Astros take first of four against the Mariners

Astros daily report presented by APG&E: 3 hits from the 4-2 win

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Fresh off a sweep of the A's in Oakland over the weekend, the Astros traveled up the west coast to kick off a four-game series with the Mariners in Seattle on Monday night. Here's a recap of the series opener:

Final Score: Astros 4, Mariners 2.

Record: 41-20, first in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Framber Valdez (2-2, 3.12 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Cory Gearrin (0-2, 4.24 ERA).

1) Coming out swinging

Houston got out to a hot start in this one, putting together a three-run top of the first against opener Cory Gearrin. It started with a one-out walk of Alex Bregman who would score on an RBI-triple from Josh Reddick. Reddick would then score himself on an RBI-groundout by Yuli Gurriel, then Robinson Chirinos hit a two-out solo home run to make it a quick 3-0 lead.

The trio of Bregman, Reddick, and Gurriel came through again in the top of the sixth. Bregman hit a one-out double, Reddick moved him to third with a single, then Gurriel drove in the run on another RBI to make it a 4-2 game.

2) Martin's struggles continue

Corbin Martin needed a motivation-building start to get him back on track after some rough starts in his early major-league career. He wouldn't get it. Martin was able to get through the first two innings scoreless but walked three batters along with some other long at-bats in that span that had him working with a high pitch count early.

That led to some determination to throw strikes in the third, which would, unfortunately, backfire as the Mariners tagged him with two solo home runs, making the third inning his last in a short appearance on a night where the bullpen was looking to rest after the twelve-inning game the day prior — Martin's final line: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 3K.

3) Valdez excellent in relief

With Martin only able to make it through three innings, the Astros went to one of their fresh arms in Framber Valdez to try and eat up some innings. He'd end up having a great outing, throwing four scoreless innings during which he allowed two hits and two walks to go along with three strikeouts.

Chris Devenski took over on the mound for the eighth inning and was able to get through it scoreless thanks to a little help from Jake Marisnick's daily highlight on defense. The two-run game went to the bottom of the ninth where Ryan Pressly came in to close things out and complete the 4-2 win for Houston.

Up Next: Game two of this series will begin tomorrow night with another 9:10 PM first pitch from Seattle. Wade Miley (5-3, 3.25 ERA) will be on the mound for Houston trying to get back in the win column after getting tagged with a loss last week. The Mariners have not yet announced their starter.

The Astros daily report is presented by APG&E.

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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