But if it seems as though most of Taveras’ hits have been up the middle or the away lately, it’s because they have.
The 22-year-old’s recent success and consistency is a product of him putting in the extra work, according to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Huge adjustments,” said manager Mike Matheny.
“He’s really worked hard in the cage with John and David (hitting coaches John Mabry and David Bell) on his approach and shortening his swing a bit. Even his outs (Sunday) were pretty loud.
“He’s definitely taking steps in the right direction.”
Taveras’ heat map (via MLB Farm) dating back to Aug. 15 speaks to the improvements he’s made over the last two-plus weeks.
His improvements haven’t been strictly mechanical, though; Taveras also has adjusted his approach, per Brooks Baseball.
Though he’s maintained an aggressive approach versus fastballs, Taveras’ patience against secondary pitches has improved significantly since the beginning of July, which also speaks to his pitch recognition.
The strides Taveras has made over the last month-plus are impressive and couldn’t come at a better time for the Cardinals, but his overall rawness—including his baserunning issues and any potential concerns about his makeup—will continue to show over the duration of the season.
That being said, the 22-year-old outfielder has proven he has the capacity to make swift adjustments on the fly, just as he’s done in previous years against advanced competition.
In retrospection, the bar was set unreasonably high for Taveras this season, and it could be years until he truly realizes his potential. But the improvements he’s made in the major leagues, especially lately, suggests good things are around the corner.