Five early observations from Rockets training camp and preseason

Media day has passed, training camps have opened up, and preseason basketball has started. All indications that the 2019-20 NBA season has officially left the tarmac, particularly in the case of the Houston Rockets who have already played two preseason games while most of the league has yet to play one. As things have come underway quickly for Houston, those in the media can finally stop speculating and predicting as there's actually interesting basketball stuff to talk about.

1. The Rockets intend to play faster - a lot faster

It seemed obvious that pace would be an emphasis for this particular Rockets team once they traded for Russell Westbrook in early July, but it still stands out as quite significant. Through two preseason games, the Rockets are averaging 107.25 possessions per game, good for second among the six NBA teams that have played so far. According to NBA.com/stats, Houston was the fourth slowest team in the league last season, averaging 98.39 possessions per game. To say this is a delineation from the norm is an understatement.

Throughout training camp, the Rockets ran much more offense you'd expect to see from some of Mike D'Antoni's old Phoenix Suns teams (ex: more of the 21 series) and older Rockets teams (particularly 2016-17 - when the Rockets were third in pace). This pace of play suits Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela, both talented at running the break and getting early transition offense, but the question was always James Harden's buy-in to playing this way again. If we can take anything from preseason, it seems Harden may have re-committed to this style.

2. Houston intends to switch less on defense

One of the biggest questions going into training camp would be how new associate head coach Elston Turner chose to run Houston's defense this season. The Rockets had already drifted away last season from some of the switching that made them so lethal defensively the year before, but it looks like they may be turning the corner completely. With the Warriors effectively decommissioned for this season, it makes sense to return to a traditional, conservative approach as it's quite effective against the majority of NBA teams.

"We're switching a little less than last year," confirmed Rockets center Isaiah Hartenstein on the first day of training camp. The Rockets simply don't have the personal to switch as much as they had in 2017-18, but if they stay true to this new conservative approach (likely a drop scheme similar to what the Utah Jazz play), there's no reason they have to be limited. Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, and Danuel House will keep Houston respectable until the buyout market (if it comes to that).

3. Ryan Anderson may be a rotation player for Houston

The return of Ryan Anderson has been the ultimate feel good story coming out of training camp for the Rockets, but it would be foolish to simply call it a "cute story." The Rockets aren't known for making signings just for the sake of positive PR. Anderson's ability to space the floor and provide size to an otherwise small bench unit may earn him a nice bench role for the team. Though it wasn't likely to be a problem in the first place, a positive for Houston is that Anderson seems to have bought in to whatever role Houston has for him.

4. Ben McLemore has probably locked up a roster spot

At this point, it would be a surprise if 26-year-old swingman Ben McLemore isn't on the roster by the end of training camp. With only $50,000 of his contract guaranteed, McLemore signed with Houston knowing that his chances of making the roster were slim, but in just a few training camp practices and preseason games, he's proven that he could potentially bring a lot to the contending Rockets. In particular, McLemore's length (6'5" with a 6'8" wingspan) and shooting ability (37.3% from three-point range over the past five seasons) could serve him well in earning possible rotation minutes with the team.

When House missed Houston's second preseason game (minor leg injury), it was assumed a veteran like Gerald Green or Austin Rivers would take his spot. However, head coach Mike D'Antoni surprisingly went with McLemore, indicating that he has built up some trust with the coaching staff. It would be wise to not take away too much from preseason, but it's hard not to notice McLemore's play and ponder his possible utility with the team. Sometimes it takes the right team finding you before players find their role in the NBA and McLemore might have just found his.

5. Coaching staff replacements and promotions

There's a good chance 80% of Rockets fans won't care about the minutiae of Houston's coaching staff, but there's been some movement outside of new associate head coach Elston Turner. For one, former Sacramento Kings assistant coach Dan Hartfield has been added to the staff to help fill in for a lot of the openings that were created this summer. Also, it appears former Rio Grande Valley head coach Matt Brasse has been moved up to the front of the bench and will help coach defense this season (coached offense last season).

The Rockets are no strangers to making in-house promotions and it appears to be the route they went when filling out their coaching staff this season. Brasse has been with the Rockets for eight years and has worked in various capacities including as an intern, Director of Player Development, and being promoted to the Rockets coaching staff last season. Through his light-hearted demeanor and coaching prowess, he's developed a great reputation with players and coaches around the league dating back to his time with the Vipers so it's nice to see his work be rewarded.

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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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