With the 2019 Houston Astros season firmly in the rearview mirror, it is natural to look back at key plate appearances to think “What could have been done differently to avoid this outcome?”
Howie Kendrick at the plate against Will Harris, in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
Jose Altuve at the plate against Stephen Strasburg, in the fifth inning of Game 6 of the World Series.
Pretty much any October plate appearance by an Astro with runners in scoring position.
But this is going to be an analysis of Kyle Tucker against Taylor Cole of the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim) in the eighth inning of Game 162 of the 2019 regular season.
It’s what every kid with a limited imagination dreams of in their backyard. An 8-3 lead, 1 out, a runner on first, in the eighth inning of a regular season game that has no importance whatsoever for either team.
This was actually so inconsequential an at-bat, nobody from Getty Images or USA Today even bothered to take a photograph of it. The lead photo for this article seems pretty close, until you realize that’s Martin Maldonado sitting behind the plate, because it’s a photo from 2018. But what better time to discuss inconsequential things than the offseason?
The at-bat actually did have some minor significance to Kyle, so let’s see what happened:
Pitch 1: 94 mph fastball middle-middle. Swing and a miss. Strike one.
Pitch 2: 89 mph changeup low and away. Swing and a miss. Strike two.
Pitch 3: 89 mph changeup low and away. Swing and a miss. Strike three, Yer out— of rookie eligibility!
That’s right! This 3 pitch strikeout at bat on Tucker’s last plate appearance on the last day of the regular season marked the moment Kyle Tucker exceeded his rookie limits.
It was the 131st at-bat of his career.
To maintain rookie status, a player must have not accumulated more than 45 non-September days on the 25-man roster, and must not have exceeded 130 at-bats.
At the time of his September 2019 call-up, Tucker was still under 45 non-September days, as he did not play with the big team at all in 2019 up until that point.
He had accumulated 64 big league at-bats, and coming into the final game of the regular season, Kyle Tucker’s career at-bat total sat at 129. He was not given the start in the game, so it looked like the Astros were going to let him exceed his rookie limits in the 2020 season instead. That would let him have a shot at succeeding Yordan Alvarez as the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year.
Instead, manager A.J. Hinch sent Kyle Tucker into the game in the fourth inning as a pinch runner with the Astros leading 8-1. He struck out in the sixth inning in his 130th career at-bat. When Hinch sent him back to the plate in the eighth inning for another plate appearance, his dreams of a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2020 were dashed.
Or were they?
Not every plate appearance is an at-bat. So let’s think here. What could Kyle Tucker have done to keep his rookie status intact for 2020? What could he have done to ensure that this final plate appearance of 2019 did not count as an official at-bat?
- Lay down a sacrifice bunt. There was a runner on first, after all, and only 1 out. Sacrifice bunts and flies do not count as at-bats. “And bunting is so easy!” says Game 7 of the World Series Robinson Chirinos. I’m sure it would have been no problem for Kyle to lay down only his second professional sacrifice bunt in the last 4 years. And also no problem for him to explain to A.J. in the dugout why the hell he elected to bunt a runner to second base with a 5 run lead in a meaningless game. Pass.
- Draw a walk. He swung and missed three times in a row, including on a fastball down Main Street. He had a 2019 BB% of 5.6% in the majors. That’s Dee Gordon and Rougned Odor territory. Even if Kyle committed to never swinging the bat, Taylor Cole’s first pitch showed that he could put the ball in the zone if he wanted to. The only way Kyle was walking is if a Jewish carpenter happened to come by to lay hands on him. (And even then, he’d have to face questions about why he did it on a Sunday.)
- Reach on Catcher’s Interference. Going to the plate with a goal of intentionally hitting the catcher with your wooden bat is not the best way to make friends in this league. There’s no guarantee the umpire would even notice, either. Just ask World Series Game 1 Josh Reddick.
- Screw it, just lean into it. Take a page from Bad News Bear Rudi Stein and let the pitch hit you. An HBP does not count as an official at-bat. Except there are a few problems with this strategy:
- Rudi wasn’t facing a pitcher throwing 94 mph heat.
- Kyle Tucker could not afford to risk injury. The Astros would eventually need him to pinch hit poorly in the postseason.
- Look at where the pitches were:
None of them even flirted within the inside part of the plate. Getting hit by any of these pitches would require more leaning than Morgan Freeman in an inner-city public school. Getting plunked didn’t seem to be in the cards.
None of these options would have been sustainable plans. The 131st at-bat was going to happen and there was nothing Kyle could do about it.
Unless. . . something could have prevented him from having a plate appearance at all.
Alfonso Marquez was the home plate umpire for that game. Marquez ejected six players and managers in 2019, fifth most in the majors. A well placed quip or word on the way to the plate and Kyle heads to the clubhouse still with 130 career at-bats. I’m sure George Springer could have offered some suggestions.
This is all likely meaningless. The Astros are still waiting for evidence that Tucker can be a reliable everyday major leaguer, much less a Rookie of the Year.
But if a year from now Tucker is sitting on a 30-30 2020 campaign and is watching Jo Adell hoist the AL Rookie of the Year trophy, he’ll look back at his 131st at-bat and think about the time he could have called the umpire a @$%^*&@#, and didn’t.
Yet isn’t that how it always is in life? You think of the exact right thing to say, but not until after the moment has passed.
He’s Kyle Tucker. And he’s not a rookie anymore. (But he could have been.)