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The Astros’ other rookie: Preston Tucker

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Lost amid the hullabaloo over Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, the Astros "other" rookie Preston Tucker has made quite an impact on the Astros 2015 playoff season.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Ancient History

Back in 2012 I told the tale of an SEC senior slugger who had a chance to make the big leagues, if only the Astros would draft him.  His name was Preston Tucker, and he torched college baseball throughout his record-setting career.  Scouts lauded the bat while noting that he was strong, but short.

Low and behold, in the first of my many accurate prognostications that would bring shame not only on the house of Nostradamus, but also distant cousins Mouthstradamus and Foreheadstradamus, the Astros selected Tucker in the seventh round of the 2012 first-year player draft.

Recent History

When Tucker reached the big leagues in early May of 2015, I wrote about him at length again.  Tucker had just finished a two and a half year minor league career that had elevated him to "bad body potential platooning role player" to "just outside the Top 100 prospects".  During that time, he hit an impressive .294/.363/.503 over 348 minor league games with 68 home runs.

At the time, it seemed like Tucker was a temporary replacement for Houston’s Right Fielder George Springer, who landed on the DL with concussion symptoms after winning a fight with the outfield wall.  But that thought proved fleeting when in May, Tucker batted .306/.377/.516 to begin his major league career.

Today

Tucker, obvs and for totes, did not maintain his May pace throughout the season, or else the whole baseball kingdom would be touting him as a shoo-in for the American League Rookie of the Year award.  Alas for humanity that it was not so, because then we wouldn’t be dealing with the stress of Francisco Lindor and his Clevelander cronies daring to suggest that anybody besides an Astro should take home the honor.

Tucker struggled through June, batting only .189, before mashing his way through July (.314/.344/.570).  But the league caught up to him in the rest of the season, during which he managed only a line of .167/.217/.321.

A quick digression: for those who bemoaned the lack of Tuckerness from the ALDS starting lineup, read that last paragraph again, and you will understand why.  From August on, Tucker swung at one of every three pitches outside the zone.  Considering that his power numbers disappeared like a hot dog at an eating competition on pitches outside the zone, it’s safe to say that he needs to re-adjust to how pitchers in the majors are approaching him. 

102215 Tucker heat

Source: Fangraphs.com

That said, other than on ground balls, Tucker did not display a tendency to pull the ball.  However a large number of flies to opposite field may indicate that his bat speed (a concern among some scouts) may not be catching up to certain pitchers, or that pitchers are attacking him away (seems probable from the heat chart above), or both.  He seems particularly susceptible to hitting fastballs to opposite field rather than pulling them, as shown below.  This is not necessarily concerning, as many successful batters show this same tendency.  In all, there is nothing in Tucker’s spray chart to indicate concern that he may be overmatched in the big leagues, though it is obvious that he needs to adjust to how good pitchers are attacking him in 2016.

102215 Tucker 1

Source: baseballsavant.com

102215 Tucker 2

Source: Baseballsavant.com

Even more to Tucker’s credit, his average batted ball velocity of 90.55 mph ranked among the top 25% of batters this season.  That velocity, for comparison, was within one-half of a mph of Prince Fielder, Bryce Harper, Robinson Cano, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Upton, Carlos Correa, Todd Frazier, and Evan Longoria.

Before and during Tucker’s minor league career, some scouts speculated that he would end up a platoon bat, a lefty who mashed righties but who should never face a like-handed pitcher.  His minor league performance didn’t exactly back this up, since he hit .321/.377/.512 against southpaws, though in a comparatively small 363 plate appearance sample (according to the no-longer-updated minorleaguecentral.com).

The Astros’ use of him in 2015 spoke towards an apparent doubt that he is currently ready to hold his own against major league lefties.  In 68 plate appearances against them, he hit only .200/.235/.231 for a 25 wRC+ (ew!).  That’s even with a .265 BABIP that was only nine points lower than his BABIP versus right-handed pitchers.  In clear terms, Tucker stunk against left handed pitching in 2015. Stunk badly.

Against righties, however, he was downright fearsome.  During the season he managed a 120 wRC+ against them, meaning he provided 20% more value than the average major league batter – no small feat for a rookie!  His batting performance against righties ranked third on the club behind Carlos Correa and Luis Valbuena, better even than Springer or postseason superhero Colby Rasmus.

In a search for comparable players who made their debuts as 24-year-old lefty sluggers, one can quickly discover that Preston Tucker is utterly unique in MLB history.  There has never been a left-handed batter who debuted between the ages of 24 and 26 who managed an OPS+ between 90 and 110 and a WPA (win probability added) between 1.2 and 1.5…except for Preston Tucker.

Really, that’s a useless point, other than to mention that Tucker had a significant impact on the Astros making the postseason at all, which is good.

Expanding the search to get rid of WPA and the "rookie" requirement comes up with an interesting list of booms and busts, though.

102215 Tucker chart

Source: BaseballReference.com

At his age, Tucker had a comparable season as fellow lefty or switch-hitting success stories as Chase Headley, Nick Swisher, Brandon Moss, and Jed Lowrie.  But there are other cautionary names on that list as well, like Eric Thames and J.B. Shuck.

Tomorrow

Preston Tucker showed in 2015 that he could hang and punish major league pitching – at least of the right-handed variety.  Currently, projection systems think that he will continue in a platoon role with the Astros in 2016, though that likely is a result of an algorithm that heavily weights the most recent season.  Baseball Reference thinks he will hit around .254/.311/.435 over 362 plate appearances, but Steamer is less enthused, projecting .252/.307/.428 over 128 plate appearances.  Neither system projects growth beyond 2015’s performance, which seems unlikely for a decently-pedigree’d Rookie.  But to be fair, plenty of batters have not been able to make the adjustment once major league pitchers "figure them out" either.

Fair to say that at this point, Preston Tucker could end up Carlos Lee, or he could end up Mike Jacobs.

One wonders if Tucker will get the opportunity to grow into a full-time role with the Houston Astros by learning how to hit left handers.  Before 2015, it would have been easy to envision a young club allowing a promising slugger to figure out his struggles at the major league level.  But the 2016 Astros figure to contend again.  Tucker’s most contributive role on the team may be the same as it was in 2015 – a strictly platoon bat who plays well-above average against right-handers.  But with returning everyday outfielders Carlos Gomez and Springer manning center and right, and with Evan Gattis for now entrenched in the DH spot, it would only take one free agent signing or major trade to push Tucker into a superfluous bench role.  On the other hand, if Tucker improves and has the opportunity to show better results against left-handed pitchers, he could become a well-above-average corner outfield batter on a championship contending team like the 2016 Astros.

The Astros boast a couple of legitimate AL Rookie of the Year candidates in shortstop Carlos Correa (.279/.345/.512 with 22 HR and 14 SB over 99 games) and starting pitcher Lance McCullers (3.22 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 125 innings pitched).  With teammates like that, not to mention a bevy of other impressive seasons by rookies who burst into the majors in 2015 like supernovas, Tucker does not have a good chance to even finish in the Top 10 of the ROY voting.  But that doesn’t mean that his 2015 season was not impressive, nor does it mean that he does not have a bright future in the major leagues.