Harris County – Houston Sports Authority

The Insider: Golfer Lietzke had life figured out

The golf world said farewell to Bruce Lietzke. Bob Levey/Getty Images

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Before you ask, the answer is yes.

The banana story is true.

Bruce Lietzke’s caddie did indeed put a banana under a head cover at the end of the 1984 season to see if Lietzke really was telling the truth; that he wasn’t going to touch his clubs again until the start of the 1985 season.

Lietzke was true to his word. The bag stayed in his garage until he flew to Palm Springs in January and opened it. The smell was awful. And the persimmon driver? It was ruined thanks to a nasty black fungus. So was the bag.

That story is legend. So was Lietzke.

The man was a classic. A natural. He was honest, funny, humble, a great story teller and he never passed up a chance to take a minute and catch up with an old friend.

He was a man who did it his way, putting family, friends and fishing – and his collection of restored classic cars -- above golf. Far above it.

When word spread last Saturday that the 67-year-old former University of Houston star, 13-time PGA TOUR winner and  7-time Champions Tour winner had lost his 16-month battle with glioblastoma, the tributes flowed across social media.

Lietzke – Lieky to his friends -- passed away at his 625-acre ranch in Henderson County, near Athens, Tex., his family by his side. He fought the same aggressive brain cancer that took the life of Cathy Bryant, the wife of his fellow Champions player Bart Bryant.

“We hunted, we fished, but most importantly, we all laughed with 'Lieky.' He was truly one of the good guys, and will be missed,” two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange posted on Twitter.

Lietzke, whose service is Monday, was the best part-time golfer the TOUR has ever seen. He never played more than 20 events a year and played just three Open Championships because he didn’t want to be away from his family. He played the events he wanted and courses he liked. He could toss out a helluva round any time, anywhere. And his success allowed him to live the life he wanted.

He played a perfect fade – a signature shot he developed out of necessity as a mini-tour player in the mid-1970s.

It was so natural he didn’t need to practice. And he didn’t want to.

"I'm just kind of a freak of nature in that I don't want my swing to improve,’’ he once said. “I want it to be exactly like it was yesterday."

Ben Crenshaw, a close friend, would shake his head.

“We’re so jealous of someone who can put clubs down and come back out and play,’’ Crenshaw said. “He has some of the best hand-eye coordination I’ve seen.

 '' . . . . When I look at Bruce, I think of one of Harvey's (famed teacher Harvey Penick’s) favorite sayings. He said the players
that play the best are the ones who know themselves the best.
Bruce knows himself.''

Truth told, Lietzke didn’t like the spotlight. He loved to play and hang out with his buddies like Crenshaw, Strange, college roommate Bill Rogers, Jay Haas and brother-in-law Jerry Pate. If a win popped up in the equation, great. If it didn’t, there was always another week, another chance.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t fiercely competitive on the course. He was. He grew up playing against – and with – those old friends all the way back to his junior days. And through those first seven years on TOUR, he admits golf “fed his ego’’ and he won nine times.

But it was wife Rose, son Stephen and daughter Christine that grounded him and his stable of cars – not trophies – that made him smile. His 1967 Corvette Stingray and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda topped that four-wheel, pride-and-joy toys list. And when he was home, he was home. No golf.

The last time Lietzke hit a golf ball? His last Champions Tour event in 2011. His last win? The 2003 U.S. Senior Open when he beat Tom Watson by two shots.

The ranch? No golf holes, no putting green. Just rolling East Texas pastures and water. Lietzke’s heaven on earth.

Like Hall of Famer Byron Nelson, who walked away from the game at 34, Lietzke didn’t regret his choices. He had a great life, a full life that was cut way too short.

“To make it work like he did,’’ Rogers told pgatour.com, “anyone would have liked to have done it like Bruce. He did it the way he wanted to do it and, in truth, he lived out his dream.

“. . . He was my best friend and the most strong-minded person I have ever been around. He also understood that the best of life comes from relationships – family and friends. I will miss him terribly.”







 

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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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