Kyle Tucker is poised to have a big year. Composite image by Jack Brame.
It’s just one week of spring training games but so far, so GREAT for Major League Baseball’s pace of play rules changes. Of course there has been grousing from some over the pitch clock. 100% customer or player satisfaction is impossible. Most people are creatures of habit and for some change is more difficult than for others. Well, suck it up buttercups! In AAA last year the average game length dropped 25 minutes. So far in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues average game length has dropped by more than 20 minutes.
For the Astros the apparent most significant adjustment to be made was for Luis Garcia with his elaborate windup banished to the archives. Garcia had zero problem adapting in his first outing. Kyle Tucker didn’t go on a rant but he’s the Astro who has expressed the most dissatisfaction about the timer to this point. One suspects he’ll be just fine. Maybe Tucker is a tad grumpy after losing his salary arbitration case. Think positively Tuck. 20-minute shorter average game lengths get you home sooner to your new fiance! Batters are allowed one timeout per plate appearance. That’s plenty. Stepping out of the box, adjusting batting gloves, rubbing more dirt on one’s hands, or contemplating the meaning of life after every or every other pitch is a tedious waste of time.
Perhaps a cranky Kyle will be extra locked in to start the season as he tries to strengthen his case for a contract extension worth a couple hundred million dollars. The last two years Tucker has been awful out of the gate. In 2021 he finished April with a woeful .181 batting average and a feeble .610 OPS. After going 0 for four on May 1, Tucker then played at an MVP level the rest of the season, batting .324 with a .996 OPS. Last year’s start wasn’t as miserable but was not better by leaps and bounds, with Tucker waking up May 1 with the average at .224 and OPS at .685. While his 2022 start wasn’t as bad as 2021, the rest of Tucker’s 2022 wasn’t nearly as good as the rest of his 2021 was. From May 1 of last season Tucker hit .263 with an .828 OPS which is plenty good but not 30 million dollars per season worth of production. Tucker is 26 and should be at about the peak of his physical talents. With merely a solid first month of the season at the plate, Tucker could have a monster 2023. He’ll be boosted by the maybe 10 hits he’ll pick up on balls he smashes that aren’t turned into outs by now banned defensive shifts.
Potential hidden bonus of snappier pace of play rules: maybe the wave gets washed away. Though somehow I doubt it.
Who's standing out so far this spring?
With time to kill and space to fill, the media inevitably overplays some spring training stories. Justin Dirden has six at bats so far this spring. Two of them resulted in home runs. He’s not the second coming of Kyle Tucker but see if this sounds familiar: Bats left, throws right. Plays right field but can slide over to center. Notable power. Turns 26 years old in 2023. Here’s a bit of a difference: Tucker’s signing bonus as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft, four million dollars. Dirden’s bonus as an undrafted free agent in 2020, 20 thousand. Injuries, a transfer year, and COVID ending the 2020 college baseball season early held Dirden to a paltry total of 79 games played over five years. But in the time he did play at Southeast Missouri State, Dirden mashed. The Astros signed him and then Dirden mashed in the low minors. Last year he scuffled at AAA Sugar Land, but that was after earning a promotion for his mashing at AA Corpus Christi. If Dirden becomes a legit sleeper to make the Astros, one factor in his favor is the left-handed hitting. Chas McCormick bats right and last year was spectacular against left-handed pitching, awful vs. righties. Dirden offers a platoon possibility that Jake Meyers and Mauricio Dubon do not.
College baseball in H-town
Minute Maid Park this weekend sees its last game action before the Astros get home from spring training. It’s a typically strong field for the annual Shriners Children’s Classic. TCU, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech are all in the Top 25 and here this weekend. Rice is the lone unranked Texas school in the field. Louisville is in the top 25. The Cardinals and Michigan fill out the six team field.
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As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.