May 23—When Cole Tucker was working his way through the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ farm system — unsure of how a professional baseball player should act — veterans such as utility man Sean Rodriguez were happy to show him the way.
Separated by nine years of age, Tucker and Rodriguez were often seen inside the clubhouse at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla., sitting on stools, talking ball.
Now, Tucker is 24 — he’s been on one Pirates team or another since he was 17 — and it’s his turn to give back. But with a twist: He has a lot of work to do on his own, too.
Tucker was called back to the Pirates on Friday after what he called a humbling — but “cool” experience — in Triple-A Indianapolis.
After spending parts of 2019 and all of the shortened 2020 season with the Pirates, Tucker was sent to Indianapolis at the end of spring training this year to work on some deficiences at the plate.
A first-round draft choice in 2014 who has yet to establish himself as a big-leaguer, he’ll take a Pirates career slash line of .213/.258/.322 into the game Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
“It would have been really easy to go in and be pissed off and be the salty guy with some big-league time and be standoff-ish,” Tucker said of his time in the minors.
“I could have been super negative and bummed out, which I was. I obviously wanted to be (with the Pirates), but it is what it is, and it was just a part of it.
“That’s a humbling thing to do as a baseball player. It gives you a lot of perspective.”
Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said he commends Tucker for his attitude.
“I really respect Cole for what he’s chosen to do over the last few weeks, which is really commit to working on something on the offensive side and make some sacrifices,” Cherington said. “Nobody in his position prefers to stay in Bradenton in April instead of heading north with their teammates, but that’s exactly what he did.”
Tucker remembers working with and listening to Rodriguez — now out of baseball — and he’s grateful for the shoulder the veteran provided.
“Sean’s done playing now, but the lasting impression that he sprinkled onto me still lives on in me,” Tucker said, “and it might live on in some 18-year-old playing in Greensboro (Pirates’ High-A affiliate) who I’ve now hung out with and worked with.
“I relate to those guys (in the minors) more than you think. I’m 24, but I was that 17- or 18-year-old kid at Pirate City not very long ago. I know what they’re going through.”
An outstanding athlete who carries a big-league glove, his problems always have been confined to the batter’s box.
“Just offensive stuff. That’s obvious,” he said. “It was all over the place, but it was all about instability in my lower half and trying to corral that and control that and just make it so I’m in a better position to hit more consistently.
“If your body is out of whack and you’re not in a good position to hit, your plan and approach can only get you so far.”
Tucker said there was some “off-the-wall” training techniques that have helped him. One involved trying to keep his balance while holding an aqua bag.
“If you’re holding it, the water is sloshing,” he said. “It causes you to be unstable. If I’m on one leg holding an aqua bag, it’s harder to balance because the water is unpredictable and all over the place as opposed to holding a bat or weight that doesn’t move. We’re doing all this crazy stuff. It challenges your position and it challenges your stability.”
He said the sessions have helped him see the pitched ball more clearly.
“When your lower half is unstable, your head’s not going to be stable, and you’re not going to be able to swing at what you want to swing at,” he said. “That’s where I’m at. I see the ball way better.”
Manager Derek Shelton said sometimes slumping hitters think about so many other intricacies that they might forget about “that little white thing that comes at them.”
“You would be surprised,” Shelton said, “if you talk to hitters when they’re scuffling how much they do not see the baseball. If you specifically ask them, ‘Where are you seeing the baseball?’ sometimes they can’t even answer it.”
Tucker hit only .214 with no home runs and three RBIs in Indianapolis, but he said he was making good contact.
“I had some really good days, some really unlucky days, but I felt really good about how I was seeing the ball and hitting it,” he said. “Obviously, nothing is a perfect science and hitting is really hard. I didn’t light up the stat sheet or anything, but I definitely felt like pitchers were fearing me and I was getting pitched around.”
With the Pirates, Tucker could be used to spell Kevin Newman at shortstop while Erik Gonzalez is bouncing between third and first bases to fill voids created by injuries. It’s unclear where he’ll be after the injured players return. He didn’t start and batted only twice during the last three games of Atlanta Braves series, going 0 for 2.
Tucker played some outfield last year, but that experiment hasn’t carried over to 2021.
“I’m just here to help the team however I can,” he said. “So, there hasn’t been talk about (the outfield), but you never know. Crazier things have happened.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .