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Tuck on Roll: Astros Have Best New Player

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros are in an unusual situation: five games under .500 with Memorial Day looming like a mountain looming in an airplane window. And they’ve won nine of their last 11 to even come close.

The Astros had their ups and downs during their run of seven straight ALCS appearances, including a season in which they finished below .500 but came within a game of making the World Series anyway. But barring another pandemic — which might happen if you jokers keep drinking raw milk — that’s not going to cut it in 2024.

Houston’s run over the past decade is a good illustration of the Ship of Theseus paradox. (Actually most of the a Spacethe ship of Theseus in this case. Because they’re the Astros.) Since 2015, there have been something like seven or eight players who have probably been named the Astros’ best player for at least half of the season. Most of them are no longer in the group; some of them are not even in the league anymore.

Now, it’s arguably Kyle Tucker’s turn.

It’s not like Tucker came out of nowhere; he was a top-five pick and a top-five MVP vote-getter last year. He had a rough first season in the majors; he hit .141/.236/.203 in 28 games in 2018, and looked thin and a little lost en route to that unimpressive streak. This was my last season living and working in Houston, and I held on to that first bad impression longer than I should have, but by the end of 2020, Tucker was clearly an All-Star-caliber righty. And with one consistency at that. Here are his past four seasons, with his 2020 numbers extended to fit a 162-game schedule.

Kyle Tucker The Amazingly Agreeable

2020* 157 616 24 89 113 22 .268 .325 .512 122 4.9
2021 140 567 30 83 92 14 .294 .359 .557 146 5.0
2022 150 609 30 71 107 25 .257 .330 .478 129 4.9
2023 157 674 29 97 112 30 .284 .369 .517 140 4.9

*Adjusted for a 162-game schedule

We entered 2024 knowing what Tucker is: a quality right fielder, year in and year out. He’s a 30-30 threat, because he once hit 30 homers and stole 30 bases, but not in the same season. He plays right field which is a solid defense. Maybe not a future MVP or Hall of Famer – unless he can continue to put up 5.0 WAR every year into his late 30s – but a very good player. A little swole Matt Holliday, maybe.

Now that we’re almost two months into the 2024 season, I want to know who this guy is and what he’s doing in a Tucker uniform.

Alien in Skin by Kyle Tucker

46 205 15 7 18.0 17.1 .284 .417 .623 192 3.0

I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math: The most consistent WAR player ever created is to go along with a 10.3 MPI this season, per our On-Pace leaderboards.

Even so far in the season, when a really good player hits like the MVP for a few months, it can be noisy. But there are four areas of Tucker’s game that have changed this season and lead me to believe that these two months are solid – at least to some extent. (All stats from this point forward are current for Saturday’s games unless otherwise noted. So as you look at Tucker’s batting averages, remember that there are two home runs on his record that aren’t represented here.)

First up is a big drop in swing rate and O-Swing%. As of 2020, Tucker has been a hitter, and he’s getting bigger as he gets older. In 2023, he was in the 86th percentile in chase rate and the 85th percentile in walk rate.

He is now in the 98th percentile in rushing. Does that mean you swing and miss a bit? No, in fact, Tucker’s rating was up about a point and a half from where it was in 2023, but that was a low performance. Whiff’s rate, like everything about Tucker, has been fairly consistent, never exceeding 2.5 percent from 20% since 2020.

And while Tucker is swinging and missing (slightly) more, he’s also taking some strikeouts. His called-strike percentage is the highest of any full season in his career. Because Tucker’s swing rate is low, across the board.

Tucker is down slightly in strikeout zone – hence the increase in strikeout percentage – but as I said his pass rush rate is down by what statisticians refer to as a “buttload.” He’s now the second-most picked player in baseball for pitches out of the zone, and his swing rate has dropped from the high 40s, which is a pretty good average, to around 40%.

Now, what is the obvious downstream effect of slow swing? Traveling a lot, of course, and Tucker does that too. That has changed no. 2. Last season marked the first time in his career that Tucker posted a double-digit walk average. Eight weeks into the 2024 campaign, he has the highest walk rate of any qualified hitter in baseball. That’s a 50-point bump in OBP, which would be enough to change the entire perception of Tucker’s career in itself. Tucker’s selling point going into this season was that he was a 30-30 prospect and a good defender in right field, with an OBP of .350 or .360. Impressive, but by no means unique. That player but with a .400 OBP or higher is… somewhere between 2018 Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts, I guess?

But wait, there’s more. Third change: He hits more balls in the air.

Tucker, who was already a good fly ball hitter, has reached an extreme level this year. His GB/FB ratio and FB% both rank in the top five in baseball. On hard hit balls, he puts three in the air for each ground ball. He doesn’t have much of the pull-happy fly ball power of someone like Isaac Paredes, but as a left-handed hitter who plays half of his games at Minute Maid Park, that’s not a problem. Houston is the land of kolaches and left field home runs. Be careful.

Tucker did a number on this field, but according to Baseball Savant, Minute Maid Park was the only field in the majors that this ball would hit. But being aware of your surroundings is a useful skill for a batsman; Tucker should not be denied for taking advantage of the Crawford Boxes rather than David Ortiz being defeated by all the doubles he hit on the Green Monster or the home runs he hit on them.

And, as always, when you hit the ball in the air, it helps to hit it hard. Tucker has been a fastball hitter for years, so point no. 4 is more of an evolution than a new frontier. Still, Tucker is slugging .820 against four-seamers through Sunday. According to Baseball Savant, he has 12 runs above average against four seamers, which is the highest number of any batter on any type of pitch.

Including Sunday’s action, Tucker has nine strikeouts this year off four-seamers and eight home runs (plus six doubles and six singles). Per Statcast, Tucker’s current slugging percentage against four-seamers would be tied for second-highest in hitting in a full season.

Best SLG vs. Four-Seamers, Statcast Era

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

A minimum of 2,000 sites in total are involved

Since the four-seam fastball is the most common pitch in sports, it seems like a good sign when a batter hits it.

You’ll notice that two of the six names on that list are recipients of two of the three richest contracts in baseball history, and Soto will make three of the four this offseason. Much of the free agent concern surrounding Houston these days revolves around Alex Bregman, and rightfully so, as his contract is up after this season.

But Tucker is only under team control through 2025, at which point he will become a free agent after his age-28 season, which is quite young. Even if he goes back to “just” the player he was before, he will have a big payday. Springer, for example, got six years and $150 million in Toronto even though he is two years older than Tucker when he hits free agency. That puts aside five years of inflation, and the argument that even a younger version of Tucker, a consistent five-win player, might be an attractive free agent proposition.

When I first thought about writing about Tucker, it was with the intention of bluntly stating that he might be a good candidate for Houston to trade up to restart its rebuild for the first time in more than a decade. Now, the Astros have started to heat up and reinsert themselves into the AL West picture. But even if that weren’t the case, Tucker would likely be moving from a fire-auction class of players to a class of players you keep at all costs.

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