Cole Tucker showed off a lot of potential in 2019, but after struggling in a utility role in 2020, what could be his role for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021?
The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Cole Tucker in the first-round of the 2014 draft. Despite not being a fantastic batter of any sort, he’s proven he’s a fantastic base runner, and fielder up the middle. Entering 2021, what could be the athletic Tucker’s role for the team?
Throughout the minors, Tucker was known mainly as a light hitting, defensively gifted shortstop. In 2017, Tucker’s first full minor league season, he hit .275/.358/.408 in 510 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. At both levels, he was an above average bat with a 133 wRC+ at High-A and 101 wRC+ at Double-A.
Though he struggled in 2018 at Double-A, Tucker had an up-and-down 2019. This was when Tucker finally cracked the Major Leagues to help add depth for the injured Erik Gonzalez. Tucker only hit .261/.346/.413 with a 95 wRC+ through 353 plate appearances at Triple-A, but he did have his moments.
In April, he hit .333/.415/.579 and in June he batted .289/.325/.500. Even though he didn’t reach those kind of power numbers in July or August, he was still reaching base quite frequently with a .330 and .347 OBP in the two months.
It also took Tucker a bit of time to get acclimated to MLB pitching after being promoted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The switch hitter was only able to collect 15 hits and five walks to oppose 30 strikeouts in his first 104 plate appearances. However, once he got the timing down, he started to show a lot of promise.
In his final 51 plate appearances of the season saw him bat for an outstanding .327/.400/.571 line and a 151 wRC+. Now yes, both are small sample sizes, but he still posted an above average hard hit rate at 36.5%. Defensively, he was excellent at shortstop. Through just 318.2 innings, the former first-round pick had racked up +2 DRS, a 4.6 UZR/150 and 0.3 range runs above average.
But despite the late season breakout in 2019, Tucker was not going to enter 2020 as a starting middle infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was due to the breakout of Kevin Newman in 2019, and Adam Frazier still being on the roster, that meant someone had to play somewhere else and Tucker got the short end of the stick.
Most of the time Tucker played in the field it was in the grass. 247.2 of the 250.2 innings he appeared in the field, it was in the outfield with just three innings coming from second base. Tucker had never played the outfield professionally and the only other position he ever recorded an inning at was second base with 54 in 2019. His lack of experience in the outfield showed for he had -4 DRS, a -13.8 UZR/150 and -2 range runs above average while seeing time between at center and right field.
Learning a new position potentially threw off some of the hitting skills Tucker learned in his final handful of plate appearances last year because he looked more like the version we saw in April and May. In 116 plate appearances, Tucker put up a .220/.252/.275 line with a 43 wRC+.
The Pittsburgh Pirates need to move Tucker back to shortstop. It’s clear, both offensively and defensively, it’s the position he is the most confident at. Tucker might have the speed and arm to play outfield being in the top 90th percentile of sprint speed with a 70-grade arm per FanGraphs, but he’s been known as a shortstop with Gold Glove potential. Not an outfielder with Gold Glove potential. General manager Ben Cherington seems to be done with the Tucker in the outfield experiment as well, saying that he’s likely going to move back to the infield next season.
Tucker needs to get some regular reps in the Majors in 2021 at shortstop. If that means trading Frazier, moving Newman to a bench/utility role or to the minors, then so be it. Frazier is a career league average hitter coming in with a wRC+ of exactly 100 and only one truly notable above average season under his belt. Newman’s horrible batted ball profile doesn’t leave much hope for improvement. Having a left side of the infield of Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes would be extremely exciting to watch, and give the Pittsburgh Pirates two Gold Glove candidates.