Falcon Points

After the off-season from hell, what do the Astros look like on the field in 2020?

Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Astros apparently have a new manager in Dusty Baker. They soon will have a new GM. They have the same basic lineup as last year.

So with all the off-field turmoil, suspensions that became firings and high profile scandals, how will things play out on the field where it matters most?

One outlet had the Astros as the SEVENTH best team in baseball heading into the season. We will spare you the need to click on the story, and just tell you they had the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, Rays, Nationals and Twins ahead of Houston.

Still a potent lineup

Unless you believe the only reason the Astros hitters were any good was the cheating scandal (and hey, there are those who think that), this is still one of the best lineups in all of baseball. While decisions will have to be made after the season on several key pieces (George Springer, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Michael Brantley most notably) for 2020 they are still loaded with Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yordan Alvarez, Gurriel, Brantley, Josh Reddick and Kyle Tucker all returning. No team outside of LA or New York can boast that kind of lineup. Jake Marisnick is gone, but presumably that opens up innings for Myles Straw, an exciting prospect with terrific speed, something the Astros do not have at that level in the lineup.

The bigger issue

The article's main issue is with the Astros starting pitching. Behind ace Justin Verlander and Zach Greinke are a lot of question marks. But few teams can match the Astros 1-2 punch. The names behind them though hardly inspire confidence. Lance McCullers will be on a pitch count coming off Tommy John surgery. Jose Urquidy has too small of a sample size. Forrest Whitley remains a myth. Austin Pruitt could be a sneaky good addition, however, and the Astros can always add someone at the trade deadline. More on that in a moment.

What about the bullpen?

The Astros lost Will Harris, but bring back Ryan Pressley, who was dominant until getting hurt, the controversial Roberto Osuna and Joe Smith on the back end. Josh James might be a contender to start, along with Brad Peacock. If not, they will help in relief. Harris was great for them last year, but the Astros in the past have done a terrific job of finding pitchers like that. Which brings us to the final question...

Loss of Luhnow

While the loss of A.J. Hinch can be mitigated - managers are not all that difficult to replace - life after GM Jeff Luhnow is a major question mark. Luhnow could be trusted to add players at the deadline (Verlander in 2017, Greinke in 2019), find some hidden gems (Charlie Morton) and add players that fit the Astros analytics approach. Will they still be that kind of team? Will Baker buy in if they are? Pitching coach Brent Strom remains, and should continue to work his magic. But will Luhknow's replacement be able to find the right kind of arms for him? Will the new analytics team be as effective?

These are all valid questions.

However...

Putting them seventh seems more like wishful thinking from a bitter media. The 2021 Astros will have serious questions and in fact might plummet out of contention entirely, depending on what moves happen in the next 12 months. But for 2020? Sure, Verlander and Greinke could both fall off the map, the other starters fail to stabilize and the team simply does not get it done. But that is a lot to go wrong. More likely, the lineup continues to pound the ball, Verlander and Greinke carry them and someone else emerges as decent 2-3 rotation pieces. That being the case, the only team that enters the season in the AL better on paper is the Yankees, who were almost as good as the Astros last season and poached one of their best weapons, and figure to be healthier in 2020.

Distractions?

Yes it has been wild off-season. But other than Luhnow, does it have any real impact on what happens on the field? Probably not. There could be some regressions - Alvarez most notably - but the offense has more than enough weapons. Straw could wind up being a sneaky good weapon. Tucker could finally emerge. If that happens, the so-called distractions will have minimal if any impact on the product on the field.

So yes, seventh seems a but silly, but fortunately, baseball scribes with their biases don't determine what happens on the field. The players do.

And the Astros still have plenty of those.

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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