The 30-30 Season That Wasn’t, Then Was, Then Wasn’t (and Still May Be)

Kyle Tucker
Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

Last Sunday in Arizona, Kyle Tucker came to the plate in Game 162 with 29 home runs, one shy of his career high of 30 recorded in both 2021 and ’22. He also had a career-high 30 stolen bases to his name, giving him a chance to become just the second player in Astros history to record a 30–30 season, after Jeff Bagwell, who did so in 1997 and ’99. (To be precise, he’d be the third Astro with a 30–30 season — Carlos Beltrán was dealt to Houston partway through his lone 30–30 campaign in 2004 — but just the second to reach those marks in a full season in an Astros uniform.) Tucker would join four others — Ronald Acuña Jr., Francisco Lindor, Julio Rodriguez, and Bobby Witt Jr. — in the 30-30 club this season, which would have been the biggest cohort of 30–30ers in a single year in big league history. In a game where there was a division title at stake, he had a shot to add some metaphorical hardware to his personal trophy case as well.

In the fifth inning, Tucker, well, touched ‘em all:

He struck a line drive into right field, where Arizona’s Jake McCarthy misjudged it with a few steps inward, allowing it to sail over his head. Tucker got on his horse, coasted into third, and appeared to pick up on some lackadaisical defensive effort on Arizona’s part, at which point he took off for home. He was there before the back end of the Diamondbacks’ relay could realize it was happening and do anything about it.

The play fits uncomfortably in a bit of a scoring gray area. Tucker was initially credited with a triple by the official scorer at Chase Field, Jack Magruder, who determined that the run had scored on an error by McCarthy. But as The Athletic’s Chandler Rome cataloged in his coverage, that would be the first of many official scorings. Magruder would soon change his evaluation to a triple and a fielder’s choice, having determined that no error was committed on the play. He then would seek consultation with Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians of MLB, and assess that a fielder’s choice wasn’t appropriate either. Only then was Tucker awarded his 30th home run of the season, putting him briefly in the company of Bagwell and none other in Astros history — until about 20 minutes later, according to Rome, when Magruder reverted back to a triple and a fielder’s choice. With this decision, he cited rule 9.04c from the official rulebook:

The Official Scorer’s judgment must determine whether a run batted in shall be credited for a run that scores when a fielder holds the ball or throws to a wrong base. Ordinarily, if the runner keeps going, the Official Scorer should credit a run batted in; if the runner stops and takes off again when the runner notices the misplay, the Official Scorer should credit the run as scored on a fielder’s choice.

It’s a funny use for the term “fielder’s choice,” which, by its own definition in the rulebook, is used for situations where a fielder opts not to attempt a putout either in favor of attempting to put out another runner or because of indifference towards a runner advancing. The fielders here were not choosing to allow Tucker to advance and score; instead, they seemed not to notice that he would try. But this specific rule seems to indicate that this is an appropriate use of the term.

After all, we have to attribute Tucker’s advancement to something. It doesn’t appear that there was an error on the play; bear in mind rule 9.12a, also cited by Magruder, which mandates that “slow handling of the ball that does not involve mechanical misplay shall not be construed as an error.” The play was rather poorly defended; ultimately, a ball with a 99% catch probability resulted in a trip around the bases. But the miscues were mental in nature: a misread in the outfield, a slow relay, and a lazy flip from shortstop Jordan Lawlar to first baseman Emmanuel Rivera when a throw home could likely have held Tucker at third.

But it also doesn’t seem like a home run. Lawlar had the ball and was jogging back to the infield when Tucker touched third, slowing nearly to a stop. You can see Lawlar’s path on the chart below: the black dotted line coming back toward the infield grass. Had he turned and fired to home, Tucker wouldn’t have been able to score. That’s where Magruder’s consideration of rule 9.04c comes in.

In any case, when the season ended, Tucker sat at 29 home runs, though he hopes there may be another scoring change yet, saying postgame that he would petition the call. The ambiguity of the scoring decision — that he could, in one moment, have a 30–30 season and, in the next, not — highlights just how arbitrary some of our milestone markers really are. In reality, the difference between Tucker’s season when this was ruled a home run and when it was ruled a triple is, well, the difference in run value between a home run and a triple: less than half a run. (If you want to get really nit-picky, Tucker probably deserves some baserunning credit for exploiting the opportunity to advance, too.)

Narratively, though, Tucker’s season went from a certain level of historical significance to just shy of it. Barring one final scoring change, his season will be remembered as merely a great 4.9-WAR performance (though would another half-run of offensive run value have tipped him over 5.0?) in which he led the AL with 112 RBI, without any of the shininess that 30–30 brings. He did plenty of other things well, but those things are less easily packaged into an idea like the 30–30 club, and thus less memorable.

Oddly enough, Tucker isn’t the only hitter whose 2023 bid for a 30–30 season hinged on a scoring decision. Witt finished with exactly 30 home runs to become the Royals’ first 30–30 player, and his 22nd homer of the season looked like this:

A line drive with a 75% catch probability, seemingly lost by Mariners right fielder Dominic Canzone in the Kauffman Stadium lights, then a slight bobble from center fielder Julio Rodríguez, and Witt was around the bases in 14.3 seconds. An inside-the-park home run feels like a fine call here, but a less generous official scorer may have charged an error and left Witt without one of his 30 home runs. Like Tucker, he cleared the fence 29 times and had one defensive misadventure on a catchable line drive lead to a trip around the bases.

As it stands today, Tucker is just the sixth player to come one home run shy of a 30–30 effort, with some pretty good company in that misfortune: Mike Trout in 2016, Hanley Ramirez in 2007, Beltrán in 2002, Kirk Gibson in 1985, and Willie Mays in 1958. Only Gibson would never join the club.

The 29-30 Club
Player Team Season HR SB
Kyle Tucker HOU 2023 29 30
Mike Trout LAA 2016 29 30
Hanley Ramírez FLA 2007 29 51
Carlos Beltrán KCR 2002 29 35
Kirk Gibson DET 1985 29 30
Willie Mays SFG 1958 29 31

That we assign a certain level of importance to achievements based on arbitrary benchmarks is virtually unavoidable. With all of baseball history in front of us and an ever-growing menu of statistics to measure it, it’s understandable that we lean on simple ways to understand players’ accomplishments, and it doesn’t get much simpler than counting home runs and stolen bases. But as fans and analysts, it’s also important to keep in mind that the difference between 29 and 30 is no more than the difference between 28 and 29, or 30 and 31.

Meanwhile, Tucker has to have bigger things on his mind — his Astros are set to host the Twins in the ALDS beginning Saturday — and frankly, so should we. But hey, there are no playoff games on this October Thursday, so why not indulge in a classic story of baseball oddity, complete with all the quirks of the sometimes ambiguous and arbitrary art of record-keeping? Here’s hoping he wins the appeal, if only to keep a strange story alive for another chapter.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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4 months ago

Tucker must have some massively long strides, because he doesn’t look like he’s running very fast.

Also, errors are dumb.

4 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Errors are particularly dumb if you don’t watch the game. In reality they are definitely a thing and they always have been.