What is a reasonable expectation for Jose Tabata in 2012?

As the season draws nearer, I’ll be running a loosely affiliate series of posts that look at the things that most interest me in the upcoming 2012 season.

If you’ll forgive the science analogy, Jose Tabata has always reminded me of a stem cell. That’s because for a very long time, people have looked at him and projected any number of things onto him, making it seem like his career could go in any number of 100 directions. He’ll develop a power stroke and be the next Manny Ramirez! He won’t, and he’ll be terrible! He’s a leadoff guy! His body type is too bad to be a leadoff guy! He’ll hit like a center fielder, but his defense won’t let him stay there! He won’t hit at all! He’s a miserable jerk and a terrible teammate! He’s a really nice guy who’s just happy to be playing baseball! He’s 23! he’s 26! 

It seems incredible to me that Tabata’s just 23 years old (we’ll get to his age in a bit; for now, keep the snide remarks to yourself) and that he’s only played in parts of two seasons for the Pirates. Because he was a Yankee prospect, I’ve been hearing about him since he was 17 or 18. Because he was a high-profile trade target, I paid a lot of attention to his minor league career in Pittsburgh. Because he played for Indianapolis when they came through Durham, I first saw him play in 2009. It seems like he’s been a Pirate for forever. It really hasn’t been that long.

Figuring out exactly what sort of player that Tabata will differentiate into is still difficult. A lot of it does depend on his age; I tend to be in the camp that believes he’s the age he says he is for various reasons. There’s no real evidence that he’s older beyond whispers from a few corners of the industry, the Pirates should know how old he is better than anyone and they gave him that extension last summer, he’s not from the Dominican Republic — where a lot of the current crop of age-adjustments come from — and is from Venezuela instead, and I’m a Pirate fan and as a Pirate fan I need to believe he’s 23 and not 26 or 27, because there’s a better chance his career will turn out well that way. It’s entirely possible he’s older than he says he is. This is baseball, this happens all the time, Tabata is a rich man now no matter where his career goes, and part of the reason the Pirates were willing to sign that deal with him is that he’s so young. I’d hope that a guy that more or less openly worships Roberto Clemente in public would be better than that and I will assume that he is until it’s definitvely proven otherwise, but if you’re trying to really evaluate him you can’t completely ignore the fact that some people think he’s older than he says he is. It’s true that doing that declares Tabata guilty until proven innocent and that there’s no actual way for him to prove himself innocent and so the whole thought process makes me queasy, but it is what is. Some baseball players are not who they say they are and some people say Jose Tabata’s older than he claims. It’s something that you have to at least consider, even if you think, like I do, that the evidence that we have mostly points towards Tabata being 23 and not older.

Everything I’m about to say about Tabata is based on him being 23. If he’s actually older, the older he is the less likely it is to come true. That doesn’t make it impossible; if he’s 26, for example, he’s still young enough that we could reasonably expect his best years to be ahead of them. At this point, Tabata should be playing to see where he goes and that’s true if he’s any age between 23 and 26. The real danger for the Pirates lies on the road ahead; how long do you give him to develop? How do you interpret a moderate step forward for him in 2012? How do you evaluate him against Alex Presley if the two have similar seasons this year? These are long-term problems, though, and for now I’m mostly concered with what Tabata can do on the big league level.

Now that we’re past the difficult stuff, let’s get to the real questions: what has Tabata done so far with the Pirates, and based on that what’s a reasonable expectation for him in 2012? What role should the Pirates expect him to play. For a quick reminder, here are his pertinent stats through two big league seasons:

2010 21 PIT 102 441 405 61 121 21 4 4 35 19 7 28 57 .299 .346 .400 .746 103 162 2 0
2011 22 PIT 91 382 334 53 89 18 1 4 21 16 7 40 61 .266 .349 .362 .711 98 121 4 1
2 Yrs 193 823 739 114 210 39 5 8 56 35 14 68 118 .284 .348 .383 .731 101 283 6 1
162 Game Avg. 162 691 620 96 176 33 4 7 47 29 12 57 99 .284 .348 .383 .731 101 238 5 1

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/21/2012.

So, what we have is a 23-year old corner outfielder with very little power, but with an on base high enough that his two-year OPS is just about league average. If you apply linear weights, Tabata’s wOBA through two years is .328 and his wRC+ is 104, which tells us the same thing. He’s about an average hitter. He’s a pretty good base stealer, with a success rate of just above 70%. That’s just above the break-even point, which means that Tabata’s a good enough base stealer to be allowed to run fairly regularly. It’s interesting to me that his batting average dropped off quite a bit last year, but his OBP stayed at the same level it was at in 2010. We can’t really draw a conclusion from that, but the same thing happened to Andrew McCutchen and it makes me wonder if Clint Hurdle and Gregg Ritchie aren’t working on improving the patience of their young hitters. Tabata wasn’t necessarily impatient in the way that, say, Starling Marte has been in his minor league career, just that his walk rate improved quite a bit in 2011. Let’s look at his minor league numbers (with last year’s rehab stints thrown out): 

2005 16 Yankees GULF Rk NYY 44 173 156 30 49 5 1 3 25 22 6 15 14 .314 .382 .417 .798 65 2 1
2006 17 Charleston SALL A NYY 86 363 319 50 95 22 1 5 51 15 5 30 66 .298 .377 .420 .797 134 12 1
2007 18 Tampa FLOR A+ NYY 103 456 411 56 126 16 2 5 54 15 7 33 70 .307 .371 .392 .763 161 10 4
2008 19 3 Teams 2 Lgs AA-Rk NYY,PIT 105 442 394 60 109 16 2 8 56 18 2 36 67 .277 .345 .388 .733 153 7 0
2009 20 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-AAA PIT 93 402 362 52 106 22 2 5 35 11 8 30 43 .293 .357 .406 .763 147 7 3
2010 21 Indianapolis IL AAA PIT 53 252 224 42 69 13 2 3 19 25 6 23 35 .308 .373 .424 .797 95 2 1
7 Seasons 497 2137 1907 297 566 101 10 29 243 106 36 175 302 .297 .366 .406 .772 774 40 10
AA (2 seasons) AA 162 683 611 87 173 30 3 8 74 25 8 54 92 .283 .350 .381 .732 233 12 2
AAA (3 seasons) AAA 94 438 391 69 117 26 3 6 31 29 10 38 57 .299 .364 .427 .791 167 4 2
Rk (2 seasons) Rk 48 186 167 34 54 6 1 5 32 22 6 17 14 .323 .392 .461 .854 77 2 1
A+ (2 seasons) A+ 107 467 419 57 127 17 2 5 55 15 7 36 73 .303 .371 .389 .760 163 10 4
A (1 season) A 86 363 319 50 95 22 1 5 51 15 5 30 66 .298 .377 .420 .797 134 12 1

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/21/2012.

You can see that there’s a bit of a trend here, too, as Tabata’s patience seemed to improve a bit in 2010 compared to the earlier portion of his minor league career. It’s not as dramaticallly as in 2011, but it’s the only year he walked in more than 9% of his plate appearances and it definitely marks an upward trend if you consider last year, too.

We’d all love for him to suddenly hit 20 home runs, but that seems like an awfully unreasonable expectation for the guy in 2012. That sort of power just isn’t there yet and to think it’ll happen overnight is crazy. What I’d really like to see from Tabata in 2012 is for him to stay healthy over the course of a full season (he missed significant time at least in 2008 and 2011; I’m not sure about 2006 or 2007 as the Yankees may have just been cautious with him due to his age) and to develop into a real leadoff hitter. I’d love to see something in the ballpark of a .370 OBP from him; to see him couple that ~.300 batting average from the minors with the walks that he’s started to take in 2010 and 2011. If he does that, it won’t matter if he only slugs .390.

The question is whether or not that’s actually reasonable. Most of the projection systems put his 2012 OBP somewhere between .340 and .350 (Brian Cartwright’s Oliver, which is available with a subscription to The Harball Times’ Forecasts, which, full disclosure, I write player comments and forecast playing time for, has him in the same range), so maybe I’m shooting a little high. That’s generally based on a batting average of around .280. I don’t think .280/.350/.390 is a good enough season from Tabata, though, and I really hope that he does at least a little better than that. 

That’s not to say Tabata’s not capable of the .300/.370/400 line I’d like to see; he opened 2011 up on a tear (.289/.389/.474 with three of his four homers in the season’s first 20 games), and he got hot again when he came off of the disabled list in August (.340/.411/.520 in the first 12 games back). He had looooong dry spells, though, that can’t be explained away by his injury. Lots of average and even bad hitters can string together a few hot 10-20 game stretches in a season, though. Tabata has to prove he’s capable of more than that because the Pirates need him to be more than that. 

Tabata’s never had an overwhelmingly good season, though it’s always been perfectly reasonably to look past that given his age relative to each level and the fact that he never really stayed at any one level for too long. He’s heading into his third year at the big league level, now, and I think it’s reasonable to hope to see some improvement, even if Tabata’s still relatively young at 23. That means that I, personally, want to see him go beyond what the projection systems have him pegged for. Really, the most important thing (to me) is to see that he’s progressing beyond where he was when he came up in 2010. I think that that’s most likely to come in the form of an improved OBP, but I won’t complain if his power stroke starts to develop a bit more in 2012. Right now, Tabata hits like a decent center fielder. The Pirates didn’t trade for him to be a decent centerfielder, nor is that what they need him to be. Hopefully 2012 will be the year he starts to move beyond that.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.