In the fifth inning of the Houston-New York ALCS game on Wednesday night, the Astros’ Kyle Tucker stepped to the plate against the Yankees’ Clarke Schmidt with the bases loaded. There was one out, the score was tied 1-1, and you kind of felt like this was the moment when the game would turn, one way or another.
Baseball thrives on moments like these, with the bases juiced, with nowhere to put the batter, with the crowd at fever pitch, with the players locked in, with the clichés flying about like mosquitoes.
Then, TBS put on the screen that Kyle Tucker hit .471 with the bases loaded this year.
I don’t need to tell you — that’s pretty darned good.
I also don’t need to tell you — that’s a REALLY small sample size.
He went 8 for 17 with two home runs. That’s impressive. Is it unprecedented? No, of course not, there were several others who hit better with the bases loaded in 2022, including a guy across the way playing for the Yankees named Isiah Kiner-Falefa. But Kiner-Falefa wasn’t the one at the plate, nor was it Jake Cronenworth, who hit .636 with the bases loaded this year, nor was it a guy named Don Lenhardt, who had three official at-bats with the bases loaded in 1952 … and homered on all three of them.*
*Lenhardt was — even in his own words — a mostly forgettable utility outfielder in the early 1950s. He became a scout after he retired and was beloved throughout the game. In 1952, he hit only .239 with 11 homers, but he was something with the base loaded. The first time he came up with the bases loaded, on April 19, he hit an inside-the-park grand slam for Boston. Less than two months later, on June 2, he hit a walk-off grand slam for the Red Sox. The very next day, Boston traded him to Detroit as part of a sweeping, eight-player deal. Less than one week later, on Ladies Day in Boston, he hit a grand slam AGAINST the Red Sox.
No, it was Kyle Tucker at the plate with the bases loaded and that shiny .471 batting average this year. And TBS’s Brian Anderson — who I think is a fantastic broadcaster, by the way, one of my favorite listens — started to expand upon Tucker’s bases loaded prowess. He talked about how, for his career, he was a .422 hitter with the bases loaded, and that led to him talking about how he loves to hit in the big moments, and that led to him saying that Tucker lifts his game for times like these.
“This is when he’s at his very best,” Anderson said, or something like it.
On the next pitch, obviously, Tucker grounded into a routine 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Tucker didn’t hit into the double play because he choked, any more than he hit .471 this year because he has some sort of bases-loaded super-power. He’s a really good hitter who thrives with the bases loaded in part because ALL HITTERS are better with the bases loaded.
This year, batters hit .243 and slugged .395.
With the bases loaded, they hit .269 and slugged .447.
Last year, batters hit .244 and slugged .411.
With the bases loaded, they hit .278 and slugged .472.
In 2004, batters hit .264 and slugged .422.
With the bases loaded, they hit .285 and slugged .447.
In 1978, batters hit .257 and slugged .376.
With the bases loaded, they hit .271 and slugged .414
In 1955, batters hit .259 and slugged .394.
With the bases loaded, they hit .283 and slugged .423.
You see what I’m getting at here? Batters are better with the bases loaded. I’m sure you can come up with a million reasons for it, probably starting with the simple fact that with the bases loaded, pitchers have to challenge hitters or else walk in a run.* The art of hitting and pitching tends to come down to which player can gain a subtle advantage … by getting ahead in the count, by having a deep understanding of their opponent’s tendencies and weaknesses, by doing something a little bit surprising like swinging first-pitch or throwing a change-up on a fastball count, etc.
Having the bases loaded naturally gives the hitter a subtle advantage.
*Our pal Tom Tango rushes in with the real reason batters have a better batting average with the bases loaded; it’s a statistical illusion. Sacrifice flies do not count against batting average.
None of which is to downplay the fact that Kyle Tucker hit .471 with the bases loaded this year. He did do that, and it’s a fine stat to bring up in context. But it’s probably best to say it once and leave it alone. As Lt. Weinberg tells the loathsome JoAnne Galloway in “A Few Good Men” — “You object once so we can say he’s not a criminologist. You keep after it, it looks like a bunch of fancy lawyer tricks.”
Believe it or not, I don’t bring any of this up to talk about the Kyle Tucker narrative … I bring it up to talk about the Dusty Baker narrative. The man has been managing for so long that some concrete narratives have built up around him. You’ve heard them: He’s a wrecker of pitcher arms. He’s too old school. He’s not much of a strategist. Mostly: He can’t win the big one.
Like with most narratives, there are probably some truths in there somewhere … but like with most narratives, the full truth tends to be obscured.