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Preston Tucker's Rookie Season

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Sabermetrics: Answering A Question About Preston Tucker's Rookie Season Offense

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk Tucker.  No, the other Tucker--not the Astros' fifth pick in the draft.

A few days ago, a game thread comment asked a question about Preston Tucker.  Here is the gist of the question:

Question: Will someone write a sabermetric article about Preston Tucker's offensive potential?  Tucker may have a better offensive season than Kris Bryant.

This wouldn't be a sabermetric column if we didn't emphasize the small sample size warning.  Preston Tucker has batted in only 227 plate appearances. This isn't a reliable sample for predicting the future.  His end-of-season stat line could be quite different from his performance half-way through the season.  That said, we will examine his major league stats so far, assuming he can maintain his current performance for the rest of the season.

Let's start off by identifying Tucker's ranking on selected batting stats among all rookies:

wRC+ This is the overall offensive statistic (100= league average).  Tucker ranks 13th among rookies with 119.

ISO Isolated power is the measure of non-singles hitting power.   Tucker ranks 9th among rookies with a .205 ISO.

OBP On Base Percentage measures the player's rate of getting on base.  Tucker ranks 21st among rookies with a .317 OBP.

As for the comparison to the Cubs' Bryant, also a rookie---really, it's too early to say which player has been the better offensive player so far.  But it's pretty clear that Bryant has been the better overall player so far, with a 3.2 WAR compared to Tucker's 0.8 WAR.  WAR takes into account the positional difficulty as well as defense, and Bryant easily exceeds Tucker in those two areas of the game.   Focusing just on offense, the comparison depends on which offensive characteristics you prefer.  Bryant is much better at getting on base than Tucker (Bryant is ranked 4th among all rookies in OBP).  Tucker has shown slightly more power than Bryant, who has a .193 ISO.  On the overall offensive stat, wRC+, Bryant has been somewhat better than Tucker with a 122 (ranked eighth among rookies), compared to Tucker's 119 (ranked 13th).  It's fair to say that both Bryant and Tucker are having a nice rookie season on offense.

SIMILAR ROOKIE HITTERS

Another interesting approach to evaluating Tucker's rookie season is to find the most comparable rookie offensive stats over a period that encompasses more than a decade.  Using Fangraphs' batting statistic filters, I screened rookie seasons for the period 2003-2015 with the following filters: 6% - 9% walk rate; 19% - 23% strike out rate; ISO > .190; and 115-135 wRC+.   The screen produced four rookie seasons comparable to Tucker: Todd Frazier, Chris Shelton, Mike Jacobs. and Allen Craig.  Rate stats for these players' debut seasons are compared below.

Name Team BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Todd Frazier Reds 7.30% 22.20% 0.221 0.264 0.323 0.485 116
Chris Shelton Tigers 8.80% 20.70% 0.198 0.288 0.355 0.486 125
Allen Craig Cardinals 7.00% 19.20% 0.213 0.29 0.339 0.503 131
Mike Jacobs Mets 8.70% 20.10% 0.244 0.271 0.334 0.515 117
Preston Tucker Astros 7.00% 20.30% 0.205 0.262 0.317 0.467 119

As shown, above, the comparison produces a 3d baseman (Frazier), two DH/1b/catchers (Shelton, Jacobs), and an OF/1b (Craig).  As we know, Tucker is a corner outfielder.

Frazier's rookie season produced rate stats which are the most similar to Tucker.  If Tucker continues his current performance through the rest of his rookie season, his stat line may look almost identical to Frazier's early career.  Frazier has become one of the best power hitters in the National League; his current season is MVP caliber.  Frazier will have more value than Tucker because he plays third base and is considered a good defender.  But Frazier is a favorable offensive comp for Tucker.

Chris Shelton burst into the majors with record setting consecutive HRs, but his offense trailed off later in his rookie season.  After his rookie season, Shelton settled into a "AAAA player" role.  Shelton has gone to spring training with a number of teams, including the Astros, but never enjoyed subsequent success in the majors.

Mike Jacobs began his rookie season destroying the baseball (.710 SLG% in 30 games with the Mets) and was traded to the Marlins for Carlos Delgado.  Two years later Jacobs hit 32 HRs for the Marlins. The Royals acquired Jacobs as a platoon partner for Billy Butler at 1b, but he ended up as a DH, due to his mediocre fielding.  He was later DFA'd, and spent most of the remainder of his career in AAA.  He is currently playing in Mexico.

Around TCB, we sometimes use Allen Craig as an example of a Luhnow-drafted hitter.  Craig had four years as a successful offensive force for the Cardinals. During that period, he was one of the best clutch hitters in baseball.  Mysteriously Craig's offensive performance fell off a cliff in 2014.  The Red Sox DFA'd Craig this year, after a horrible start to the season, and he accepted assignment to AAA.  To this point, his AAA performance does not foretell any significant improvement.

The four comparable player include a bust (Shelton), two productive hitters with relatively brief careers (Craig and Jacobs) and one hitter who represents an all star career trajectory (Frazier).   This is small set of players, and we probably shouldn't read too much into the outcomes.  But the outcomes for Shelton, Craig, and Jacob illustrate the difficulties that defensively-challenged power hitters face in building long major league careers.  Tucker is a very talented hitter, but his defensive limitations reduce his margin of error in trying to achieve a star level career.

PLATOON SPLITS

Tucker's platoon split tendencies at the ML level will be a significant factor in projecting Tucker's future role.  Lefthanded bats tend to have a larger gap between L/R platoon splits.  If the hitting against lefthanded pitchers is weak, the lefthanded hitter is more likely to become a part time platoon bat.

So far, Tucker has been very weak against major league lefthanded pitchers.  His wRC+ is 158 vs. RHP and 22 vs. LHP.  Tucker is -5.6 runs above average against lefthanded pitchers.  If this tendency continued at the major league level, he surely would be pushed into a platoon role.  However, there is reason to believe that Tucker's platoon splits will regress in the direction of a more balanced L/R split.   The reasons?

First, splits at this stage of his career are a very small sample (66 PA), and regression is to be expected.  Second, Tucker exhibited almost a complete lack of a platoon split in the minor leagues (.889 OPS vs. LHP and .866 OPS vs. RHP).  Undoubtedly lefthanded pitchers are much craftier and more skilled in the majors.  Therefore, I wouldn't expect Tucker to exhibit the same degree of balance against LHPs in the majors.  But his minor league performance against LHPs lends credence to the idea that he will be a better hitter against lefthanders in the majors than he has shown so far.

So far this season, Tucker has a smaller gap between Pull and Opposite Field tendencies against RHPs than LHPs.



Pull% Oppo%
LHB Avg. vs. LH 37.80% 25.90%
Tucker vs. LH 48.9% 19.2%
Tucker vs. RH 41.9% 26.5%

Given the small sample, this may or may not be significant.  But one of Tucker's favorable hitting characteristics is the ability to hit the ball to all fields.  But he might have more difficulty doing that against same side pitchers.

As shown below, Tucker has more soft hit balls and less hard hit balls against lefthanded pitchers than the average lefthanded bat.  Again, this isn't surprising given his poor offensive stats against lefties so far this year.



Soft% Hard%
LHB Avg. vs. LH 20.60% 25.60%
Tucker vs. LH 25.5% 23.4%

We can speculate that regression may close this gap in the future.  However, this may depend on how he adjusts to major league lefthand pitchers.  In any event, the Astros' struggles to score runs against lefthanded pitching coincides with weak production by the lefthanded hitters (Castro, Tucker, Rasmus, Valbuena) against same side pitchers.  Tucker is among the Astros' lefthanded hitters who have been successful at creating runs against righthanded pitchers.

Tucker has more ability to hit the ball hard to all fields than the typical power hitter.  The table below compares Tucker to the average batter who plays the outfield.  The table shows the percentage of hard hit balls by direction (pulled, center, opposite field).  The highest percentage of Tucker's hard hit balls are associated with center, rather than pulled.  Typically, we expect power hitters to have more hard hits in the pulled direction.


Hard Hit Balls

Avg. OF Tucker
Pull 31.4% 29.2%
CF 31.8% 36.5%
Oppo 22.1% 30.0%

Also, Tucker has a higher percentage of hard hit balls to the opposite field than in the pulled direction.  The ability to hit the ball with power to all fields provides a number of advantages, including the potential to carry a higher BABIP, and the ability to exploit shifts and outfield defensive alignments.

Preston Tucker is in the midst of a good rookie campaign with the bat.  He won't be the best rookie hitter.  His own teammate, Carlos Correa, has a better chance at consideration for rookie of the year.  But it appears that Tucker will be a solid offensive weapon.