Tucker poised for breakout year in Houston

February 28th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The way the Astros see it, being a top prospect for a perennial contender can only benefit a player, even when it comes with mixed results.

debuted last June and didn't let up after a torrid start en route to a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year Award selection.

, selected three picks after in the 2015 Draft, parlayed a strong September into a postseason roster spot last fall. The 23-year-old outfielder is still trying to reach his potential with four brief stints and 50 games on his big league résumé.

"I think it's to his advantage in the long run," said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who met with Tucker on Thursday to lay out the organization's message to him. "A lot of guys, especially his age, or other guys [might] never be on a contender. All he knows is being on a contender. Winning is contagious. We've got some guys here that know how to win.

"I think this is a big, big advantage for anybody his age, because for most of them it's years before they get into that situation. He won't be intimidated by the big stage, and his demeanor is such where really he doesn't appear to be nervous. I think he's extremely confident internally. He's quiet and very humble externally."

Tucker's learning curve not only involves soaking in knowledge from his veteran teammates but also his own experiences.

Until his callup in July 2018, Tucker had never played in a dome.

Until last year's AL Division Series, Tucker had never been present for a Major League postseason game, let alone play where his hometown Rays call home.

"At every level, you have to adapt and change your game up a little bit because you see better players all the time," Tucker said. "It's really little things: coming to the ballpark and really getting in the video room and watch your swing, or trying to fix a little something throwing-wise or mechanical-wise, and really just play as hard as you can."

Like the Astros, Tucker has a lot to prove in 2020.

A .283/.356/.507 hitter over five Minor League seasons, Tucker has competed in prospect showcases like the Arizona Fall League and 2017 All-Star Futures Game. But that success didn't translate to the Majors upon his first few chances in '18, when he posted a .141/.236/.203 slash in 72 plate appearances.

Over his next 72 plate appearances -- all last September -- Tucker slashed .269/.319/.537 with an 118 OPS+ and 122 wRC+. According to Statcast, his numbers improved in several categories: barrel percentage (3.9 to 12.8), exit velocity (90.7 to 92 mph), launch angle (15.5 to 16.3) and sweet spot percentage (21.6 to 42.6). Tucker then appeared in nine postseason games, including the first five of the World Series.

Houston's outfield could look different in 2021, with veterans Michael Brantley, George Springer and Josh Reddick set to hit free agency next offseason. Tucker busting out this year would come at an opportune time. Baker has already stated that there will be a battle for playing time between Reddick and Tucker in right field.

Projection models differ on Tucker's upcoming season. ZiPS is the most optimistic, predicting 112 wRC+ and 3.3 WAR. Tucker is hitless through 10 at-bats this spring, including a pair of groundouts in Thursday night's 5-5 tie with the Nationals at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

"He's a good guy. He's very talented, obviously," Astros second baseman José Altuve said. "I really think that this is going to be his breakout year. We've been contenders multiple years now, but this year I think he's going to be a big, big part of our team and he's going to have an All-Star-caliber season."