While Cole Tucker’s bat continues to be a work in progress for the Pittsburgh Pirates he can still bring defensive value to the Bucs
Since being a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014 Cole Tucker has generated excitement but hasn’t been able to stick around on the big-league club since his initial call up in 2019. Pirate fans most likely know the story with his bat so I am not going to go into too much detail here today – but there is a really interesting story here about his defensive capabilities as the Pittsburgh Pirates have moved him around from his natural shortstop position to center field and back again. For anyone interested in some defensive tidbits around the statistic UZR, read on.
The Pittsburgh Pirates tried a bit of everything to kickstart the team last year and that included shifting Tucker from shortstop to the outfield, primarily to center fielder. Tucker logged innings at shortstop in 2019 and had a .986 fielding percentage which was 6th among MLB shortstops logging 300+ innings. Fielding percentage is a little too simple of a fielding metric to tell the entire story so let’s look at one of the newer ones – UZR – or Ultimate Zone Rating. FanGraphs can give you a full definition of UZR but in short it helps determine the number of runs a player saved or gave up based on their defensive play related to the average player.
Tucker ranked 16th among qualified shortstops in 2019 in UZR and he ranks even higher (11th) in UZR/150 – the same metric but calculated over a scope of 150 games played to try to give us a better picture of players, such as Tucker who didn’t play in a full seasons worth of games. His 11th spot in UZR/150 is higher than the past three Gold Glove Winners in the NL – Nick Ahmed (16th, 2018-2019 GG winner), Javy Baez (20th, 2020 GG winner) and Brandon Crawford (21st, 2015-2017 GG winner).
There are of course a vast number of other players ahead of these guys as well but its worth noting that for outsiders who don’t follow the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tucker is a very capable defensive shortstop. For Comparisons sake Kevin Newman, who logged the most innings of any Pirate shortstop in 2019 posted a -5.2 UZR/-9.8 UZR/150 over 800 innings – ranking 33rd. Something to chew on.
Fast Forward to 2020. The plan was to get Tucker Major League at bats in the shortened season with no minor league games happening. The Decision was made to play him in the outfield, primarily center field to get him in the lineup. Even with no prior outfield experience Tucker has pure athleticism and has ranked in the top 10% in the league in sprint speed – a possible other reason to let him man center field.
Tucker picked up over 200 innings in the outfield last season with 150 of them coming in center field. While his fielding percentage was a clean 1.000 Tucker posted a -1.6 UZR (32/41 players playing 150+ innings) and his -11.5 UZR/150 ranked second to last on that same list. If you watched any of his appearances in center field he looked like a natural at times, but at other times struggled to track fly balls – to no fault of his own, it was a tough situation being thrown into a brand new position with no prior experience. Kevin Newman put up similarly not so great numbers at shortstop last season (-2.8 UZR/ /23.8 UZR/150). With Erik González getting the bulk of the work last season and rating near the bottom of the pack (-0.2 UZR / -2.8 UZR/150).
Let’s move on to 2021. After what could be viewed as a failed experiment the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to move him back to shortstop to get him reps. Tucker didn’t do himself any favors in Spring Training as he sustained a thumb injury that sidelined him for a bit and only went 4-23 (.174/.208/.304) when he did play – simply not enough to earn a spot as both González (.326) and Newman (.606) vastly out hit him to lock up roster spots. With a pair of minor league options remaining it was a somewhat of an easy move to reassign him to minor league camp.
The minor league season begins next week where Tucker should start again with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, hopefully suiting up as their primary shortstop. My hope here is that Tucker doesn’t get moved around to the outfield so he can continue to excel on the field and improve his bat so when he does get the return call to Pittsburgh he can improve upon his .215/.260/.324 line over 275 plate appearances.
The bottom line: If Tucker can post a .700 OPS (he has a way to go with a .594 line) this is manageable with the defensive prowess he brings. Ideally I would want a bit higher but he just hasn’t shown enough with the bat to prove he can get to that mark. Tucker is never going to be a big power guy so if he can improve his plate discipline (5.5% walk rate, 25.8% strikeout rate, 30% Outside Zone swing rate) this will drive his OBP and allow him to get on base more where he is a double digit stolen base threat.