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Deep Dive: Kyle Tucker - Is His Breakout Legitimate?

Utilizing sabermetrics to break down Kyle Tucker’s 2020 campaign

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker’s name had been involved in countless trade rumors before the 2020 season. Dating all the way back to 2016, speculation about Tucker’s availability in potential trades was common. Fast forward to late 2018: after signing Michael Brantley — the trade speculation became more prevalent, and it was somewhat merited. The Astros were an elite club, and Tucker was a prospect — albeit a terrific one — who wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Furthermore, the outfield was already set, leaving him without a clear path to playing time. Even in 2019, there was speculation of a Tucker - Noah Syndergaard trade.

It would be fair to say that trading Tucker in 2018 or 2019 would’ve made some sense. The team was contending, so why not consider cashing him in for a high-quality big leaguer? Well, 2020 is why. To his credit, former GM Jeff Luhnow stuck to his guns for multiple years and maintained Tucker’s unavailability.

That decision has begun paying substantial dividends for the Astros.

The data in this article is via Baseball Savant and has been compiled as of 9/22/20.

Basic Overview

So far this season, Tucker is slashing .262/.315/.529 in 203 PA. With a walk rate of nearly 7.5% and a K percentage just below 22%, he’s right around his career rates in the minors. He’s slugged 9 HR and stolen 6 bags in 7 attempts. He is currently tied for 8th in the league in RBI with 41. Against southpaws, Tucker is hitting .226/.273/.468. His wOBA is .343 and, according to FanGraphs, his wRC+ is 125. Both are quite above-average. Aside from the mediocre OBP and the uneven numbers against lefties, those are some strong numbers.

Let’s see what they look like beneath the surface.

Super Complex Metrics

This is a nice image to look at (hello, defense):

Tucker’s making plenty of loud contact and does it with a quality launch angle of just over 14 degrees. Subsequently, his barrel rate is a good one at 9.7%. In 72 PA in 2019, Tucker posted a 30.1% whiff rate. However inflated that number could be due to a small sample size and inconsistent playing time, it is nonetheless down all the way to 22.8% this season.

As for Tucker’s batted balls overall, there’s nothing too surprising:

He’s very rarely making weak contact and has an above-average solid contact percentage. While he’s getting under too many balls, he’s also not topping them too much and putting them on the ground. I’d rather it be that way than the reverse. Lifting the ball is good.

And now a look at Tucker’s improved plate discipline, perhaps the biggest reason for his success this year:

He’s done well to get his chase rate down below the league average and it’s a pleasant surprise to see him make a lot of contact outside of the zone, which we’ll delve into a bit later.

So far, so good. Now, let’s look at more specific data.

Unbelievably Specific Data

For this next bit, we’re going to examine how pitchers are attacking Tucker and how he’s responding to them.

First, it should be noted that Tucker is punishing fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, cutter, sinker) this year, something the Crawfish Boxes had touched upon earlier in the season. He has a .389 wOBA and a .402 xwOBA against them. If that doesn’t impress, consider that he has roughly the same xwOBA against fastballs as Anthony Rendon, Charlie Blackmon, Whit Merrifield and J.T. Realmuto. Solid company.

Here is Tucker’s zone profile against fastballs:

Clearly, pitchers are throwing hard stuff away from him, and not just away, but out of the strike zone. Up and away and down and away, to be exact. How has Tucker fared against these fastballs away and out of the zone? Using some various metrics, let’s see:

Think that looks great? Now look at the league average for left-handed bats against fastballs away that are out of the strike zone:

That’s awfully pretty. To have great numbers against pitches outside the zone — fastballs or not — is special.

Next, we’re going to see how Tucker’s doing against the high heater, as it’s being thrown now perhaps more than ever. These are Tucker’s numbers against fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone:

At first glance, those look pretty damn good. What is the league average against fastballs in the upper third of the zone?:

Well, that’s a pretty massive difference. Additionally, Tucker’s whiff rate on fastballs up in the zone is 21.4%, markedly better than the 25.7% league average. Suffice it to say, Tucker likes the elevated fastball. The answer must be to keep the fastball down, right? Well, let’s assess:

And the league average:

Yeah, it’s just futile to throw the man fastballs. His numbers against them on the inner third of the zone are also excellent.

So, if it’s unwise to challenge Tucker with the heater, then all that can be done is mixing in breaking balls and offspeed pitches. Combining both of those categories of pitches (which consists of sliders, curveballs, changeups, splitters), Tucker’s overall numbers against them are more or less around the league average. This is what the zone profile looks like (again, I’ve combined breaking balls and offspeed pitches here):

It’s no shock to see that the vast majority of these pitches are thrown not just at the knees, but below them. How has Tucker done against these secondary pitches below the strike zone?:

Yeah, certainly not pretty, but they’re primarily chase pitches, so naturally the numbers aren’t going to look appealing. Maybe the league average for left-handed bats against those pitches, however, will look worse:

Indeed, they do. The glaring discrepancy in exit velocity is a cool advantage for Tucker. Know what’s cooler? Tucker’s hard hit rate against those secondary pitches below the zone: 13%. Think that doesn’t seem cool? Here’s the league average: 1.4%.

Just because, here’s some more numbers on those same pitches:

  • Tucker’s chase rate: 25.8%
  • League average chase rate: 34.5%
  • Tucker’s whiff rate: 45.7%
  • League average whiff rate: 56.5%

Like I said, Tucker’s made some significant improvements in his plate discipline and his ability to make contact with non-strikes.

TL;DR Version

It does appear that Tucker’s 2020 production is legitimate. Maybe I should have noted above that his xwOBA and his wOBA are identical and just left it at that, but where would the fun in that be? Like with my past dives, the data compiled is based on sample sizes that are more small than large (damn you, shortened season), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it again. At just 23, Tucker has a long career ahead of him. Now that he’s no longer merely a prospect, projecting him is less theoretical.

Here’s my bold final statement: Kyle Tucker is good now and is going to be great for years to come.