Early MLB Breakouts: Kyle Tucker Ascends to Superstar Status

The Houston outfielder has found another gear to start the season. Meanwhile, Dodgers pitcher Gavin Stone is proving to be a diamond in the rough amid a star-studded roster.
Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker rounds the bases at Yankee Stadium.
Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker rounds the bases at Yankee Stadium. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For the past three seasons, Houston Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker has been regarded as one of the better all-around players in the game. For instance, Tucker, Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts and José Ramírez are the only active players to hit 30 homers and steal 25 bases in a season while striking out fewer than 100 times. He also plays excellent defense.

But the idea of Tucker as a potential home run champion? That’s a new one.

With 13 home runs—including a tear of eight in his past 15 games—Tucker leads the American League. What we’re seeing is someone who at age 27 is not just on a hot streak but elevating his game to a new power level as he gets stronger and learns how to drive the baseball in the air with topspin. His .596 slugging percentage and league-leading .997 OPS would be career bests.

Just as Adrián González, Shawn Green and Tino Martinez were, Tucker is an excellent left-handed hitter who is growing into power with experience and added muscle. His ground balls and line drives are turning into doubles and homers. Tucker is hitting fly balls at a career-high 43.3% rate. Only Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy have a higher flyball rate. Last year Tucker ranked 23rd (32.7%). Only Bellinger and Edouard Julien have boosted their flyball rate more than Tucker has in 2024.

How has he done it? Rotation, posture, wrist position and extension.

Here are two swings to compare from Tucker, both on fastballs down the middle. The first swing is from last year. It resulted in a ground ball out.

The second swing is from this year. It was a 422-foot home run.

At contact the swings are fairly similar. But in the middle images you begin to see major differences. This year, he is fully rotating with his head behind the contact point, as you can see by the position of his shoulders (turned more toward the pitcher) and head (farther behind contact point). The front side is firmer this year.

In the middle photos, also note that his top hand last year is beginning to turn over, which abbreviates the extension. This year, without the early rollover of the wrist, the bat is extending through the baseball.

The final images show the follow-through. Last year, because the top hand was turning over, the finish was lower. This year, the finish is much higher. The top hand has not turned over. That’s the result of driving through the baseball to create lift.

Tucker is on a 50-homer pace. That may be a bit ambitious, but it looks like his first 40-homer season is possible.

Not everybody should be hitting the ball in the air. One of the surprising hitting success stories this year has been Brice Turang of the Milwaukee Brewers, who has improved his OPS from .585 to .776. How has he done it? Old school. He stopped trying to pull the ball and stopped hitting so many balls in the air. He increased his opposite field hitting from 32.1% to 39.7%, No. 1 among all hitters. He also increased his groundball rate by 11.2%, the seventh-largest increase. 

Yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers spend oodles of money on big-time stars, but few organizations find solid major league players deep into the draft as often as they do. The latest is Gavin Stone, 25, who is 4–1 with a 3.27 ERA through eight starts with a knack for getting weak contact.

Stone is an undersized right-handed pitcher whom the Dodgers drafted in the fifth round in 2020 out of Central Arkansas, which has produced only three other major leagues. At the time, Stone threw in the low 90s with a big curveball. Los Angeles signed him for $97,500, an under-slot bargain.

The Dodgers saw a good athlete with a low release point (5.61 feet) who could use his vertical attack angle to throw four-seamers at the top of the zone. He has hit 97 mph this season and averages 94.7.

In addition to a velocity boost, the other keys to his development have been adding a tight slider to virtually replace the curveball (which he still throws, but less often) and developing a devastating changeup. Never comfortable with a changeup, Stone adopted a grip shown to him by Ryan Dennick, a Dodgers minor league coach, in which he splits his fingers between the middle and ring fingers. It’s essentially a splitter with a Vulcan grip. It’s been a career-changer. Batters are hitting .156 off Stone’s changeup.

Here is a partial list of some players the Dodgers have found in the third round or later since 2012:

Chris Sale is back. The Atlanta Braves left-hander is throwing at the same level he did in 2017, the last time he threw a qualified season. At age 35, and despite throwing only 151 innings the previous four years, Sale looks no different than he did seven years ago when he was the Cy Young Award runner-up.

Chris Sale 2017 vs. 2024
Chris Sale 2017 vs. 2024 / Fangraphs

Sale is essentially a two-pitch guy. His four-seamer and slider account for 80% of his pitches. His two main weapons look no different this year than they did in 2017.

Chris Sale's 2017 fastball vs. 2024
Chris Sale's 2017 fastball vs. 2024 / Statcast
Chris Sale's 2017 slider vs. 2024
Chris Sale's 2017 slider vs. 2024 / Statcast

Few hitters have the combination of power, patience and speed like Bryce Harper. The Philadelphia Phillies first baseman has 987 career walks. He soon will become only the third player with 300 HR, 100 SB and 1,000 walks by age 31, joining some elite company.

Players with at least 300 home runs, 100 stolen bases and 1,000 walks by age 31.
Players with at least 300 home runs, 100 stolen bases and 1,000 walks by age 31. / Baseball Reference

Tom Verducci


Tom Verducci covers Major League Baseball and brings Sports Illustrated 41 seasons of experience. Tom is a five-time Emmy Award winner, two-time National Magazine Award finalist, two-time New York Times bestselling author and a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. He was the first baseball writer to be named National Sportswriter of the Year for three consecutive years and the only to call the World Series as an analyst. He appears on MLB Network and Fox. He holds a degree from Penn State and lives in New Jersey with his wife. They have two sons.