Shuck bucking trend as on-base machine
Despite little power, outfielder drawing walks with regularity
VIERA, Fla. -- He makes it sound so easy. You see the ball, you hit the ball. Unless, of course, four pitches are a fraction of an inch off the plate and you can reach first base without taking the bat off your shoulder. In that case, Astros outfielder J.B. Shuck is more than willing to take a 90-foot stroll.
Shuck has developed a reputation for playing the game hard and doing whatever it takes to get on base, whether it's hitting the ball into the gap or taking a walk. Shuck's ability to get on base at a high rate -- and the fact he can play all three outfield spots and swings left-handed -- has put him in the mix to win an Opening Day roster spot with the Astros.
Shuck, who made his Major League debut last year, has drawn walks at an impressively high rate throughout his college and professional career, especially for a player who has very little power.
"It's always been a big part of my game, just because I've been at the top of the lineup pretty much my whole career," Shuck said. "To me, it's important to get on base. If I can draw a lot of walks, that's an easy way to get on."
Shuck, 24, has only 92 plate appearances as a Major League player and is hitting .272 (22-for-81) with 11 walks and only seven strikeouts. At that pace, if he were to get 700 plate appearances in a season, he would walk 84 times, which would have been the sixth most in the National League last year behind sluggers like Joey Votto, Prince Fielder and Lance Berkman.
Selected by the Astros out of Ohio State in the sixth round on the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Shuck is a career .302 hitter in 443 career games in the Minor Leagues. In 1,941 plate appearances, he's walked 217 times, struck out 190 times and hit only seven home runs. His on-base percentage is .383.
"He understands the strike zone and has very good pitch recognition," Astros hitting coach Mike Barnett said. "The thing about it is he understands where he's at in the game. He understands what he needs to do. He's going to be an on-base guy; he's not going to be a power guy. He's going to be more of a run scorer, and those are the types of things he can give us and he's been fantastic at it."
Shuck realized his limitations at a young age and began taking advantage of his speed and good eye. He was an on-base machine while at Ohio State, drawing 51 walks and striking out 24 times in 138 games en route to a .405 on-base percentage in college. While the Astros are focusing on getting younger players like Jose Altuve and Jimmy Paredes to be more selective, Shuck makes plate discipline sound elementary.
"I just really try and focus on a part of the plate, and if it's not in that position, try not to swing," he said. "With my approach, I focus more up the middle, maybe a little bit more to left field, so I see the ball and try and let it travel a little bit more. I think that helps me see it. If it's a ball, it gives me that split-second longer to maybe let it go."
The way Shuck sees it, opposing pitchers are probably going to give you more than one good pitch to hit during a prolonged at-bat, so why not be selective and work the count?
"The more pitches you see, the more comfortable you get with seeing pitches and you're able to take balls and work on hitting with two strikes," he said. "I try not to think of it much different than hitting with no strikes and maybe expand the zone a little bit. I've been comfortable with two strikes, and it helps me see a lot more pitches and get more walks."
With the Astros focusing more on statistical analytics under the leadership of new general manager Jeff Luhnow, Shuck is a sabermetrician's dream for his ability to help generate runs.
"You always find these outliers in the system, and you've got to let them play because there's no clear model what they might become," Luhnow said. "J.B.'s got some tools and he's always been a guy that's exceeded expectations, and that's why he's continued to progress to the point he's seriously being considered for an outfield spot at the Major League level. Certainly, he's a hard-working kid and has tools and can run and swing the bat."
Barnett has been using Shuck as an example for Paredes and Altuve, as well as some other young players, to take more pitches and become more selective.
"They're throwing the same pitches to him and he's so much more selective, and he knows what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are and stays with his strengths," Barnett said. "That's tough for a player to do. We saw when he came to the big leagues last year; he didn't get out of his game plan and was able to stay with it. We know what we've got with Shucky."
Shuck, who went 0-for-3 on Thursday to drop his spring average to .444, is battling with Jason Bourgeois, Brian Bogusevic, Jack Cust and Travis Buck, among others, to make the club in the outfield. It should be one of the more interesting battles in camp.
"We're all pushing for each other in the same sense we're all competing for those couple of spots," Shuck said. "I think it's going to make everybody a little bit better, and hopefully we can put together the best five [outfielders]."