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Tuck on Roll: The Astros Have a New Best Player

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros are in an unfamiliar situation: five games under .500 with Memorial Day approaching in the distance like a looming mountain out an airplane window. And they’ve won nine of their past 11 to even get that close.

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

Houston’s run over the past decade is a great illustration of the Ship of Theseus paradox. (Really more of a Spaceship of Theseus in this case. Because they’re the Astros.) Since 2015, there have been something like seven or eight players who could’ve reasonably been called the Astros’ best player for at least half a season. Most of them aren’t on the team anymore; some of them aren’t even in the league anymore.

Now, it is undoubtedly Kyle Tucker’s turn.

It’s not like Tucker came from nowhere; he was a top-five pick in the draft 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 skinny and a little lost on the way to that unimpressive line. This was my last season living and working in Houston, and I held onto that negative first impression longer than I should have, but by the end of 2020, Tucker was clearly an All-Star-caliber right fielder. And freakishly consistent one at that. Here are his past four seasons, with his 2020 numbers expanded to fit a 162-game schedule.

The Amazingly Consistent Kyle Tucker

SeasonGPAHRRRBISBAVGOBPSLGwRC+WAR
2020*157616248911322.268.325.5121224.9
202114056730839214.294.359.5571465.0
2022150609307110725.257.330.4781294.9
2023157674299711230.284.369.5171404.9

*Adjusted for 162-game schedule

We came into 2024 knowing what Tucker is: an All-Star-level right fielder, year in and year out. He’s a 30-30 threat, by virtue of once having hit exactly 30 homers and stolen exactly 30 bases, but not in the same season. He plays a solid defensive right field. Probably not a future MVP or Hall of Famer — unless he could continue to put up exactly 5.0 WAR every year into his late 30s — but a very, very good player. A less swole Matt Holliday, perhaps.

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

The Alien Wearing Kyle Tucker’s Skin

GPAHRSBBB%K%AVGOBPSLGwRC+WAR
4620515718.017.1.284.417.6231923.0

I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math: The most consistent 5 WAR player ever created is on pace for 10.3 WAR this season, per our On-Pace leaderboards.

Even this far into the season, when a really good player hits like an MVP for a couple months, it could be noise. But there are four components to Tucker’s game that have changed this season and lead me to believe these two months are — at least to some extent — durable. (All stats from this point forward are current through Saturday’s games unless stated otherwise. So as you gawk at Tucker’s batted ball numbers, bear in mind that there are two home runs on his record that aren’t represented here.)

The first is a massive drop in swing rate and O-Swing%. Since 2020, Tucker has always been a fairly disciplined hitter, and he’s become more so as he’s matured. In 2023, he was in the 86th percentile in chase rate and the 85th percentile in walk rate.

He’s now in the 98th percentile in chase rate. Does that mean he’s swinging and missing less? No, in fact, Tucker’s whiff rate is actually up about a point and a half from where it was in 2023, but that was a career low. Whiff rate, like everything else about Tucker, has been pretty consistent, never more than 2.5 percentage points away from 20% since 2020.

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

Tucker is swinging less within the strike zone — hence the increase in called strike percentage — but as I’ve said his chase rate has gone down by a proportion that mathematicians refer to as “a buttload.” He’s now the second-most selective hitter in baseball on pitches outside the zone, and his overall swing rate has dropped from the high 40s, which is pretty average, to almost 40% exactly.

Now, what’s an obvious downstream effect of swinging less? Walking more, of course, and Tucker is doing that too. That’s change no. 2. Last season marked the first time in his career that Tucker posted a double-digit walk rate. Through eight weeks of the 2024 campaign, he has the highest walk rate of any qualified hitter in baseball. That’s an instant 50-point bump in OBP, which would be enough to change the entire outlook of Tucker’s career on its own. The sell for Tucker heading into this season was that he was a potential 30-30 guy and good defender in right field, with an OBP of .350 or .360. Which is impressive, but by no means unique. That same player but with a .400 OBP or higher is… somewhere between 2018 Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts, I guess?

But wait, there’s more. The third change: He’s hitting even more balls in the air.

Tucker, who was already a pretty fly ball-happy hitter, has taken it to the extreme this year. His GB/FB ratio and FB% are both in the top five in baseball. On hard-hit balls, he’s putting three in the air for every one on the ground. He doesn’t have the extreme pull-happy fly ball power of someone like Isaac Paredes, but as a left-handed hitter who plays half his games in Minute Maid Park, that’s not a problem. Houston is the land of kolaches and cheap left field home runs. Observe.

Tucker still did a number on this pitch, but according to Baseball Savant, Minute Maid Park is the only stadium in the majors this ball would’ve gotten out of. But knowing one’s surroundings is a useful skill for a hitter; Tucker should no more be impugned for taking advantage of the Crawford Boxes than should David Ortiz lose all the doubles he pinged off the Green Monster or the home runs he hit over it.

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

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

Best SLG vs. Four-Seamers, Statcast Era

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Minimum 2,000 total pitches faced

With the four-seam fastball being the most common pitch in the sport, it seems like a good sign when a hitter tees off on it.

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

But Tucker’s only under team control through 2025, at which point he’ll be a free agent after his age-28 season, which is fairly young. Even if he reverts to “merely” the player he was before, he’d be in for an enormous payday. Springer, for example, got six years and $150 million from Toronto despite being two years older than Tucker will be when he hits free agency. That’s setting aside five years of inflation, and the argument that even the lesser version of Tucker, the consistent five-win player, might be a more attractive free agent proposition.

When I first thought of writing about Tucker, it was with the intention of cheekily insinuating that he might be a good candidate for Houston to trade in order to kickstart its first rebuild in over a decade. Now, the Astros have gotten hot and reinserted themselves into the AL West picture. But even if that weren’t the case, Tucker might be moving himself from the tier of players you trade in a fire sale to the tier of players you keep no matter the cost.

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