AFC SOUTH REPORT

The award winners in the division at the halfway point of the season

Deshaun Watson's injury derailed s remarkable season. Tim Warner/Getty Images

We have reached the midway point of the season!

Injuries have completely derailed Indianapolis and Houston. While fans of Jacksonville and Tennessee remain cautiously optimistic that their teams may be playoff bound.

Time for some midseason AFC South Awards!

Best Offensive Player: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

It’s nothing short of a tragedy the way Watson’s season was cut short with a knee injury. The star rookie from Clemson had thrown for 19 touchdowns and rushed for another two. More importantly, he led the Texans to three wins and showed tremendous promise in three shootouts against New England, Kansas City and Seattle.

Best Defensive Player: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars

This one is not even close. Campbell has been one of the best defensive players in the league. While the Jaguars defense has been on the rise the last few seasons, Campbell has exceeded all expectations. His league leading eleven sacks has anchored a unit that has given up only 14.6 points per game. If the Jaguars are going to return to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, Campbell’s leadership will carry them there.

Rookie of the Half-Year: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

It would have been easy to give this award to Watson but, despite them both being in their first year in the league, only one of them seems to be acting like a rookie. After narrowly escaping a serious leg/ankle injury three weeks ago, Fournette was a late scratch against the Cincinnati Bengals. The reason for the benching was reportedly for skipping out on a team photo. If Fournette can keep it together for the final eight games, he has a chance to put together one of the best rookie rushing seasons in league history.

Most Reliable: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts

In good times and bad, Hilton continues to shine. Now in his sixth season out of Florida International, the durable wide receiver has steadily amassed stats that have him on a borderline Hall of Fame trajectory. With over 700 yards this season, he has been producing nearly identical stats with or without Andrew Luck.

Coach of the Half-Year: Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars

When a team hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2010, and now the talk around town is whether there is an opportunity for a top seed and a bye, that’s a pretty impressive turnaround.

The 5-3 Jaguars still have to play the Browns, the 49ers, and host the banged up Texans and Colts. As crazy as it sounds, the Jaguars finishing 9-7 would actually be a disappointment to fans in North Florida.

We’ll learn a lot more about the Jaguars on Sunday when they take on an improving Chargers team. With former Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley at the helm of LA’s defense, it will be fascinating to see what kind of schemes he throws at quarterback Blake Bortles.

Most Disappointing: Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

This may not be entirely fair. Multiple injuries have sidelined Davis for much of the first part of the season. However, after Davis set all time receiving records at Western Michigan, I think it was fair to expect immediate contributions. If Tennessee can outlast Jacksonville for the division, Davis will certainly play a part in that success.

Man of the Division: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Man of the division? Sure. Why not? He's already wrapped up the NFL Man of the Year and possibly Man of the Decade if such an award is given. Watt’s contributions off the field have been immeasurable. It's a shame that it won't be until fall of 2018 before we see him on the field again.

Most Improved: Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

I’m not sure anyone in the league has made a bigger jump from their rookie to second season. Byard is playing like an All-Pro. He's leading the league with six interceptions but also has ten pass deflections. Without his three interceptions against Cleveland, the Browns would no longer be winless.

Most Invisible: Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

While this may seem like a dig at Bortles, it has been a welcome relief for Jaguars fans. Bortles really hasn't been good or bad. He's not making any great plays but he's also not losing any games on his own. If Bortles was an emoji, he'd be the “meh.” That sort of indescribable unenthusiastic acceptance of something completely mediocre. Although, with a defense like Jacksonville’s, maybe meh is all they need? One can argue Peyton Manning wasn't much better than meh during his second Super Bowl run.

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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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