Every-Thing Sports

Jermaine Every: The Rockets look unstoppable

James Harden and Chris Paul have the Rockets rolling. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Rockets made easy work of the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, 110-96. James Harden led with 41 points, distributed seven assists and contributed eight rebounds.  

Wasn’t this Jazz team widely considered one of, if not the hottest team heading to the playoffs? Didn’t they just “upset” the OKC Thunder? Isn’t Donovan Mitchell the “it” rookie? The Rockets’ first-round opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, would have been a No. 3 or 4 seed until Jimmy Butler got hurt and missed 20-plus games down the stretch.  

Without question, and you can look it up, the Rockets are the best team in the Association. Harden unquestionably is a lock for MVP. General Manager Daryl Morey’s trade for Chris Paul has worked to a T. Less celebrated acquisitions like PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, and even lesser Gerald Green have provided dependable bench depth to a tightened playoff rotation.

The offense has been able to overcome infrequent subpar performances from its best scorers. Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and Eric Gordon all have hard off-nights. Yet this team has found ways to win. People lost their minds in Game 1 against Minnesota when Paul foundered and the Rockets narrowly won by 3. They’ve also won games when Harden struggled, like he did in Game 2 against the Timberwolves. Capela was the leading scorer in Game 5 of that series. When Harden, Paul and Capela played together this season … 46-4.

Offense may be their calling card, but defense is where the Rockets improved most this season. Tucker and Mbah a Moute brought defensive versatility and intensity. Paul, a former All-Defensive mainstay, turned up pressure in the backcourt. Capela has matured into an above-average rim protector. Gone are the days when Trevor Ariza was the only stopper. Heck, even Harden got into the defense act.

The real challenge will come in the inevitable Conference Finals showdown against the Golden State Warriors.  Can the Rockets beat the defending NBA champions?

Some emphatically say no. I tentatively say yes. Both teams have offenses that tilt the scoreboard with ease. Both teams can play good defense and can win low-scoring games. However, both have Achilles heels that can be exploited.

The Warriors turn the ball over too often, which can lead to more brain farts. The Rockets stars are prone to poor shooting nights. We’ve have sneak peeks at “Elimination James” and “Playoff Chris” already this postseason. So far, the Rockets have succeeded despite these potential landmines.

It will come down to health and role players. The Rockets have been more fortunate than the Warriors in the health department. Steph Curry’s knee is just rounding into playing shape. The Rockets have a decisive bench advantage. Who’d you rather? Nick “Swaggy P” Young or Eric Gordon? Keven Looney or Mbah a Moute? You see where I’m going with this? The Rockets’ bench every time.

Right hand raised, yes, I believe the Rockets will defeat the Warriors. That’s not delusion or fanboy talking. The Warriors are an all-time great team. They have the firepower to overcome any pitfall, any team in their path. But, and this is a bigger but than Kim Kardashian’s, the Rockets are catching the Warriors in a vulnerable state. The Rockets have caught lightning in a bottle. The Warriors are ready to be had.

 

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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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