(Editor’s note. The following article is written by the newest member of the TCB staff, Joe Traub. Joe grew up around baseball. His father was the General Manager of numerous AAA ballclubs, and Joe personally met such legends as Willie Stargell, Maury Wills and Tommy LaSorda as a small child. He has a degree in broadcast journalism from Weber State University, and worked this year as the Broadcast and Media Relations Assistant for the AA Biloxi Shuckers until Covid 19 shut down the minor league season.
Welcome, Joe, to the Crawfish Boxes)
Kyle Tucker’s Breakthrough
By Joe Traub
The Astros are scorchin’, man.
They’ve now won eight straight games. Mostly without players with names like Springer, Brantley, Verlander, Alvarez, Osuna. Damn, now even Alex Bregman’s on the shelf, and they still keep winning. And Altuve’s been so cold he might as well have been Jack Mayfield.
Instead, night after night, they have to rely on somebody new, somebody hardly anyone’s ever heard of, some sort of rookie. Guys like Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Cristian Javier, Brandon Bielak, Taylor Jones, Abraham Toro, a bunch of other unheralded rookies.
Oh yeah, Kyle Tucker. Not a rookie anymore. He lost his rookie eligibility in his last game of 2019. But he’s still young, he’s supposed to be the future, the post-Springer hope in the outfield, the next generation Astro, not these other guys.
Which is why his performance this season has been so concerning. Before the Astros hit the rare air of Denver last Wednesday, Kyle Tucker, the ghost of Astros outfield future, wasn’t scaring anybody but loyal Astros fans; a meager .576 OPS, an almost 30% K%, a wRC+ of only 51.
Remember Brett Wallace?
Hey, give the kid a fair chance, some say. Remember JD Martinez?
Last Sunday something happened. Kyle Tucker swung at a 2-2 four-seam fastball from Seattle Mariners reliever Erik Swanson in the bottom of the ninth inning and launched it well into the right-field stands. It was a walk-off solo homer, giving the Houston Astros a 3-2 victory and a three-game sweep.
And it wasn’t just the hit. As our erstwhile Ted rounded the bases, there was an effusive smile, a brimming joy on his face that we had never seen before, as though he had just had one of those magical a-ha moments. As though he had just seen the future, and saw that it works.
We wondered at the time, is this the breakthrough?
In Colorado these last two days, Tucker has responded with an emphatic: YES.
How many guys have gotten three triples in two games? And a homer. Five runs, six ribbies? Crushin’ it, bro.
The Astros can only hope this dramatic series of games really are the turning point in the young career of Tucker. A former first-round pick out of Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, Tucker quickly rose through the minor leagues before being promoted to Houston in 2018. However, he was unable to find consistent playing time, and as a result, spent the rest of that year shuttling between the Astros and Triple-A Fresno.
Following an affiliation change, Tucker was then stationed in Triple-A Round Rock for a majority of 2019 before being promoted in September. It was a well-deserved call-up as he completed a 30-30 season at Round Rock, just the fifth player to do so in Pacific Coast League history. He hit .269 with four long balls in 20 games, leading Astros brass to include him on the playoff roster.
Through 19 contests in this pandemic-shortened season, Tucker was hitting just .192. However, he has started to turn a corner in the last five games, going 8-for-19 to improve his season batting average to .239. Tucker has now played in 74 games at the big-league level and has a career average of .215, but the splits are the opposite of what one might think for a left-handed batter. He has thrived against southpaws in his big league career to the tune of a .304 clip, while righties have held him to .173 in 150 at-bats.
With each team in Major League Baseball only playing members of their own division and the sister division in the opposite league (AL West/NL West competition for the Astros), Tucker is seeing a healthy dose of pitchers in the AL West that he will likely face for years to come. These samples have produced a mixed bag of results so far. He is 0-for-5 against A’s starter Frankie Montas, although just one of those plate appearances produced a strikeout. However, Tucker did have success against Montas in the minor leagues, going 2-for-3 for Fresno in a contest at Nashville on August 3, 2018.
Although Tucker has only faced off with Mariners’ ace left-hander Marco Gonzales for three at-bats last Sept. 5, he came away with a memory of a lifetime as he launched his first major league home run off Gonzales. The southpaw did start for Seattle on Opening Night against the Astros, but Tucker was not in the lineup. Houston heads to the Pacific Northwest to face the M’s for three games from Sept. 21-23, so Tucker will have a chance to relive his moment of glory from last season if Gonzales is on the mound during that series.
Tucker has fared well against a pair of veteran lefties for the Arizona Diamondbacks this year. Facing Madison Bumgarner for the first time in his career on Aug. 4, Tucker went 2-for-3 off one of the best postseason pitchers of the last decade in an 8-2 victory for Houston in the desert. The next night, Arizona started Robbie Ray, who has been near the top of their rotation for many years. Tucker hammered a two-run homer in the second inning in his first ever plate appearance against the very formidable left-hander.
On Wednesday night at Coors Field in Denver, Tucker enjoyed what is arguably the best game of his big league career to date. He went 4-for-5 with all four hits coming in the final five innings of the contest, and three of them were extra-base hits. Tucker tripled in back-to-back frames, the latter driving in two runs. Facing veteran left-handed reliever James Pazos in the ninth inning, Tucker clobbered a two-run shot, his third of the season and second in the last four games.
As long as Kyle Tucker continues to contribute in the way he has been, he should keep seeing his name written on the lineup card by Astros’ first-year manager Dusty Baker. Sometimes one dramatic moment is all it takes for an athlete to turn his fortune around, and it is looking more and more like Tucker did that last weekend when he launched a walk-off homer.
Of course Tucker will not continue to produce a 2.333 OPS like he did the last two games in Colorado, but if he continues to make some of the fundamental changes in his approach that we have seen lately, his future indeed looks bright. In the last five games Tucker’s achilles heal, the ground ball, has been much less in evidence. His ground ball rate dropped by ten points, from 45% to 35%. His line drive and fly ball percentages have each gone up 5%. Getting the ball over the shift is the secret sauce for our new Ted, just as it was for his namesake.
Previously here at TCB, we noted that almost all of Tucker’s success had come off the fastball. But in the last five games he has hit .500 against the change, .400 against the slider, and 1.000 against the curve, according to Brooks Baseball
Houston is riding an eight-game winning streak - a lot of their success courtesy of Tucker’s bat.
If he can maintain this recent progress, there’s a star in the East rising in the Houston outfield.