By John Perrotto
Jose Tabata is not the same player the Pirates thought they were getting when he was acquired in a six-player trade from the New York Yankees three years ago in Neal Huntington’s first major deal as the general manager.
Tabata, then in Class AA, was considered a bit of a troublemaker then. He walked out on the Yankees’ Trenton farm club during a game because he was frustrated with his performance. As far as his playing ability, scouts projected Tabata as someone who would hit fifth or sixth in the batting order because of his power potential.
Yet Tabata, who was activated from the disabled list on Monday after missing 43 games with a strained left quadriceps, has turned out to be completely different.
For openers, the 23-year-old outfielder doesn’t cause any trouble. He always seems to have a smile on his face and plays the game with great enthusiasm.
Secondly, he has not become a power hitter, at least to this point. Instead, he is developing into a very good leadoff man, which has enabled Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to drop center fielder Andrew McCutchen to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, where he better serves as the offense as the best all-around hitter on the team.
The numbers show that Tabata is markedly better hitting first than No. 2. He has a .290 batting average and a .376 on-base percentage in 42 games as the leadoff hitter this season, compared to .237 and .327 marks in 27 games batting second.
“Why is he becoming a good leadoff hitter?” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, repeating a question. “It’s because he wants to be a good leadoff hitter. He really takes pride in batting at the top of the order and he wants to take ownership of that role. He is willing to do all the things necessary to be an effectively leadoff hitter.”
Tabata has indeed embraced the role.
“I love it,” he said. “I want to work counts, get on base, score runs and make things happen.”
Scoring runs has been a problem all season for the Pirates, who are 12th in the National League and 25th in the majors with an average of 3.78 a game. However, Hurdle can’t help but wonder if the Pirates wouldn’t rank higher if they hadn’t lost Tabata for nearly two months.
“He’s becoming such a good hitter,” Hurdle said. “You see the in-game adjustments he makes against pitchers and it is something really special. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.”
One area in which Tabata figures to improve is power hitting. He has just eight home runs and a .385 slugging percentage in 747 career plate appearances but many scouts believe the home run potential is there. One scout recently went as far to say Tabata could hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season once he gets more comfortable in trying to pull inside pitches.
Tabata just smiled when that projection was relayed to him. For now, he is taking things one step at a time.
“I just want to be the best leadoff hitter,” Tabata said. “We’ll see what happens after that.”
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.