Aggressive approach

At the plate and on the bases, GJ Rockies don't suffer from passivity

Aggressiveness has helped Raimel Tapia fashion a 25-game hitting streak for the Grand Junction Rockies. The coaches preach being aggressive at the plate and on the base paths. As Tapia has found out, making adjustments is a key learning process of Rookie ball — especially once pitchers learn hitters’ tendencies.

Lee Stevens wants his players to learn from each at-bat, no matter the outcome of the appearance.

It started from Day 1.

Be aggressive at the plate, even more aggressive on the bases, score runs early was the mantra of the Grand Junction Rockies.

“Our manager’s philosophy is play aggressive, make aggressive mistakes, don’t make passive mistakes,” third baseman Ryan McMahon said. “We take that to heart; that’s what they want to see. That’s what they keep chirping at us to do. We took it to heart and rolled with it.”

It parlayed into the best-hitting team in the Pioneer League (.291 entering Saturday’s game), the fourth-highest scoring team in the league (215 runs, 6.3 runs per game), and oh, yes, the first-half South Division championship.

Add in a pitching staff that has the second-lowest ERA in the league (4.34) and is third in fewest runs allowed (182, 5.3 per game), and you have a club that will win a lot of ballgames.

“They’ve done an outstanding job,” hitting coach Lee Stevens said. “We won a couple on the road trip because our pitchers kept us in the game and we scored five in the 10th inning at Great Falls.

“If they keep us around, with our lineup, and we keep our confidence up in a game, we could ultimately explode in any inning. We have to keep that in mind.”

When the Rockies score three or more runs through the first four innings — when they’ve scored 52.5 percent of their runs this season — they’re 13-4. When they haven’t, they’re 5-6.

Like all teams in Rookie ball, the Rockies are looking for fastballs early in the count.

“We’re the most aggressive team,” outfielder Ryan Garvey said. “We jump on that fastball as much as we can.”

The offense has fallen off in the fifth inning, when pitchers are facing the lineup the second or third time through, or the opponent has gone to the bullpen.

The next step, Stevens said, is for his hitters to make adjustments as pitchers are countering.

“It’s a case where we’re always trying to stay aggressive and when we take advantage of a certain pitcher early in the game, now their pitcher makes an adjustment,” Stevens said. “We just need to learn to make the adjustment with him as the pitcher adjusts to us.”

The Rockies are sitting on the fastball? Pitchers will go to their breaking ball.

No one has seen that more than leadoff man Raimel Tapia, in the midst of a 25-game hitting streak and the leading hitter in the league (.384 through Friday night). He’s seen a steady diet of breaking balls, so he’s learning what Stevens has been preaching: Patience.

“They’re throwing too many breaking balls to him,” said pitcher Carlos Esteves, translating for Tapia. “He’s just going to start watching it so he can get the walks, then just looking for a fastball to get the hits.”

Tapia, a left-handed hitter with a wide, crouching batting stance, has lowered his center of gravity even more recently to try to take off-speed pitches to left field.

When he gets a fastball, though, he’ll drive it down the right-field line for extra bases (11 doubles, three triples).

Stevens would love to see his walk totals go up significantly in the second half — Tapia has walked only twice and struck out 16 times.

“He’s one of the few guys you try to rein back a little bit,” Stevens said. “As dangerous as he is now, he’d be even more effective if he’s more patient. That’s going to come with age (Tapia, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, is only 19).

“I’m happy he’s aggressive and there’s not a strike he can’t hit. There’s also some balls he can hit. He has a good game plan and he has an idea of what he wants to do up there and I’m happy it’s paying off for him right now.”

Not only does Stevens want to see his hitters adjust to pitchers throughout the game, he wants them to know what their swing feels like so they can adjust during an at-bat.

“My main goal is they learn something from each at-bat, whether it’s successful in getting a hit or not a hit,” he said. “They need to learn their swing, what it feels like to swing correctly and what it feels like to swing incorrectly.

“My goal for them is to be able to fix it during an at-bat, feel what he’s doing wrong and fit it in that at-bat so it helps prolong (an at-bat).”

Stevens was an aggressive hitter during his 10-year Major League career with four clubs — he was a first-round draft pick (22nd overall) in 1986 by the then-California Angels as a first baseman/outfielder, and he’s carried that philosophy over into his coaching.

“That’s the way I am, that’s the mentality I promote with these guys,” Stevens said. “If it’s in the strike zone, swing the bat. Let the pitcher know you’re there and you’re ready. This is the level to do that. You’re not going to know your swing or learn your swing unless you swing the bat.”

On the bases, you’ll see the Rockies take off on pitches in the dirt or if the ball is bobbled in the outfield.

“We’ve worked on that in practice, reading the outfielders and making them throw,” said McMahon, who saw a ball he hit to right field bobbled Thursday night. He never broke stride, advancing to second on the fielding error. “It transferred right into the game.”

The coaching staff encourages that approach, even if it means getting thrown out. It’s all part of the learning process.

“That’s the only way to learn the game at this level,” Stevens said. “Learn what you can and can’t do. You can’t figure that out unless there’s some failure. Don’t be afraid to fail, that’s OK. Learn from it and then you can realize what you can do.”


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