Cole Tucker’s changes make him a true top prospect

The Altoona Curve just won the 2017 Eastern League championship, and they crossed the finish line without starting shortstop Cole Tucker.

Cole Tucker fractured third metatarsal in his left hand in the Curve’s second playoff game, ending his season and putting a trip to the Arizona Fall League into question.

Tucker entered the year as Baseball America’s eighth best Pirate prospect. MLB Pipeline pegs him as the fifth best in the system right now.  But those high placements were almost exclusively based off of his promise rather than his results. The speedy middle infielder has earned praise for his defense, but he was a very average bat in the lower levels of minor league ball for a couple years.

2017 may have been that breakout year for Tucker, slashing .275/.359/.408. That may still seem somewhat pedestrian, but the breakthrough is mostly mental.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Tucker said. “Just learning that I’m a pretty good player when I try to stay within myself and just do the things I do naturally. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from the year.”

He may have learned some new things about himself, but he also changed his approach, and now it looks like he can live up to his blue chip prospect rating.

Stealing BasesCole Tucker in field

The biggest difference between Cole Tucker’s 2016 and 2017 seasons is his aggressiveness on the basepaths. He swiped just six bags in 2016 and was thrown out seven times. Granted, he was coming back from a torn labrum, but it was a large part of a disappointing campaign.

This year he stole 47 with a 75.8% success rate. (“That was fun,” Tucker joked.) 36 of those swipes came in Bradenton, which lead the entire Florida State League. His next closest competition stole 32 bases in 112 games. Tucker only played in 68.

Adam Godwin is credited with the change. Tucker’s fast. He knows it. Godwin knows it. That’s why the Bradenton coach did not focus on teaching him new mechanics, but rather just give him the knowledge in identifying good situations to run and the confidence to do it. “Just getting over that initial hurdle, not the fear, but just being comfortable and just going for it,” Tucker said.

Stolen bases are going to be a big part of Tucker’s game as long as he’s fast. He may lose a step as his 6’3”, 185 pound frame fills out. Until then, it will be a great substitute for his low slugging percentage.

Choking up

But being a good base stealer doesn’t mean as much if you can’t get on base. Tucker struggled in this aspect of his game since he was promoted from the rookie league. This year, he walked 55 times.

One of his personal highlights this year was a four walk game he had on Aug. 28.  “I felt like Joey Votto. That was pretty cool.”

Tucker credited the spike in walks to choking up on the bat more. In previous years, he would be about half an inch off of the knob. With no strikes this year, his hands are about an inch off the knob. When there is one strike in the count, he doubles it to two. With two strikes, it’s again doubled to about three or four inches. So what if it looks goofy? Tucker joked that everything he does looks goofy. And it’s only goofy if it doesn’t work.

He did strike out more in 2017 than he did in years past, but that may just be due to the sharp jump in quality pitchers. Either way, working longer, deeper counts is always a good thing.

What to expect

The key for Tucker is to just stay healthy. He’s been plagued with injuries throughout his career, just like another first round top prospect (Austin Meadows). He finally has a 500 plate appearance season under his belt. Building off of that will be key to his development. He’s hopeful that he can still go to the AFL, especially since he has wanted to do that as a kid growing up in Phoenix. If he does go and holds his own, he might find himself on the top 100 prospect list next season.

He has to leapfrog Kevin Newman at some point if he wants to be a major leaguer. Newman had a down year in 2017, but he still looks to be on a pace for a major league debut in 2018. Newman probably will slide over from shortstop to second base at some point his career, but he will likely stay at his native position unless Tucker forces his way to the majors.

Cole Tucker is still likely at least two years away from the majors, but his talent is starting to show in games. He got his feet wet at the second highest level of the minors. With that experience and new makeup, he may just be the prospect to watch in 2018.

Alex Stumpf

Alex is a credentialed Pirates beat reporter with The Pittsburgh Sports Report. If you want to keep up to date on the team or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.