BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates infielder Cole Tucker was talking to Mike Rabelo earlier this week when the new assistant hitting coach mentioned something. The swings Tucker has been taking at Pirate City at the outset of Spring Training look different than the swings from last season that Rabelo reviewed on video.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s good,’” Tucker said. “That’s kinda what I was going for.”
At the end of last season, Tucker’s first taste of the Majors, the 23-year-old huddled with hitting coach Rick Eckstein and former assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz to map out a plan for his offseason. Tucker ended the season sidelined by a knee injury, but he kept visiting with Pittsburgh’s hitting coaches. They encouraged Tucker to make his offseason plan his own.
Tucker found plenty of time to unwind. He traveled to England, Ireland and the Netherlands. He was in the room with Cody Bellinger when the Dodgers star was named National League MVP. He helped his younger brother, Carson, navigate the familiar feeling of in-home visits from scouts that Tucker experienced before the Pirates picked him in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
But Tucker also sought out Micah Franklin, a former professional outfielder who coached Tucker in high school and now serves as a hitting coach in the D-backs’ system. With Franklin’s guidance, Tucker worked on his swing in a group with a friend, Jamie Westbrook, Carson and Bellinger.
Their training focused on Tucker’s swing path. Ideally, the work will help the long-limbed switch-hitter keep his bat in the strike zone longer and add a little more loft to his swing after slashing just .211/.266/.361 with two homers and 40 strikeouts in 159 plate appearances for Pittsburgh last season.
“I’ve really been working on this and trying to learn this and understand this, just because my whole career I’ve just competed and competed and competed and really had no idea what I was doing, physically,” Tucker said recently. “I’ve really been trying to hone that in. The thought of being good with my path and my direction is going to keep me in the zone better, it’s going to keep me in the zone longer, and it’s going to allow me to -- instead of crushing a line drive, topspin into right field, I might hit a ball really high really far to right-center, you know?”
And will that lead to more power at the plate?
“I hope so,” Tucker said. “The thought is, I’m going to have a chance to continue to hit the ball hard but do it better, do it cleaner.”
Tucker had trouble making contact in the Majors last year, finishing a 25.8 percent whiff rate and a 25.2 percent strikeout rate. But he ironed out some of those issues with a midseason adjustment to the location and load of his hands, bringing them closer to his face than his back shoulder.
“When guys have challenging times at the Major League level, it helps you grow,” said Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “It gives you a little bit of a learning experience. You’re able to reflect on them. There’s very few guys who come to the big leagues and it’s seamless right away.”
And Tucker hit the ball hard pretty often last season. His 36.5 percent hard-hit rate was 2 percent better than the Major League average, according to Statcast, and his 87 mph average exit velocity was 0.5 mph lower than the league average. But his 6.6 degree launch angle was noticeably lower than the league average of 11.2 degrees, leading to fewer line drives and fly balls -- the best form of contact.
“It’s about being on time and swinging at good pitches and hitting the ball hard,” Tucker said. “The more I can put myself in a better athletic position to do that, the more success I’m going to have.”
So far, Tucker feels like the work is paying off. The Pirates hit against high-velocity pitches in the indoor cages, but he’ll get a much better feel for his adjusted swing once live batting practice and Grapefruit League games begin.
That will eventually sort itself out, so Tucker entered Spring Training with two goals: Get better, and help the Pirates do the same.
“I have a lot of optimism and confidence going into this year. I know who I am and what I can do,” Tucker said. “I can be that guy that I was in [Triple-A] Indy here in Pittsburgh, and I know that and I believe this team knows that. So I’m excited to go out and prove that.”