On Tuesday afternoon, before what turned out to be a rained-out game against Hagerstown, I spoke to West Virginia Power shortstop Cole Tucker about being a former first-round pick, about switch-hitting, and about developing as an defensive player. Here's the transcript, lightly edited for length.
You've hit better as the season has progressed. What do you think might be the reasons for that?
I think success has a lot to do with routines, and I feel like I've got a pretty good one going right now. It's all about getting to the ballpark and knowing what you need to do to be ready for that first pitch. So I feel like, this being my first full season, I've learned a lot about what it takes to prepare, mentally and physically. Working with our staff and our coaches and coordinators and everything, they've really helped me out with learning what it means to have a routine.
What are some examples of that kind of thing?
Getting to the field and knowing what I need to do in the cage, or knowing what I need to do to get my body prepared in the training room or the weight room. Knowing what I need to do to get my body prepared to go out there and let my approach work.
How are the pitchers different this year as compared to last year in the Gulf Coast League?
In the GCL last year, I feel like guys were more erratic. Guys weren't around the zone as much. This year, pitchers have a better idea of what they're trying to do, and they can command, or have better control of, their pitches. So this league is full of guys that are 21, 22, 23, 24 -- guys that went to college, guys that have a better idea how to use their stuff and who they are and what they can do on the mound. I've seen a lot more strikes this year. Last year, you might see a guy who's 18 and he throws 98, but he might throw one in the strike zone, one at your head, one all over. It was kind of all over the place. But this year, there's definitely been more control.
[Are] pitchers hitting spots better, not just throwing strikes, but hitting spots?
Definitely. Guys definitely have a better plan. They know what they're trying to do [and] what they're trying to get you out on.
What kind of pressure do you feel as the result of being a first-round pick?
Obviously, that's there, and that's obviously a privilege. I look at it more as a privilege than [as] pressure. Pressure is a good thing. If there's pressure on you, you're doing something right. We talk about it all the time. Pressure should be playful. If there's pressure on you, it should be fun. Just making sure that it's not becoming a job, and stressful, and just going out there and having fun and playing. At the end of the day, it's still a game. So yes, I know there's a plan for me and all that, but I'm really just focusing on going out there and having fun.
Is there a side of the plate you prefer, or find easier?
Not really. It all depends on the day, and who you're facing, and how you're feeling. The thing about switch-hitting -- it's like babysitting two kids. You know, like, one's happy, one's not happy. One feels good, one doesn't feel good. It's different. It's weird. I'm naturally left-handed, but I feel like I've had a little more success right-handed this year. So I'm really working on that, and I feel like I'm improving both sides.
How is your preparation different as a result of being a switch-hitter?
You definitely have to get more swings. You've got to work on both. You definitely have to flip-flop and know, "Alright, there's a righty on the mound tonight -- I really need to work on my lefty [swing]. But I still don't want to neglect my right-handed swing." You have to balance it out and know what you need.
The Pirates do a lot of shifting at the big-league level. How much of that are you doing here, and how much do you practice that?
As far as, like, pull shifts for hitters, not so much. We play the stakes [a word Power players use to refer to where players are positioned], so we set up for right-handed batters and left-handed batters, but nothing too extreme at this level. I know there's a lot at the big-league level, but not so much here.
So as a shortstop, you don't play much of a role in determining where other fielders are positioned ...
We just try to read hitters, and we always say that our defense goes off of our pitching. So our pitchers have a plan, and we try to set up where we think guys are going to hit the ball based on our pitchers' plans.
What do you feel you need to do to get to the next step in your career, the next level?
Obviously, I'm in A-ball, so there's tons of things I need to work on. Being a shortstop, the thing I've worked on most this year is just making the routine plays. If you make the routine plays at shortstop, you can play for a really long time. Through athleticism and being in the right place at the right time, the spectacular plays will happen. For me, I'm just focused on making the routine play. And from an offensive standpoint, just continuing to do what I'm doing. This year is all about finding out who I am, what kind of hitter I am. That's going to evolve as I go on in my career and my body changes, and I learn more about myself and the game. [I'm] really just learning who I am and how to use my weapons effectively.