Baseball is a damn oxymoron.
On one hand we are talking about a sport permeated, fully covered by statistics: a 162-games season allows for the law of great numbers to kick on gear, not to mention there’s a whole niche, our beloved sabermetrics, devoted to the diamond. From the archaic averages to the Statcast-powered stats there’s so much of what happens in a game we can translate into numbers, figures, stone-cold decimals.
On the other hand, you’ll have a hard time finding athletes, and people, more superstitious than baseball players and fans: pitchers are undercover weirdos, with routines and hijinks galore, and hitters will do anything to overcome a slump, even sleeping with their bats. Fans? More of the same: in the 2017 Astros WS run I had a whole set of things to do as I watched games, one that included going up and down the stairs and drinking an absurd amount of tea, all at around 3–5 a.m because time zones… call me Nomar Garciaparra.
That is to say that, while the mathematic core of this game should tell you to avoid those kind of thoughts, the concept of luck, bad or good, exists: how else would you call an RBI on a ball hitting off a base and jumping away, or a wild pitch coming straight back to the catcher for the out at the plate?
Every baseball game is a story in the making, and every season is bound to surprise you in some way, but as of April 30 we are still in the realm of small sample size so there’s not much “sure thing” to be found, and luck can be brought in the conversation: how else can you explain Francisco Lindor hitting like a pitcher and beeing booed in NY while Yermin Mercedes does his best Mike Trout impression in Chicago?
There’s one way I defined luck in my baseball dictionary: “the difference between what happened and what should have happened under the same conditions”. What would Lindor have done if he saw the same pitches all over again and hit them the same? Are his pitiful results just a product of a freezing cold start or was he robbed of hits here and there?
I’ve never liked anything more than Baseball Savant. It’s a gold mine of information and, among the lot, one of the most interesting I like to dwell on are xStats, the expected statline as per Exit Velocity, Launch Angle and other factors.
Conveniently Savant provides you with the difference between “real” stats and expected ones and that is my preferred version of baseball luck, with all due respect to BABIP: there are guys who are living the dream on borrowed time, Randy Arozarena first in line, and others who are due, and in need of better results.
Among them an Astro stands alone:
This poor soul is the hitter with the biggest negative gap between AVG-xAVG and wOBA-xwOBA while being “only” second in the SLG-xSLG category.
Tough luck, Kyle Tucker!
Watching the first month of Astros games, the bad run of hands Tucker is being dealt was baffling: he kept on hitting the ball square and straight on a line just to find a second basemen on his path or a center fielder that barely had to move an inch to catch a HardHit.
Obviously there’s some bias there, yet the numbers don’t lie: Tucker is hitting below .200 without walking a lot, although he had for a long time the lead in RBIs among Astros hitters. If you have a look at his underlying stats though, this bad start seems impossible:
Apart from not being fleet of foot, chasing a tad much and therefore not taking too many BBs, he’s solid in the red, not spectacularly so but at a rate where he should at least be decent: he is Barreling and HardHitting at a career rate while whiffing less than ever and matching his top EV…so what?
Case closed: Tucker is unlucky! Wait some more ABs and he’ll get back on track, bombs away and up go the stats….but is it that simple? I don’t think so!
I still believe that, while there are some higher powers scripting baseball and its destiny, I mean Fernando Tatis jr hitting two homers in the anniversary of his dad’s two grand slams/same pitcher/same inning game is a screenplay on its own, there’s also a lot of self inflicted damage behind hitting into bad luck.
A batter usually brings his own demise at the plate, and Tucker, although he’s expected to be much better, is doing a couple of things differently and not getting any benefit from them. One is a little shtick, but the other is a big approach detour that is hurting his overall production.
Small things first! Let’s look at how Tucker is handling different pitch types:
What jumps out is an abyss-like difference between normal and expected stats for Fastballs: according to the EV+LA combo and others, Tucker should hit for double the average and slug twice as much against heaters (4 and 2 seamers, cutters and sinkers), bringing home a solid .418 xwOBA. Same could be said for the Breaking stuff, although differences are less extreme.
There’s a common factor between the two though! Look at the LA column, the average Launch Angle at which Tucker is hitting balls of a certain type: for Fastballs and Breaking it sits at 23 degrees. Tucker has raised his avgLA of 5 degrees in 2021, from 15 to over 20, and while hitting balls at that angle plus some punch usually equals to Barrels, we must not forget we are dealing with averages: to get to 20+ degrees Tucker is hitting a lot of balls in the 30+ LA zone, one that produces warning track shots and popouts mostly!
Let’s focus on Fastballs. Here’s where he’s getting them:
And at which avgLA he’s hitting them:
Kyle is being fed a hefty deal of heaters in and he’s swinging under them both up and down in the zone, while grounding them when thrown low and away. Historically Tucker’s black hole was the high heat, where his long levered swing was late…but now he’s getting under those offerings!
It’s just a timing and bath path issue, one that I think he can solve by simply focusing on hitting the ball on the screws without pressing to find the air. His swing is designed to produce loft and he doesn’t need to cut under the ball to let it ride the currents out of the park.
The big problem for Tucker is common for LHHs, one that ruined glorified careers such as those of Brian McCann and recently retired Jay Bruce: the shift.
Yikes, Tucker is being shifted more than anytime in his career and he’s pulling balls into it, that’s why he’s not getting the results he deserves, right?! Wrong!
Wouldn’t you know!? Tucker is trying to combat the shift by focusing on hitting balls up the middle the other way…bad choice Kyle, you should have read FanGraphs!
Tucker is dekeing the shift and by doing so he’s falling right into the defense’s trap: look at how well guarded the middle is! Sneaking through the hole a grounder is hard when 3B and SS are closing the gap, getting a liner to fall is also a no go as the CF is dead straight.
And on which pitch type is Tucker going Straight/Oppo? You guessed it, Fastballs!
There it is: Ted, Tucker’s nickname as his swing resembles that of the legendary Red Sox, has decided not to pull FBs in the air and sting them on a line, without considering that, while the shift makes the 2B stay in short right field, the real dam is built in the middle.
This is a concerning development for Tucker: his value has always been as a dead pull power hitter, one that walks and flails a decent bit while being a good RF and baserunner, a 3+ WAR kind of player with 30+ HR potential. If he wants to get what he should, he has to switch his mindset on hitting balls harder and over the shift rather than avoid it in fear of being eaten by it.
Trying to make an adjustement in baseball is like trying to avoid your boat to sink by using a bucket: there’s too much water coming in to reliably fix the issue. Every hitter, even Mike Trout (maybe), is bound to give up something to get, and Kyle Tucker is not exempted.
A (fleeting) success in 2020 by going the other way to beat the shift convinced him to dial up the ratio of balls hit straight and oppo, but that made him drift away from his primary source of power, the pull side, not to mention he’s actually getting robbed more in the middle ground, by the shifted left infielders, than by the deep 2B on the premises of RF.
All things considered Tucker took the bait, one that the opposing teams are dangling almost 90% of the time, and is being caught in the net far too many ABs. That, plus a swing that is lacking timing on fastballs, explains his unproductive start:
Discipline is not an issue, note how he’s swinging at an above average rate of pitches in the Heart zone, but if you sum up a slight tendency to get under, transforming Barrels into flyouts, to a dreadful batted ball placement you get a hitter that has all the peripherals to be a solid, even great, middle of the lineup bat but is being a victim of his own decisions.
Luck is a construct, and you may even call it a plausible one in the short run, yet as days go by, games are played and hitters are called upon to the plate, it all returns to the original human being and his choices.
Kyle Tucker chose to change his M.O. and by doing so he’s bringing his own bad luck. Sometimes you have to acknowledge your mistakes, take a break and reboot the system.
Ted, back to the old, let’s pull more liners over the shift and, as Daft Punk used to say, get lucky!
Stats are up to May 1st. Graphs, heatmaps, rankings and diagrams are all thanks to Baseball Savant.