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Is Kyle Tucker Making Progress?

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Houston Astros v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Ted? Or Mister Ed?

He’s been controversial from the start. His enthusiasts called him Ted. You know, after Teddy Ballgame. Others have analyzed his long, unorthodox, pretzely, swing and have thought, “No way. This guy will be a big league star when horses talk.”

So far, the results are not there. A career OPS of .633, and he’s worse this year than last.

His supporters shout: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. Don’t give up on the next Kenny Lofton, Jose Abreu, Curt Schilling, J.D. Martinez, Luis Gonzalez, ( a pretty good analog) like the Astros gave up on these future superstars.

On the other hand, do I need to make a list of the hyped prospects in Astros History that flopped?

On and on and on we go.

A famous New York mayor from more peaceful days use to always ask, “How’m I doin?” Today we ask, how’s Ted doin? But even more importantly, how is the future right field heir apparent adjusting and progressing?

How’s he doin?

Not too well. And he’s not improving. But before I lose his fans in this article let me concede the sample size argument. You can’t judge a young player by his first 176 plate appearances. And you can’t judge anybody in this weirdo, 2020 season, by 32 plate appearances. His OPS is almost identical to Jose Altuve’s this year. Why not give up on him too?

OK. But how’s he doing?

Let’s look at Tucker’s traditional statistics for his first three (short) seasons.

2018: 72 PA.... .141 BA.... .235 OBP.... .203 SLG.... .439 OPS.... .176 BABIP

2019: 72 PA.... .269 BA... .319 OBP.... .537 SLG.... .857 OPS.... .326 BABIP

2020: 32 PA.. .200 BA.... .250 OBP... .300 SLG... .550 OPS.... .286 BABIP

Career: 176 PA ..205 BA.. ..273 OBP.. .360 SLG... .633.OPS.... ..252 BABIP

Clearly we see improvement last year from year one and regression this year from last. Again, small sample size reservations apply. Given that, BABIP variations, (luck) seem to explain the season to season variations to a degree. His worst season, the first, had a terribly unlucky batting average on balls in play. Last year, his luck was the reverse, and this season his BABIP is about where it should be, and thus this season is producing better results than his first but worse than last year’s.

A look at more advanced stats year-to-year show a remarkable consistency in Tucker’s batting and no evidence of progress. Actually, his batted ball profile this year looks more like his first season than it does his improved year two.

For example, according to Statcast his exit velocity is 91.1. That’s closer to 2018’s 90.7 than to 2019’s 92.0. So far in 2020 his XWOBA is actually the lowest of his short career, .273, compared to .334 in 2018 and .350 in 2019. That only ranks in the 27th percentile.

The one part of Tucker’s batted ball profile that rates above average is his exit velocity. But critics have always pointed out that this is negated by the fact that most of these batted balls are ground balls hit directly into the radical shifts employed against him, and that his swing makes it nearly impossible for him to adjust.

Although he seemed to make progress in 2019 getting under the ball more, when it comes to pulling grounders into the right side shift, Tucker this year is having his worse season yet.

In 2018 Tucker hit 51.0% of his batted balls into the ground. This year it is 57.1%. His launch angle has dropped to it’s lowest: 13.5. In 2018 he hit 37.3% of his batted balls to the pull side. This year it is 52.4% His line drive% this year is almost identical to 2018; only 19.0% in 2020, 19.6% in 2018.

The fact that Tucker is hitting to the pull side spells more trouble than ever before. According to Statcast Tucker faced shifts only 36.1% of the time in 2018. This has increased to 83.9% of the time this year. On the few occasions he has not been shifted he has had a great season, hitting .591 WOBA. Unfortunately, he’s only hitting .154 into the shift, worse than 2018. He hit an unsustainable .403 into the shift in 2019, which helps explain his high BABIP last year.

It is possible that pitchers are tending to pitch him inside to induce him to hit into the shift.

Here’s the pitch heatmap for Tucker in 2020.

Notice the low inside bias.

And here’s Tucker’s spray heatmap.

Unfortunately, Statcast did not keep these charts on Tucker in 2018 and 2019.

In summary, we saw hopeful improvement in Kyle Tucker in 2019, but in the small sample of 2020 we’ve seen regression to the disappointing 2018 Tucker.

Obviously, no one in the Astros organization is giving up on Tucker after 32 PA’s in this, the strange 2020 season of the Virus. But the small sample size argument becomes less and less tenable with every additional at bat he takes. If he doesn’t start distinguishing himself soon from Josh Reddick and Myles Straw, his AB’s are going to be coming fewer and more far between with the much anticipated arrival of the Yordan machine.