Kyle Tucker made his highly anticipated major league debut on July 7, 2018, against the White Sox at Minute Maid Park. He collected his first major league hit, drove in a run, and scored a run that day despite going hitless in the other four plate appearances. At only 21 years old, the then-top prospect generated a large amount of excitement future with a .891 OPS at Triple-A Fresno. The thought back in the summer of 2018 was that he would (hopefully) soon embrace a prominent role in the lineup and help further enhance the team’s chances of winning another World Series title. Well, the opposite essentially happened as Tucker’s overall performance in his first 72 plate appearances — or 28 games — weren’t exactly inspiring.
- .141/.236/.203, 0 HR, 10 RS, 8.3% BB, 18.1% K, 28 wRC+
A common theme among certain factions of the fanbase in that subsequent offseason was the idea that the Astros could trade Tucker to improve the product at the major league level. After all, the argument was that the club was in the middle of arguably its best window to win another World Series and couldn’t afford to wait on the development of an unproven outfielder. Maybe Tucker’s offensive performance in those first 72 plate appearances could indicate that he wasn’t as good as advertised? The PCL, which was the league that the Fresno Grizzlies played in, was considered friendly towards hitters, not pitchers. Could those impressive numbers be artificially inflated due to park factors? Could he ever adjust to major league pitching or the environment? Did opposing pitchers already have the “book” on how to neutralize him best? In other words, there was a lot of doubt surrounding Tucker’s future among the fans. And don’t you know that fans know best? It was also incredibly frustrating.
The chatter about a trade involving Tucker persisted off-and-on for quite some time. It isn’t a secret that other clubs were probably inquiring about his availability. While former general manager Jeff Luhnow never appeared likely to trade Tucker, you just never knew if — or when — the right deal would come around. Never say never, right? Thankfully, the Astros were always well aware not to let only 72 plate appearances dictate a decision about a player’s future. Put your trust in the player instead and let the development process bear its fruit — good or bad — in due time. Look at the underlying figures and take those into account. It takes much longer than 72 plate appearances for stats to stabilize and obtain a more accurate reading about any hitter.
Fast forward to the present day in 2021, and the Astros are firmly entrenched atop of the AL West once again. Even with a noticeable talent drain in the past two offseasons, this club remains in a prime position to chase another World Series title. While some of the usual suspects in the lineup are still driving Houston’s success (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman), there has been a slew of new contributors taking center stage. Yordan Alvarez, for example, is a prominent force in this lineup with his epic moonshot. Michael Brantley remains ever consistent, ever fabulous. Aledmys Díaz stepped up in Bregman’s absence when he was available. A trio of young but unproven outfielders has helped occasionally soften the blow of George Springer’s departure. And Tucker, the prospect some wanted to trade following 72 plate appearances back in 2018, has arguably been a top-twenty hitter in baseball this season. Or, you know, a star.
- .297/.356/.557, 26 HR, 77 RS, 8.6% BB, 15.5% K, 148 wRC+
One glance at the leaderboards demonstrates why one can make such a claim in 2021. Think about it in this manner: Tucker has been near if not as valuable as Aaron Judge this season, at least according to wRC+ and fWAR. Consider the context of Tucker’s debut and the questions surrounding him, some of which were vastly overblown. While he may not look pretty out in the field or the box (hi, Hunter Pence!), one can’t argue against results. If someone claims that a player's aesthetics are crucial to success, tell them nicely to buzz off.
The primary forces behind Tucker’s ascent this season are likely based on his approach at the plate. It probably isn’t a coincidence that his offensive value has risen while his strikeout rate has dropped. It wasn’t like he was exactly struggling in 2019 or 2020, but his numbers have taken a significant leap this year. He’s lifting the ball more into the air based on batted ball percentages and average launch angle. He’s also hitting a healthy amount of barrels, which are good! When he does make contact, he is only hitting into soft contact about 10 percent of the time. For both Tucker and the Astros, those positive trends are splendid news. Another building block for a team that most people hate right now. Don’t you love to see it?