Preston Tucker’s game isn’t normal. He’s short and has holes in his swing that shouldn’t produce All-American numbers.
But they do.
The stocky first baseman for the Gators came to Gainesville from high school with a reputation as one of the best power hitters in Florida. When he was playing high school ball at Tampa Plant, there was always an entourage of college and professional scouts but even though Tucker was tearing it up in one of the toughest high school leagues in the country, the scouts were mostly there to see Mychal Givens, a 2009 graduate who was a second round pick of the Baltimore Orioles.
Plant head coach Dennis Braun expected them to break down the doors of the school to speak with Tucker after a junior season in which he won the Hillsborough County Triple Crown, batting .561 with nine home runs and 51 RBI. It was the first time ever that a player had hit for the Triple Crown in a county that produced Major League players the caliber of Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs.
“There really weren’t a lot of colleges on Preston after his junior year,” Braun said. “It really bothered me and I couldn’t put a finger on it. Pro scouts are one thing, but he wasn’t tearing up good high school pitchers are barely getting any interest.”
Duke was the first team to come through with an offer, but it seemed like they regretted that decision and stopped calling only weeks after making the offer. Tucker drove to Florida State twice that summer to work out with the Seminoles’ coaching staff, only to find out later they didn’t think he was good enough.
A tape measure might explain why Tucker slipped through the cracks.
He’s listed at 6-0 on the team roster, and even that might be generous. There wasn’t a corner infielder under 6-3 drafted in the first 58 picks of the Major League Baseball Draft last season. Professional teams love to draft tall, lanky corner infielders who have a frame for packing on the pounds. What they do at the high school level is only the beginning of what happens once they add muscle when they’re in the minor leagues. Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez were both drafted in the first round as skinny guys with good swings. Beginning in the minors, their power numbers increased proportionally with the increased muscle mass.
When the scouts took a look at Tucker, they didn’t seem to think he would project to the professional level.
“They’re always trying to project a big leaguer, which is pretty impossible with a high school kid,” Braun said.
Tucker isn’t tall and lanky. In fact, he is short and stocky. He’ll never stand out as the team’s best player when they stand on the third base line for the National Anthem or when they get off the bus at a road game. He just stays in the back of the crowd and lets his bat do the talking.
Tucker’s impressive power numbers have everything to do with his weight room work ethic. Following his sophomore year at Plant, he realized that at 165 pounds those fly balls would only continue to stop at the warning track.
So he became a weight room warrior.
This isn’t just a casual jog on the treadmill and a few reps on the machines. Tucker hit the weights hard. While still in high school he began a workout regimen with a few teammates at the University of Tampa where they would load up with heavy weight and do exercises until their bodies gave out. Then they would slide over to another machine to use the same routine. Twenty squats would be followed by ten reps on the leg press, and then back to the squat rack.
“I realized I wasn’t the biggest kid in the world,” Tucker said. “That was when I really dedicated myself to getting bigger.”
Since hitting the weights, Tucker has added 50 pounds of muscle in only three years and it has changed the dynamics of his swing. Instead of falling over from swinging so hard, he can now focus on a smooth, consistent swing that lets his bat do the work. The length of his swing generates extra power behind his bat, allowing the strength in his legs to do the rest of the work.
When he doesn’t tense up from swinging so hard, it is more natural and fluid. That alone generates more power than any tense swing he can muster when only thinking about hitting a home run.
“I’m not swinging as hard as I can; I’m just making solid contact,” Tucker said. “If you square it up, the ball jumps off the bat.”
While that swing generates plenty of power, it didn’t exactly endear Tucker to pro scouts for some reason. It was good enough, however, for him to earn the SEC’s Co-Freshman of the Year honors.
“Preston’s swing has a little bit of roughness in it,” Braun said. “I wouldn’t call it a picture perfect swing, but he puts the barrel on the ball.”
The swing is different than most. He stands slightly open towards the pitcher, crouched and ready to strike. From there, his hands go farther away from his body than most, lengthening the swing but allowing him to get plate coverage. It forces his timing to be impeccable on every pitch.
And it usually is.
His swing is robotic, but in a lot of ways, so is Tucker. He’s the guy who shows up at the field early for practice to go through his same routine. It’s extra batting practice followed by extra ground balls.
“The pro scouts tell me all the time they missed him,” Braun said. “His swing just didn’t fit into everybody’s box. It’s not that they missed him, they were afraid to pull the trigger.”
Going undrafted didn’t come as a surprise to Tucker. The scouts were at all his games but he had such little contact with them that it gave him a feeling he would miss out on draft day.
His mindset remained the same throughout the draft as it is now. He wants to remain in college and mature as a player and a person before he takes his chances with professional baseball. It is a decision that just might spell six figures because Tucker has earned the attention of the pro scouts. Right now, he is projected as a first round pick in the 2011 draft.
“The draft is always a toss up,” Tucker said. “I didn’t have expectations. I honestly didn’t think I was ready to play minor league baseball.”
One reason Tucker has caught the attention of the scouts is his patience at the plate. Most power hitters are free swingers, but Tucker has the keen eye of a leadoff hitter. He will foul pitches off and drive up the pitch count while waiting for something he can drive.
In 242 at bats last season as a freshman, Tucker struck out only 22 times and walked 21. The strikeouts were the fewest of any player on the team who had over 160 at bats. Albert Pujols led all of Major League Baseball with 47 home runs last season but averaged one strikeout every 8.88 at bats. Tucker averaged a strikeout every eleven.
Tucker attributes the patience to his ability to recognize pitch type and location when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. That serves as compensation for a swing that might be a little longer than it should be. That extra split second is all he needs.
“The thing about Preston is he’s got a good eye at the plate and he doesn’t swing at a lot of pitches out of the zone,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He’s somewhat of a bad-ball hitter. The barrel just finds the ball. The ball is in, out, up, down, 83 (mph), 93, breaking balls, he just seems to square balls up.”
The confidence that Tucker will avoid the sophomore slump is also found in his ability to read pitches. He won’t swing at breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs at his eyes. He will take a walk before swinging out of his shoes at a pitch he can’t hit. It’s a quality that his former high school coach calls “his uniqueness,” and it’s what could make the Florida offense powerful whether he sees pitches to hit or not.
“I have a lot of protection in the lineup,” Tucker said of why opposing pitchers might have to pitch to him. “They’ll probably throw me off-speed and throw a lot more off-speed stuff early in the count.”
Whatever comes his way from the hand of the pitcher or the opinions of scouts this season, Tucker will be ready. How he gets it done may not be pretty, but the production will be there.