By Chris Larson
Don't look now, but the Atlanta Braves are the 10th best team in baseball with an 11-8 record. In fact, they are only 3 games back from first place in the NL East and have the third best run differential in all of baseball right now at +33.
Considering the fact that the Braves were expected to still be in full blown rebuild and redevelopment mode this season, the way they have performed thus far is surprising, although it's still only 20 games into the season. A big reason behind the success of the Braves hasn't simply been the pitching, but rather the offense. Right now, the Braves rank fourth in runs scored (107), second in doubles (45), are tied fifth in RBI (101) with the Los Angeles Angels, tied again with the Angels in batting average (.267) for third place in the league, and have the fifth best on-base percentage (.344) in the league over 671 at bats.
Remarkable considering that many people didn't expect them to come out of the gates swinging like they have, but it shouldn't be a surprise when you start to tear back the layers of their lineup. The Braves have a phenomenal leadoff hitter in, Ender Inciarte, a solid 3-4 combo in Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis, and plenty of other promising offensive pieces including Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and a guy by the name of, Preston Tucker.
You may or may not have heard about Tucker before, but if you haven't start paying attention right now. Tucker, currently 27 years old, was originally drafted by the Colorado Rockies during the 16th round of the 2011 Amateur Draft, but decided not to sign at the time. Once 2012 rolled around, the Houston Astros selected Tucker during the 7th round of the Amateur Draft before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves this past December for a player to be named later or cash. It's also important to note that Preston Tucker is the brother of the Houston Astros second best prospect, Kyle Tucker.
So far this season through 62 plate appearances, Preston Tucker is hitting: .281/.323/.509 with 16 hits, 3 home runs, 18 RBI, and 3 walks. Thus far, Tucker has a 0.2 WAR and a 0.3 OWAR (Offensive Wins Above Replacement) value. From a hitting perspective, Tucker does much better with a right-hander on the mound as illustrated by his .313 batting average over 52 plate appearances against righties compared to his .111 batting average over 10 plate appearances against left-handers.
Furthermore, with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP), Tucker is hitting: .500/.471/1.188 over the span of 17 plate appearances. Sure it is a very small sample size to base an argument off of, but it goes to show how well Preston Tucker can do at driving in runs during the right situations. In addition, with men on base, Tucker is hitting: .407/.393/.852 over 28 plate appearances and has a very impressive .417 batting average over 12 plate appearances, when there are 2 outs with runners in scoring position.
Again, it's certainly very early to start saying that Preston Tucker will be baseball's next best hitter or to crown him a Hall of Famer, but with the way he is performing, the baseball world needs to start taking note of who he is and really understand the value that he is bringing the Atlanta Braves right now. Tucker has somewhat solidified the Braves question mark that they had in left field going into this season and should only continue to get better from a hitting perspective.
Back when Tucker was a prospect for the Houston Astros, scouts always made a note that Tucker had very impressive power especially from the right side, as illustrated by his stats against right-handed pitchers above, along with being someone that has enough discipline to take walks. Both of those things have shown at various points through the Braves 20 game season thus far and given that Preston Tucker is still 27 years old, he is only starting to enter his prime.
As is the case with every baseball player, no one is perfect and there is always one flaw. With Tucker, that one flaw comes in the defensive department. Among 18 qualified left fielders to this point of the season, Tucker ranks 8th in Ultimate Zone Rating with a (0.1) value and has a (-1) Defensive Runs Saved value as well. Both of those things along with Tuckers range value of (0.2) add up to a Defensive Rating of (-0.5), which puts Tucker in a virtual tie with Jose Pirela of the San Diego Padres, for 6th place among left fielders. Still, it's a small sample size of data, but isn't necessarily where you would like those values to be.
Regardless, you cannot deny the fact that Preston Tucker has been a driving force for the Atlanta Braves thus far this season and it's going to be exciting to continue to watch him develop as this season wears on and in the future.