Last weekend and earlier this week I was in Charleston to see the West Virginia Power play four games. One of the obvious storylines while in West Virginia is the progress of Cole Tucker, who was the Pirates’ first round pick in 2014. Unfortunately, Tucker did not play in the four games I saw. In fact, Tucker has not played since going 3-for-5 against Hagerstown on July 28th. That followed two days off, one of which saw him pulled from the lineup before the game.
After the first game I covered, I ran into Tucker in the locker room while he had an ice pack on his shoulder, despite not playing. I asked about the ice pack, and Tucker said it was nothing, while chalking the absence up to “just getting a couple of days off.” Power manager Brian Esposito called it “general soreness” and said that Tucker has earned some time off.
“It’s just a matter of, he’s a young kid, it’s his first full season, it’s a long season,” Esposito said. “We’ve hit August, and these guys have done a great job of working hard to get here everyday. They’ve gotten a lot better, they put the work in. So you’re going to be banged up a little bit. This is a good opportunity for us to get him the rest that he needs, take care of his body, take care of his health, and then when the time is right we’ll get him back in there and help us finish off the season.”
Neither Tucker nor Esposito would say that he was injured, or give specific details on why he has been out of the lineup. The timing of the absence — ten days after Friday’s game — is unfortunate, as it is interrupting a strong stretch by Tucker. He started the year slow, with a .661 OPS in April and a .579 OPS in May. He turned things around in June with a .796 OPS, and carried that over to post a .798 OPS in July.
“[I’m] just really learning about myself and what I can handle, and what my strengths are,” Tucker said of his season. “I’m really trying to use those and take it into the game with me. In April and May, I was kind of getting the feel for things, and the league, and pitchers, and how guys are throwing to me. Now I know what I’m looking for, and what other guys do, and I’m just looking to go in the game and capitalize with it.”
Tucker never really had strikeout issues early in the year, and didn’t look over-matched, but didn’t have great results. He said that one key thing was learning that just because a pitch is a strike, doesn’t mean it’s something he should try to put in play. He’s been more selective the last two months, focusing on driving specific pitches in a specific zone, rather than trying to hit every strike. Esposito has been encouraged by the progress.
“You’re talking about an 18-year-old kid that came in playing ball with some college players, some older guys,” Esposito said. “He’s out there competing. I don’t think that he struggled at any point this year. I don’t think that he’s been off the charts at any point this year. What you want in this game is consistency, and that’s exactly what he’s been. He’s consistent in what he’s doing.”
The season hit an interesting point at the start of this layoff. Ben Zobrist was traded to the Kansas City Royals on July 28th, which was the last day that Tucker played. Before it was known that Zobrist was going to the Royals, a fake Ken Rosenthal account on Twitter put out the fake report that Zobrist was traded to the Pirates for Tucker. The report was debunked as one of many fakes that time of year, but it was enough to reach Tucker, via his many Twitter followers, and even his friends and family.
“My phone exploded,” Tucker exclaimed. “Apparently something happened with Twitter, and I was going to the Rockies, and I was going to the A’s. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were in Hagerstown, and we were playing a game, and I come back to the locker room, and everyone is like ‘Oh my god, you got traded!'”
Tucker said it even reached his family, with his dad wondering what was going on with the potential trade. But everything settled down after that.
“It’s the excitement of the last week of July,” Tucker said. “I get that.”
There is still no word on when Tucker might get back into the lineup. But the hope would be that when he does return, he picks up where he left off in July, and continues the strong hitting that he’s seen in the last two months.