AL WestAnalysis

Kyle Tucker Rising

The Astros have a top five pick from the 2015 draft leading the team in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and slugging percentage, checking in just barely behind Carlos Correa in FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement. No surprise there. 

The surprise is that it’s not Alex Bregman.

If Samuel Beckett had written a play for Astros fans the past few years, they could have watched “Waiting for Tucker”. The 2015 draft turned out particularly rich for the Astros, getting the second pick as compensation for not signing Brady Aiken, and the fifth pick for their record. Alex Bregman went second, and debuted a year later, followed by filling a key role on the 2017 champions. Tucker, as a high schooler in the draft, always projected on a longer path to the team. But he immediately became the Astros’ fourth best prospect (according to Baseball America), and came in as the team’s second-best prospect each year thereafter. From 2017-2019, Baseball America ranked him in their top twenty prospects in all of baseball. And still, Astros fans waited.

The Astros called Tucker up in 2018, hoping that he could show himself ready to contribute in the postseason. Instead, Tucker hit a miserable .141/.236/.203. “No worries,” fans thought, “Bregman struggled when he came up, too.” (Readers may recall that Bregman started his professional career 2 for 38. No, this is not an invitation to make a sign-stealing joke.)

“Mr. Tucker told me to tell you he won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.”

The 2019 season arrived, and the Astros signed Michael Brantley to play left field, closing an opportunity for Tucker. Once called up with the September roster expansions, Tucker acquitted himself well, batting .269/.319/.537. Of course, he found himself overshadowed by the exploits of Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, who seized the DH role many expected Tucker to fill. The Astros decided to include Tucker on the postseason roster, but that did not go well: 2 for 12 with 7 strikeouts.

“Mr. Tucker told me to tell you he won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.”

By the start of the 2020 season, Tucker represented one of the team’s biggest question marks. Would the Astros get the September hitter who looked to have gotten more comfortable with major league pitching? Or would the postseason version who looked hopelessly overmatched show up again?

Through August 10, fans seemed to have their answer, with Tucker starting out .190/.230/.328. Perhaps Mr. Tucker wouldn’t be coming after all. But on August 11, something seemed to switch, and Tucker has hit a scorching .333/.404/.800 since, out-slugging all but seven players in all of baseball during that time. So what caused the change?


Let’s look back at Tucker’s 2018. During that slow start, he appeared to just drive the ball into the ground repeatedly:

Courtesy Baseball Savant
Courtesy Baseball Savant

Tucker hit the ball reasonably hard, averaging 91 mph exit velocity (versus the league average of 88 mph), and his average launch angle of 15.6 degrees actually exceeded the league average of 12.4 degrees; however, as you can see from the above graphic, this resulted from several popups combined with ground balls, as opposed to consistently driving the ball.

During the 2019 season, Tucker seemed to solve this issue:

Courtesy Baseball Savant

Tucker didn’t hit the ball significantly harder – averaging 92 mph, just a tick above the previous year – but he increased his average launch angle by 4 degrees, and as you can see from the graphic, did this with much greater consistency. (The league averages remained essentially unchanged.)

Starting the 2020 season, the old roundball habits showed up again for the young Astro:

Courtesy Baseball Savant

This stretch represented the worst of Tucker’s career, with an exit velocity of only 87 mph, and a launch angle of 8.7 degrees. But around August 11, something changed for Tucker, and he began hitting line drives again:

This looks consistent with Tucker’s 2019 results – an average exit velocity of 92 mph and a launch angle of 15.6 degrees. So why the far superior results to 2019? Well, that’s where we run into the effects of Coors Field and small samples. With a couple of games in Colorado, those line drives turned into homers and triples, rather than doubles – pumping his actual slugging percentage up to .800, rather than the .565 his quality of contact would project. A slugging percentage over .550 certainly would make the Astros happy, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking Kyle Tucker just morphed into Barry Bonds.

If you want to credit the change to one thing, it looks like a change in approach. Look at the spray chart for all of Tucker’s balls in play up to August 10:

That’s the chart of a player trying to pull everything, and rolling over most of it. It’s a risk with Tucker’s uppercut swing; getting on top of the ball becomes too easy when your timing gets off, especially swinging a little too early. Compare that to Tucker’s spray chart since August 11:

That’s a hitter who’s found his timing, driving the ball to all fields. That’s a hitter who can help anchor a lineup, rather than the ground ball machine who might have struggled to stay in the lineup without so many injuries surrounding him.

Kyle Tucker won’t keep up the torrid pace of the last two weeks, but the Astros may have finally witnessed his arrival as the hitter they thought they had drafted.

Featured image courtesy of Astros.com

Michael Shopoff

Part-time writer, full-time dad. Unapologetic Astros fan. Please don’t do “Houston, we have a problem” - we can all do better!

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