THE PALLILOG

Charlie Pallilo: On UH winning, the Rockets on a roll going into the break and Astros talk

James Harden and the Rockets are on a historic pace. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It didn’t quite wake up the echoes of Phi Slama Jama, but it was quite a night Thursday for the University of Houston basketball program. The Cougars taking down the 5th ranked team in the nation beating Cincinnati 67-62 doesn’t quite clinch an NCAA Tournament bid for UH, but the Coogs should feel free to order their dancing shoes. It will be just their second Big Dance appearance in the last quarter century.

Texas Southern’s Health and Physical Education Arena has served the Cougars well as a temporary home this season (and it’s a good thing because there’s a strong possibility the new Fertitta Center won’t be ready for the start of next season). UH is now 13-0 there. The joint wasn’t quite two-thirds full for Cincinnati, but the joint was jumpin’. Frankly the atmosphere was better than that at Toyota Center for most Rockets’ games—which is ridiculous given the Rockets’ magnificence this season, but whatever.

UH gets its 20th win of the season and has achieved something that even the final Phi Slamma Jamma team (1983-84) did not: beat 2 teams ranked 7th or higher in the national rankings. The win was the Cougars’ first over a Top 5 team since 1996.

Kelvin Sampson is simply an outstanding coach. His undersized team does the signature thing that most Sampson teams have done, reeeeally sink their teeth in on defense. Cincy is no offensive powerhouse, but the UH D absolutely suffocated the Bearcats who made one field goal over a 12 minute stretch in the second half.

Rockets on a roll

Behold the tedium of NBA All-Star Weekend! Nothing tedious about the Rockets. They are rightfully happy to have a week off, but it feels a bit like pushing the pause button on their tidal wave of momentum. Their second 10+ game winning streak of the season coupled with Golden State splitting its last eight games means for the first time ever the Rockets have the NBA’s best record at the break. 44-13! It would now take a borderline collapse for the Rockets to not break the franchise record for wins in a season. The ’93-’94 squad posted 58 wins. All these Rockets need to top that is a 15-10 finish.

Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright choosing the Rockets as buyout-free agents shouldn’t be that a big deal in bolstering the Rockets. Where is there regular significant playing time for either? Johnson played 31 minutes in his Rockets’ debut Wednesday, but Eric Gordon didn’t play and Trevor Ariza remains out. Wright should be an upgrade over Tarik Black as Clint Capela’s backup on the nights Nene sits out. The Johnson and Wright additions might be bigger in that the Rockets landing them means the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, or other possible Rockets’ playoff opponents didn’t get them.

When the league comes out of hibernation next Friday there will be two compelling Western Conference races over the final seven weeks of the regular season. The Rockets and Warriors are in a match race for the top seed, then there are eight teams chasing the other six spots. The Spurs sit third best in the West, but may presently have the 10th best team. No sign of Kawhi Leonard returning. LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili hobbled into the break. That the Spurs could wind up in the draft lottery just seems preposterous, but they are just three and a half games ahead of the 9th place Clippers and four and a half ahead of the 10th place Jazz who roared into the break on an 11 game winning streak. The Spurs’ preposterous run of 18 consecutive seasons winning at least 50 games may be coming to an end. Or, Leonard and Aldridge could both be healthy by mid-April and be a dangerous low seed.

Astros are back

We’re under six weeks to the Astros beginning their World Series Champion defense March 29th in Arlington. We’ll see how soon Manager A.J. Hinch settles upon Justin Verlander or Dallas Keuchel as his opening day starting pitcher. For the best of reasons there really are no compelling Astros’ storylines this spring. They are loaded both in the everyday lineup and on the pitching staff.

The silence is neither golden nor deafening re: absolutely no indication of the Astros attempting (or being rebuffed in an attempt) to talk contract extension with Jose Altuve. The reigning MVP is under contract this year as their 10th highest paid player (tied with Tony Sipp. Tony Sipp!). The Astros control Altuve with an option for 2019 that slates him to make less money than Pat Neshek among many, many others.

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What do the numbers say about him? Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Carlos Correa endeared himself in the heart of Astros fans during his 2020 postseason run. He talked the talk off the field, and he walked the walk on the field. Correa slashed .362/.455/.766 in the postseason, hitting more home runs in 13 postseason games than he did in 58 regular season games. His performance has sparked discussions about whether or not the Astros should seek an extension with him this offseason.

Aside from the gaudy postseason numbers, he asserted himself as a team leader. The images and stories of Correa talking to Framber Valdez on the mound, telling Dusty Baker he was going to hit the walk off, and saying this is the most fun he's ever had playing baseball are fresh in everyone's minds.

However, that's just thirteen games out of a 667 game career (counting the postseason). The postseason games are the most important, and Correa seems to show up when the lights shine brightest, but the Astros have to assemble a team good enough to play under the bright lights for Correa to get that moment to shine. What do the numbers say about him?

Hard Hit % - 41.8%

Barrel % - 5.9%

K% - 21.8%

BB% - 7.3%

Chase % - 31.8%

(Numbers from 2020)

By the numbers, Correa didn't have the greatest regular season in 2020. He slashed .264/.326/.383 with a 97 wRC+, meaning he was 3% worse in run production that the average hitter. He was tied for 14th amongst qualified shortstops with Nick Ahmed of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Francisco Lindor (100 wRC+) was one spot ahead of Correa, while Orlando Arcia (96 wRC+) was one spot behind. His Hard Hit % was in the 65th percentile in MLB, and his Barrel % was in the 34th percentile.

His expected numbers suggest that the dip in performance wasn't a matter of bad luck. His .256 xBA is slightly worse than his actual batting average. His .406 xSLG is slightly better than his actual .SLG, but not by much. Correa had a wOBA of .305 and a nearly identical xwOBA of .306. Lastly, his .324 BABIP was actually a .021 point jump over last year, and it's a touch above his career mark of .316.

Correa likely struggled during the regular season because of a downturn in production to the opposite field. Correa pulled the ball 49% of the time in 2020. That was 16th amongst qualified hitters, and it's a complete outlier for him in his career. It was 14.4% higher than 2019, and it was 15.6% higher than his career average. In 2019, Correa had a 9% HR% on batted balls to the opposite field. He had an average exit velocity of 87.7 MPH with an average launch angle of 27°. His batting average was .368 with a xBA of .349 to that part of the field. In 2020, Correa had a 0% HR% to the opposite field (meaning he didn't hit one). He had an average exit velocity of 86.8 MPH with an average launch angle of 30°. His batting average was .382, but his xBA was .259. Keep in mind, Correa missed most of the 2019 season with injury, so the sample sizes aren't all that different (57 AB's in 2019 versus 34 AB's in 2020).

It's a similar story for the straightaway portion of the field. In 2019, Correa had an 11% HR%, 90.4 MPH avg. exit velocity, 8° avg. launch angle, .370 BA, and .424 xBA between the gaps. In 2020, Correa had a 5% HR%, 88.5 MPH avg. exit velocity, 4° avg. launch angle, .349 BA, and .362 xBA.

That all changed in the postseason.

Here is an overlay of Correa's spray charts from postseason games in which he hit home runs. Five of his six postseason homers were to center field, and three of the five to center field were on the opposite field side of second base.

Correa also made some physical changes at the plate over the course of the season, particularly late in the season, which means that the uptick in offensive performance is related to a physical change, not just some sort of ability to turn it on in the postseason. Correa mentioned that he and Alex Cintron compared video to his rookie season to look at hand positioning, and Correa started to mimic that. Then, there's the already-famed story of Correa and Cintron running to the cages mid-game to open up his shoulders and be less closed off. All of those changes are clearly visible on video.

On the left is Correa early in the 2020 season when the Astros were in San Diego playing the Padres. In the middle is Correa's first career home run in 2015. On the right is Correa's walk-off homer against Tampa Bay. There are four clear and obvious changes. First, he's holding the bat nearly straight up, which he wasn't doing at the beginning of the season. It supports Correa's claim that he and Cintron were looking at video from 2015 and trying to mirror that swing again. Then, there's the change with Correa's shoulders. In the first photo, if it weren't so grainy, you could read "C-O-R-R-E" in Correa. Same deal with the second photo, except it's even more clear. In the third photo, you can only read "C-O" which also supports the story of that mid-game adjustment with Cintron. Third, Correa has a lot less forward body lean with his torso. Correa hasn't spoken as to why he made that change, but it is probably tied to shoulder and bat orientation and helps him feel more comfortable. Lastly, Correa opened his stance, which is almost always going to help with vision.

The changes all probably help Correa feel more free when he swings. His postseason swing was much more North-and-South than East-and-West. His hands are able to work freely underneath his shoulders, and he has to do a lot less work to clear space for his hands to work. It's encouraging that the uptick in performance is clearly tied to physical work in the cage.

Correa did bring solid defense to the table as well. He's a finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award at SS along with Niko Goodrum of the Detroit Tigers and J.P. Crawford of the Seattle Mariners. Correa will likely win the award. However, the defensive metrics are mixed on his performance.

Errors don't count as an advanced statistic, but they still bring value to the table. There's a direct correlation between making errors and giving up free bases. Now, just because a player doesn't make many errors doesn't mean he's an elite defender, but it's hard to be an elite defender if you make lots of errors. Correa takes care of the baseball, as his one error was tied for the least amongst shortstops. Correa also performed glowingly by DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). His DRS of 8 was second amongst shortstops, second behind only Dansby Swanson. However, UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) had Correa at -0.7, which is below average. His OAA (Outs Above Average) of 0 roughly agrees with his UZR rating. Essentially, the numbers say Correa makes the routine plays about as well as anybody, but he isn't particularly rangy. His arm is also impressive and brings a lot to the table. Correa isn't a bad defensive shortstop by any means, he's above average, but this is probably the only Gold Glove he'll ever be nominated for, much less win.

When Correa is healthy and on his game, he is one of the most electric players in baseball. The problem is he hasn't been healthy and on his game nearly enough in his career. Over his five full major league seasons, Correa has missed 203 out of 708 games. He's been unavailable, mostly due to injury, in 30% of games over that time. That's quite a bit. The three injuries that have caused him to miss the most time are all back and torso related. The fact that the back issues have recurred is alarming, and it's something to monitor. It is really hard to be a good baseball player with a bad back. Credit to Correa, he stayed healthy for all of 2020, but it was only a 60 game season, which means there were fewer opportunities for injury. If he has another healthy season in 2021, it'll be enough to put the injury prone label to rest, but he hasn't done it yet.

And again, there's the issue of his performance being up-and-down over the years. In 2018, Correa missed 52 games due to injury, and had a wRC+ of 100, meaning he was exactly league average. That means he's been only league average or worse in two of his six big league seasons. Correa played extremely well in 2019, racking up 3.2 WAR and 143 wRC+, but he only played 75 games.

Between COVID, injury history, and streaky performance, there's too much uncertainty to give Correa a long term deal right now. However, his peaks, leadership ability, and apparent willingness to stay in Houston certainly make him a candidate for one. 2021 will be a "prove it" year for Correa, and it will go a long way in ranking him amongst the crop of shortstops hitting the free agent market after next year. Is Correa at the top of that market with Francisco Lindor, or is he at the bottom of that market with Javy Baez?

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