LOOKING AHEAD

Del Olaleye: 3 biggest roster questions for the Rockets in the offseason

Should the Rockets pay Clint Capela? Jason Miller

After 99 games the Rockets season is done, leaving a number of people with a “where do we go from here” feeling. After nearly 100 games of meaningful basketball there are no more Rockets games on the schedule. Free Agency is over a month away so improving the roster outside of trades will take a little time. Despite being a championship contender and one win away from a Finals appearance the Rockets roster could go through plenty of upheaval. There are questions about the starters and bench players alike. Here are some of the roster questions the Rockets have to answer as they try to gear up for another title run.

What to do with Chris Paul?

The answer seems simple. The unrestricted free agent was the catalyst for a Rockets team that was one win away from the NBA Finals. Bringing back the 13-year veteran will be a priority. The debate should be about for how long as opposed to how much. At 33 years old Paul may have two years of elite point guard play left. Are the Rockets willing to guarantee Paul max money when he’s 36 and 37 to keep him from considering another destination this offseason?

Is Trevor Ariza a part of the Rockets Future?

The swingman certainly didn’t leave a great final impression if he moves on from the Rockets in the offseason. His poor shooting in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals was historically bad. Ariza is 32 years old and may be looking for one last relatively big deal. What does an older “3 and D” guy command in free agency? Take a look at what the Rockets gave PJ Tucker during the 2017 offseason. Tucker was the same age as Ariza is now at the time of his signing. He got four years and $31 million. Are the Rockets willing to give Ariza a salary that averages just less than $8 million per season and for multiple years as well? Those salaries are moderate by NBA standards but signing multiple 30+ year olds to multi-year deals in two consecutive offseasons doesn’t appear to be the Morey way.

Is Capela at Max Money the right way to go?

Clint Capela’s continued growth on both ends of the floor helped change this Rockets team. It also made him a target of teams with money to spend . Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has made it clear that Capela along with Paul are top priorities this offseason. Capela at 24 years old is the only Rockets starter besides James Harden that is under 30. He is not only part of the Rockets present but has the ability to be part of their future long after most of the current rotation has aged itself out of championship contention. Does a team obsessed with beating the current version of the Golden State Warriors pay a player max money when his offense is generated by others? The Warriors are elite on the perimeter. Is Capela’s presence in the paint a great equalizer or should the Rockets try to match the Warriors on the outside?

There will be multiple elite wing players on the open market. LeBron James and Paul George being chief among them. Would you take Paul George, James Harden and Chris Paul for the next four years over Capela, Harden and Paul? That could be a question the Rockets are faced with if the math and money gets a little tight.

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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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