A Lump of Cole

At this time last year, Cole Tucker was expected to compete for the starting shortstop role in Pittsburgh. But after struggling at Spring Training, Tucker wasn’t assigned to PNC Park or the alternate site. Instead, he stayed in Bradenton to work on his swing at extended Spring Training. 

The focus for Tucker, the No. 24 pick in the 2014 draft, was on shortening his stride, solidifying his base and synchronizing his movements to both see the ball better and get more lift and power. 

“When your lower half is unstable, your head’s not going to be stable, and you’re not going to be able to swing at what you want to swing at,” Tucker told the Post-Gazette in May. “I’m seeing the ball better now.”

Tucker was assigned to Triple-A in May, went back and forth between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh for much of the summer, before spending all of September and October with the big-league club.

He had moments in which his talent was on full display, including this play:

Did his work at extended spring training pay off at the plate? The high-level numbers indicate only a modest improvement:

2019 AAA 353 .261 .346 .413 95
2019 MLB 159 .211 .266 .361 60
2020 MLB 116 .220 .252 .275 42
2021 AAA 263 .223 .350 .373 101
2021 MLB 131 .222 .298 .342 75

In the last three seasons, his Statcast expected batting averages (xBA) in the majors were .236, .195, and .228, which show that the underlying traits of his balls in play were unspectacular. 

“I didn’t light up the stat sheet or anything, but I definitely felt like pitchers were fearing me and I was getting pitched around,” Tucker said. “When they did give me stuff to hit in the zone, I was really attacking it and hitting it hard.”

Was he getting pitched around more? Not according to his MLB Zone% stats, which show how many pitches were in the strike zone: 

2019 41.0%
2020 44.6%
2021 43.2%

Was he attacking pitches in the zone? Here are his MLB Z-Contact% numbers, which show how much contact he made with pitches in the strike zone:

2019 83.2%
2020 83.9%
2021 87.4%

That’s progress. Perhaps his quieter lower half helped him reduce head movement and see the ball better. 

Was he hitting the ball harder? According to his MLB hard hit stats, barrels and exit velocities, he was hitting the ball better in 2021 than 2020, but he was still below his 2019 numbers:

2019 36.5% 4.6% 87.9 107.2
2020 25.0% 2.5% 83.1 104.9
2021 29.4% 2.4% 86.7 106.7

In addition to more power, one objective of the swing changes was to get more lift on the ball. His hit types and launch angles paint a mixed picture from year to year: 

2019 49.1% 23.6% 27.4% 6.6
2020 49.4% 16.5% 34.2% 13.3
2021 51.8% 17.6% 30.6% 8.5

Tucker is only 25 years old, so he is the same age as some rookies, but with three seasons of MLB experience under his belt. And he had only 131 plate appearances in the majors in 2021. After some significant swing changes, it may take more time for Tucker to solidify those tweaks and show up on the back of his baseball card. 

Scouts have talked about how Tucker could be a classic late bloomer — which I’m sure is what Pirates fans would expect, after he goes to another team. He’s an exceptionally talented but lanky 6-foot-3, and it can take time to get all of those moving parts in sync to succeed at the sport’s highest level. While an unfair expectation, Tucker may remind some of Christian Yelich, another lanky, 6-foot-3, late first-round pick who blossomed at age 26

And he’s easy to root for, if you are a Pirates fan. He’s personable, diligent, talented, willing to try different positions and appears to be well liked in the clubhouse. Tucker is the type of player who has the potential to be a face of a franchise — which is why he was a first-round pick — though his chances in Pittsburgh may be running out. 

And if he doesn’t “figure it out” at the plate, don’t feel sorry for him. He’s still a Major League Baseball player, he seems to enjoy his days and he still has Vanessa Hudgens.