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Taking stock of Kyle Tucker’s slow start in Spring Training

The time of the year where the process matters more than the end result.

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about the competition between Josh Reddick, the grizzled veteran, and Kyle Tucker, the former top prospect still looking for his first real shot in the majors. Barring an unexpected development, both outfielders are viewed as locks to make the team out of camp, thanks to, in part, rosters expanding to 26 players starting this season. At this point, the Astros are stuck with Reddick and his $13 million expiring contract. And, frankly, Tucker needs to prove something at the major league level instead of toiling away in Round Rock for one more year.

At the time of this writing, the Astros are only ten games into Spring Training. While there are some helpful indicators (changes in velocity, mechanics, batting stances, strikeout rates, etc) that may pinpoint players to closely watch in the new season, the results don’t really matter. Stats, after all, require at least some time before those figures become more stable. Only then can we begin to glean meaningful insight. For example, I feel as if that is important point to highlight in light of Tucker’s struggles at the plate in camp, in which he is currently ensnared in an 0-for-15 slump in 17 plate appearances. It isn’t the end of the world, or Tucker’s major league aspirations, if he finishes camp with an OPS lower than my weight.

Ultimately, I decided to compare Tucker’s current slide with other hitters during Spring Training in the last two years. After I searched for hitters with at least 35 plate appearances, which seems like a fair estimate over the course of Spring Training, and an OPS below .700, I found a mix of players from stars to scrubs. I decided to cherry-pick five players who each experience a rough Spring Training at the plate, then I added their respective OPS figures in roughly the same amount of plate appearances to start that subsequent regular season.

2018-19: Spring Training vs. Regular Season OPS

2019 Andrelton Simmons 44 0.299 52 0.545
2019 Jason Heyward 42 0.398 50 1.160
2019 Aledmys Diaz 50 0.453 50 0.678
2018 Shohei Ohtani 36 0.347 37 1.054
2018 Alex Gordon 64 0.398 57 0.623

Probably the most notable example from the five players above was Shohei Ohtani and his debut season (2018) in the majors. As you may recall, his Spring Training numbers that year were not impressive, both as a hitter and a pitcher. Looking back, those struggles shouldn’t have come as a surprise for someone making the jump from the international circuit to American baseball in a new country. Those type of transitions usually take a bit of time for players to properly adjust. But once the regular season started, Ohtani started his journey as a star-in-the-making with a 1.054 OPS in his next 37 plate appearances. Sometimes all a struggling hitter needs is just a bit of time and reps to work out any issues at the plate. But as we can tell from the cherry-picked sample above, some hitters can also start off Spring Training cold and stay, well, cold into the regular season.

With Tucker, we’re not sure yet which route he’ll traverse in 2020. To his credit, he isn’t striking out at high clip right now (three strikeouts total), which means the outs have mostly been balls in play. If memory serves me well, I recall a certain issue with Tucker with having a bunch of batted balls fall for outs in 2018, which showed up as a large discrepancy between his actual wOBA (.207) and expected wOBA (.323). Sooner or later, one would think that more of those batted balls will become hits. If the struggles persist, however, don’t worry too much right now. Spring Training is more about working on the processes, not necessarily the results.