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Yankees’ Mike Tauchman First Did His Homework, Then Got His Chance

Based on some advanced metrics, Mike Tauchman has been either the second- or fifth-most valuable Yankee this season — ahead of stars such as Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Even the Colorado Rockies, who drafted Tauchman and played him in 52 major league games, can be forgiven if they do not recognize him.

So how did Tauchman, a 10th-round draft pick in 2013 out of Bradley University, go from being a fringe prospect to a key contributor in the first-place Yankees’ battered lineup? It took time, smarts and a reliance on the data that has transformed the sport.

“He’s a really cerebral guy,” Marcus Thames, the Yankees’ hitting coach, said. “He takes the numbers and uses them to the best of his abilities. It’s been helping him a lot.”

Injuries to 27 players have not been able to sink the Yankees this season because of replacements like Domingo German, Gio Urshela and Tauchman. The Yankees traded the pitching prospect Phillip Diehl to the Rockies for Tauchman days before the season began to bolster their outfield depth after a back injury to center fielder Aaron Hicks.

The Yankees had their eye on Tauchman, 28, for some time. Their scouts and analytics departments identified him as a player with untapped potential who was stuck on the Rockies without a clear role in the major leagues. He was a successful minor league hitter, but hit only .153 in limited action in the majors. The Yankees coveted his ability to play stout defense at all three outfield spots.

ImageCreditNick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Part of Tauchman’s emergence has simply been a matter of opportunity. After getting only infrequent starts and pinch-hit appearances with the Rockies, he has hit .289 with 12 home runs and 42 R.B.I. in 69 games for the Yankees.

While he and the Yankees were roughed up by the surging Cleveland Indians on Thursday night — he was 0-for-4 in a 19-5 loss — his .926 on-base plus slugging percentage trailed only Urshela’s on the team. Tauchman got the night off on Friday, when the Yankees beat the Indians, 3-2, behind a strong start from Masahiro Tanaka (two runs allowed — both on solo homers — over six and one-third innings.)

Variations of the advanced metric WAR (wins above replacement) have rated Tauchman, thanks to his overall play, as a top-five Yankee this season.

“We saw a lot of upside, that this guy could impact us at the big-league level,” Manager Aaron Boone said this month. “And he certainly has.”

To make the most of his playing time, Tauchman has relied on the tools at his disposal. “I kind of had to in order to get good,” he said.

He devours video and data on pitchers’ tendencies on his team-issued iPad. He improved his swing over the years using biometric equipment. And he is curious about how modern baseball works: He was reading “The M.V.P. Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players,” by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.

“He’s a student of hitting and the game,” said infielder D.J. LeMahieu, who played with Tauchman in Colorado. “He’s grown a lot from when he first came up to where he is now. He’s very prepared.”

ImageCreditGail Burton/Associated Press

Because most of the pitchers he has faced are new to him, Tauchman has a method of preparation. He said he tried to paint a picture of his coming at-bats. If the pitcher throws fastballs in the low 90s with a lower arm slot, he thinks back to past pitchers with a similar look to visualize what will come.

Tauchman then goes deeper by studying pitchers’ tendencies. If an opponent throws a changeup only 11 percent of the time over all — but 30 percent for the first pitch — he can eliminate the pitch in most situations. He tailors his plan for each pitcher based on his own strengths — which pitches and in which locations can he hit the ball the best — and sticks firmly to it.

“With hitting, ultimately you’re reacting,” he said. “But you’re also taking calculated and educated guesses at what he’s going to throw. So the more stuff you can eliminate, the better your guesses are going to be.”

Teammates and coaches said Tauchman asked a lot of questions, even of pitchers on his own team, before and during games. Since he is a left-handed hitter, he closely watches how opposing pitchers attack other lefties, like Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius or the switch-hitting Hicks.

“And because I hit ninth, I have time to see that,” he said.

There is one foundational pitch that Tauchman said he made sure he could always hit: the fastball. Hitting is hard enough, let alone when a player doesn’t start regularly or enters the game late to face hard-throwing relief pitchers. And with velocity increasing in the majors each season, Tauchman said, he always prepares for a pitcher’s best fastball.

“If it’s 96 miles per hour, I want to be ready for it,” he said. “And if it’s still 93, I’m still in a good spot. If it’s 94, I’m good. But I don’t want to be ready for 92 and have the guy throw 97.”

The result: Tauchman was 17th in baseball (among hitters with at least 75 plate appearances) with a .361 average against four-seam fastballs. Seven of his 12 home runs have been on fastballs.

The lack of power earlier in his career held Tauchman back. He hit no less than .286 in each of his first four minor league seasons, but with eight home runs total. So he sought help.

“I felt like if I’m going to go any further and stay, I need to hit for power,” said Tauchman, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. “I’m big enough and strong enough to, and I don’t understand why I’m not.”

ImageCreditDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

Tauchman, a suburban Chicago native, found an answer with Justin Stone, a former college baseball player who uses video and analytics at Elite Baseball Training in Chicago. Players have increasingly turned to private hitting coaches with modern techniques.

When Tauchman first visited Stone, in the winter before the 2017 season, his swing was tested with three-dimensional sensors and plates that measure force. They found that while Tauchman had a knack for making contact, he was inefficient in transferring power from his legs, core and hips because the kinetic chain wasn’t in the right order.

“He was swinging top down, instead of using the biggest muscles of the body to propel the swing,” Stone said in a telephone interview.

By correcting this, Tauchman’s swing produced more lift and power. He jumped to 16 home runs in 2017 and 20 in 2018 with the Rockies’ Class AAA affiliate in Albuquerque.

Tauchman has returned to work with Stone, who was hired as the Chicago Cubs’ biomechanical hitting consultant in 2018. Initially, Stone guided Tauchman through the tweaks and information. Since then, Stone said Tauchman has been the one peppering him with ideas and questions on how to improve his swing or approach.

“I work with thousands of players, but he is one of the most cerebral,” Stone said. “As a biomechanics hitting coach, that’s exciting. He’s inquisitive. Instead of me saying, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ he’s coming to me about what he wants to test out.”

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