Charlie Pallilo: The lack of a Super buzz, Rockets, NCAA hoops and more

Rob Gronkowski could be a difference maker for New England.

It sure seems there was more interest last year here in the run-up to the Super Bowl. Well duh, the game was played here. Add in the Texans’ season devolving into a fetid mess and an overall decline in NFL interest this season, and yeah, the buzz volume has been more whisper than earsplitter. But what, you’re not going to watch version LII Sunday? Whether you detest them, envy them, or marvel at them, what the Patriots have done and continue to do during the Belichick-Brady dynasty is astounding. Eight Super Bowl appearances in 18 years. In which century do you think the Texans make their 8th Super Bowl appearance?

Clearly the Eagles can win the game. The Jaguars gave the Pats fits at Foxborough. The Eagles’ defense isn’t Jaguars great, but is darn good. The Eagles will move the ball against the New England defense. But what the Patriots do is stiffen in the red zone. Good chance Nick Foles turns it over there at some point.

If Rob Gronkowski stays healthy, the Eagles just don’t have a good matchup against him. Who does? And Brady is still Brady. Patriots 23,  Eagles 20.

Rockets roll on

Congrats to the Rockets for extinguishing any Spurs’ hopes of mounting a charge at them for second best record in the Western Conference. Granted they had no Kawhi Leonard, but the Spurs were overmatched in San Antonio Thursday night in dropping seven games behind the Rockets in the loss column. The Spurs are closer in the loss column to the lottery than they are to the Rockets. The Rockets are back on pace to win 60 games.

Record review

So close Calvin Murphy, so close. Next month would have marked the 40 year anniversary of Murph holding the Rockets franchise record for points in a game. March 18th 1978 the Pocket Rocket went off for 57 in a game against the New Jersey Nets. That was before there was a three point line in the NBA.

Contrary to the cliché, all records are not made to be broken.  But Murphy’s fell Tuesday when James Harden went for 60 while the rest of the Rockets mustered 54 in a struggle of a win over awful Orlando. Harden is the 25th player to score 60 or more in a game. Only four guys have gone 60+ more than once: Elgin Baylor four times, Michael Jordan five, Kobe Bryant six, Wilt Chamberlain...32. THIRTY-TWO!

This may seem heretical to some, but James Harden’s offensive production is now at a higher level than even peak Hakeem Olajuwon’s was. Harden’s raw output and scoring efficiency are superior. As a player Harden is nowhere close to Dream; there’s that other half of the game that kind of counts (defense). But for pure offense, this James Harden is better than Hakeem’s Dreamiest. If you prefer more of an apple-to-apple comparison, this James Harden is certainly better than Kobe Bryant ever was offensively. Yes there is a caveat somewhere in size from meaningful to total solar eclipse-causing: regular season Harden. Hey, it’s a cross he has to bear. For now.

Tournament talk

It was a tough Wednesday night for the NCAA Tournament hopes for the Universities of Houston and Texas. Both are still strongly alive and right now probably would make the field of 68, but both missed out on opportunities for substantial resume-enhancing road victories. UH blew (or had ripped from it-matter of perspective) an 18 point lead at 8th ranked Cincinnati. No shame in the defeat, the Bearcats haven’t lost a home game in more than two years. The Coogs get a rematch with the Cats week after next. They hope the second time around goes the way it did vs. Wichita State. But road wins gain extra credit, and the Coogs do not have a quality road win to their name. A win at Cincy also would have vaulted UH into the Top 25 for the first time in a dozen years.

In Lubbock, UT could have made it a season sweep over top 10 Texas Tech but fell at the buzzer in overtime. Being in the Big 12 means the Longhorns play a vastly tougher schedule than does UH. UT has played one of the five toughest schedules in the country but you still have to win some games. Texas is 4-5 in Big 12 play. A 7-11 finish should mean the NIT, and furthermore should mean at least a warm seat for Shaka Smart going into next season. Fab freshman Trae Young and Oklahoma are in Austin tomorrow.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Jeff Allen has been a free agent disappointment with the Texans whose release should be considered.  2. Allen replaced Brandon Brooks when the Texans wouldn’t pay market rate to keep him. Brooks starts at right guard for the Eagles in the Super Bowl Sunday.  3. Best North American markets:  Bronze-Quincy, Boston   Silver-St. Lawrence, Toronto   Gold-Pike Place, Seattle

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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

Can I interest you in an Astros podcast?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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