FORT MYERS, Fla. – When it comes to identifying his favorite teammates from his spring high school team and his summer travel ball team, highly ranked class of 2015 outfield prospect Kyle Tucker doesn’t have a very big pond to fish from.
During the spring prep season, Tucker is a standout left-handed hitting outfielder at Henry B. Plant High School in Tampa. During the summer travel ball season, Tucker is a standout left-handed hitting outfielder for the All American Prospects West 17u, a team with 14 of its 17 roster spots filled with Tucker’s Plant HS teammates.
It’s uncommon – although certainly not unprecedented – to find a team at a Perfect Game national championship tournament like this week’s 17u PG BCS Finals with almost all of its members from one high school. But it’s always been this way for Tucker and his class of 2015 teammates and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love playing with my team; I’ve played with them most of my life,” Tucker said Wednesday morning before a 17u PG BCS Finals pool-play game at the Player Development 5-Plex. “Being able to play with them during the summer, it’s really a lot of fun. It makes you feel a lot more comfortable out in the field knowing that you’ve played with these guys and you know what they can do.
“Just being able to hang out with them outside of baseball and getting to know them, it’s just all pretty good,” he said. “We’ve played a lot throughout our lives and we know what each person can do and we just feed off each other.”
When the entire Prospects West roster is together at a tournament the team can form a formidable front, but looking at the players acting head coach Scott Hurst used in the Prospects’ first five games here – they went 2-2-1 – they are far from full strength.
Dennis Braun is the head coach at Plant High School and is usually the head coach for the Prospects West, but wasn’t able to be here this week so Hurst is filling in. Hurst explained that the program isn’t limited to just Plant players and Braun tries to bring in kids from all around the Tampa area.
There are three players on this roster from other high schools, including North Carolina recruit Cole Gibbs, a 2015 outfielder/right-hander from Tampa Jesuit HS. Cole and top Plant HS prospect and Florida recruit, national No. 170 Jacob Woodford, are among the guys on the Prospects West 17u roster that haven’t played this week, however.
“It’s not exclusively for Plant High School and we are getting kids from other schools,” Hurst said Wednesday. “If we see a kid playing that maybe doesn’t have a (summer) program to go to that’s going to one of the other schools and is interested in joining this team, we’d love to have them.
“Giving the kids exposure with the colleges is really important and if we see a good kid who just might be at another school, we don’t really care,” he continued. “We like mixing them in with our kids and we like to see how they integrate, and our kids usually take really good care of the kids from the other schools.”
Hurst said that most of the players on this All American Prospects West 17u team and the ones that attend Plant High School first started playing on a junior league team years ago. For all intents and purposes, they have been lifetime teammates.
“They’re all really talented and they all wanted to play travel ball so we just kind of kept them all together,” he said. “They get to get comfortable with all their teammates and they’ve been comfortable with all their teammates, and they know how the game is played and what we expect out of them as coaches.”
Regardless of where these players come from, just having an elite prospect like Kyle Tucker out on the field is enough to put just about any 17u team over the top.
An alumnus of 10 Perfect Game events – nine PG BCS and PG WWBA tournaments and last month’s PG National Showcase – the 6-foot-4, 175-pound University of Florida commit has used his smooth, left-handed hitting stroke, strong outfield arm and 6.77-second 60-yard dash speed to rocket up to No. 15 in PG’s class of 2015 national prospect rankings.
“I like to just go out there and play and not really get all caught up with the rankings or anything,” he said. “I like just going out there and playing and where ever they rank me, they rank me. I don’t pay much attention to that.”
Tucker enjoyed a very eventful month of June, which probably had as much to do with the spike in his ranking as anything (he was No. 50 in the rankings released Feb. 2, 2014, before rocketing to No. 15 in the rankings released June 28).
In June, he first took part in the Perfect Game National Showcase at JetBlue Park here in Fort Myers and then moved on to the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars presented by Major League Baseball in Cary, N.C. He was recognized as one of the top prospects at the PG National and was named to the 44-man roster for the USA Baseball 18u National Team.
“I got to see a lot of great competition” at both events, Tucker said. “I already knew some of the guys that were there so I got to hang out with them for a little bit and just being able to see the top pitchers and getting use to that helped me get ready for the rest of the summer.”
There was a time in the early stages of Tucker’s athletic career that he played some soccer but otherwise has always been devoted to baseball. He points to his brother, Preston Tucker, as having the biggest influence on his baseball career.
Preston Tucker is an outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter who participated in 10 PG events from 2006-08. He drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 16th round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Florida and by the Houston Astros in the seventh round of the 2012 draft, again out of Florida. Now in his third minor-league season, he is at Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Astros farm system.
“We used to play wiffle ball in the backyard,” Tucker said. “Just being able to see him out on the field, too, and to take away what he has to put into the game, I really learn a lot through him.”
Hurst arrived at Plant High School in 2008, Parker Tucker’s senior year, and said he really didn’t see that many similarities between the two brothers other than a very intense competitive attitude. He does not waste words when speaking of how highly he regards Kyle Tucker, both as a baseball player and a young man.
“First of all, he’s one of the greatest (high school players) that I’ve ever seen,” Hurst said, “but more importantly is that he is a great kid. We run across kids in our (coaching) careers that have all the ability in the world and the wrong attitude – he’s the absolute exception.
“If you want to enjoy coaching a kid, this is the model kid. He does everything you ask, he has a little bit of that competitive fire to him, but yet he’s funny; he has a lot of good character traits about him and he’s a great teammate.”
The Plant Panthers finished 23-6 this past spring and Tucker was not only the best hitter on the team but the best hitter in Florida Class 8A District 7. He hit .415 (34-for-82) and was the district leader in home runs (nine), runs batted in (35), runs scored (34), slugging percentage (.902), on-base percentage (.536) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.438), according to MaxPreps.com.
Through five games at the 17u PG BCS Finals he was hitting .500 (6-for-12) with two doubles, a home run, three RBI, four runs and a 1.479 OPS. Plant right-hander Ben Hiatt threw a complete game, seven inning, two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and Plant first baseman Jake Bak hit .455 (5-for-11) with a double, an RBI and a runs scored.
As good as Tucker has proven himself to be on the baseball field, he might be even better in the classroom where he carries a 4.7 grade point average.
“One of the great things about him is that he has this physical talent and he also intimately understands the game,” Hurst said.
As an example of how dialed-in to a ball game Tucker usually is, Hurst told of an instance when Tucker was on first base and the pitcher went into the wind-up. Without anyone alerting him to this fact, Tucker immediately took off and was standing on second base before anyone else even noticed.
“He’s already thinking like the kids that are in college and are way more mature and understand how the game works, and I was impressed with that,” Hurst said. “He wasn’t over (at first) just day-dreaming – he saw the pitcher was making a mistake and he capitalized on it.”
The majority of the guys who are teammates on this All American Prospects West 17u team this summer can look forward to enjoying the spring of 2015 together as teammates at Plank High School. They have already been life-long teammates and they’ve fed off each other, with every one of them hoping to one day reach the level of play their teammate, Kyle Tucker has, already achieved.
“I like how everybody has gotten a lot better,” he concluded. “Even with my team we’ve gotten a lot better since the high school season started; I like where we’re at right now.”