Kyle Tucker Is Hitting Seventh and That’s Fine

Kyle Tucker has evolved into the elite hitter the Astros and scouts believed he could be. The outfielder, who graduated from prospect status in 2019 with a 60 Future Value grade and ranked 10th on our top 100 that preseason, is slashing a robust .290/.355/.548 in 548 plate appearances, good for a 144 wRC+ — tops on the team — and 4.5 WAR. David Adler of recently wrote about how good Tucker has been this season, but I want to focus on how he’s being used, and whether the Astros are giving away an advantage with where they’re hitting him.

The Astros are dealing with injuries, as they have all season, with Michael Brantley the latest regular to land on the injured list. As such, the last game in which they had all of their starters in the lineup was on September 11, and it looked like this:

There’s Kyle Tucker, all the way down in the seven spot. Seven! But Houston has a good lineup; maybe his placement is justifiable against a left-handed pitcher like Jose Suarez. So let’s go back to the last time they had their full lineup against a right-handed pitcher: September 7 against Logan Gilbert:

There is Tucker, once again pushed to the bottom half of the order. That isn’t an outlier, either; his average lineup position throughout the season has been 5.8:

Kyle Tucker Games in Batting Order Spot
Lineup Spot Count
2 2
3 1
4 10
5 16
6 57
7 35

Research and popular strategy around lineup construction still goes through what was published in The Book over a decade ago: Hit your top-three hitters one, two, and four, in order of both decreasing OBP and increasing SLG% in some approximate fashion. The fourth- and fifth-best hitters hit fifth and third, respectfully, and everyone else hits in descending order of ability. Not everyone is married to that exact structure, but the rise of the slugging No. 2 hitter suggests that managers are on board, or at least don’t want to try to explain why the best hitter on the team didn’t see the most plate appearances.

Optimizing lineups can gain teams about 10 extra runs over the course of a season, or an additional win or two. The Astros certainly don’t want to leave wins on the table, but at the same time, the depth of their offense is loosely breaking the assumptions around the optimized lineup, to the point that it actually makes sense to slot Tucker down at seventh.

To start, let’s look at individual wRC+ for hitters over the past five years and use that to measure a team’s average wRC+ by lineup position for this year:

You can see Houston, highlighted in orange, is tops at putting out the best sixth- and seventh-place hitters, the two spots where Tucker has spent much of the year. What is undeniable is how deep this lineup runs, and that its quality doesn’t drop off considerably until you get to the eighth and ninth spots.

Lineup optimization is a matter of gaining an extra win or so over 162 games, but in the playoffs, there will inevitably be matchups where you want one hitter over another. Many of the best hitters today are in the second spot, one of the few weak (or at least weaker) places in the Astros’ lineup. For most of the season and in the lineups above, that has been Brantley’s slot; he’s posted a 126 wRC+ this year and has a combined 130 wRC+ in his time in Houston. So why keep him there over Tucker? Dusty Baker is the one ultimately filling out the lineup card, so maybe it depends on how he judges the two. But here’s one potential reason why:

Houston Astros Lineup (9/7/2021)
Name SwStr% OBP SLG%
Jose Altuve 7.0% .353 .490
Michael Brantley 4.5% .367 .441
Alex Bregman 5.2% .365 .426
Yordan Alvarez 8.8% .349 .534
Yuli Gurriel 5.2% .381 .456
Carlos Correa 8.0% .364 .479
Kyle Tucker 9.4% .359 .555

There is a pattern here that would probably make Earl Weaver smile: Baker is trying to cram the basepaths ahead of his best power hitters — Altuve, Brantley and Bregman in front of Alvarez, and Gurriel and Correa before Tucker — who also have the two highest swinging-strike rates. Everyone here is above-average at avoiding whiffs, but there’s a layering of hitters with exceptional contact skills followed by two sluggers who aren’t quite as good at that, and that looks to me to be intentional; it essentially gives the Astros two cleanup hitters.

So how often are Alvarez and Tucker actually hitting with men on?

% PAs w/Men On (Qualified Batters)
Name % of PA w/Men On
Yordan Alvarez 52.5
Nolan Arenado 51.5
Rafael Devers 51.2
José Abreu 51.0
Pete Alonso 50.9
Kyle Tucker 49.2
Avisaíl García 49.1

It seems like wishful thinking to believe that this strategy should work out this well, but given the way the lineup is built, it appears to be what Baker is going for. It’s hard to argue against it, too; when the lineup is this good and this deep, how much is it really going to hurt to “misplace” someone inside the top seven? With lineup depth like Houston’s, why not dream on systematically setting up multi-run scenarios?

I wanted to dig into what I thought was an absurdity — a hitter with a 145 wRC+ hitting seventh — but found a sensible contradiction instead. Kyle Tucker, who has become one of the best hitters in the sport, will likely be seventh in the lineup in the playoffs — and that’s just fine.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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1 year ago

His average position is 5.8. You’re looking at lineups that are weeks old. Color me confused by this article.

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

It seems like the author wanted to exclude games where non regulars were in the lineup

1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Seems like an incredible amount of speculation based on a 3+ week old sample size of 1 when the season long average says something different. But ok.

Joe Joemember
1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Season long averages factor in injuries and rest days. The sample of 1 is an example of the typical lineup Astros used 1-7 when their 1-7 hitters played. I’d guess the 1-7 hitters probably played about 30 games together with all or almost all of them with Tucker at the 7th spot.

1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

He was batting cleanup opening day and to start the season until he was dropped when he was hitting .200. So at least a good chunk of those 30 or so games, 1/3 or more, have him at 4th. He hit 6th yesterday. He hit 5th the game before. 5th the game before that. 5th the game before that. 6th the gam before that. 4th the game before that. 5th before that. 5the before that. 5th before that. I stopped at the 9/20 game log.

Fine, 9/7 was the last time everyone was healthy and he batted 7th. On 9/6 he batted 6th. On 9/4 hr hit 4th.

I think that’s enough to demonstrate my confusion.

It’s fine. I disagree with the author but I’ll crawl back into my hole now.

1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

And he is batting 7th today…

Baller McCheesemember
1 year ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

You’re right that on any given day there’s a good chance that one of six guys is going to get the day off and the lineup will be adjusted. But moving forward I think this article is about the playoffs where none of the top seven guys are going to get a day off.