PLAYOFF PUSH

Joel Blank: On the Rockets, who can you count on and who do you trust?

Trevor Ariza might be the key to a deep run in the postseason. J Pat Carter

We all know by now that the Rockets are going to be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and have the best record in the NBA going into the postseason. On top of that, they also have set a record for most regular season wins by any Rockets team in franchise history. James Harden is hands down the most valuable player of the league and Chris Paul has proved his value time and time again with his leadership and execution in his first year with the team.

Mike D'Antoni once again should be up for coach of the year and the system that he has put in place and the players that he has executing it have been nothing short of fantastic. The fact that he recognized his short comings of the past and turned his defense over to Jeff Bzdelik has been huge, and the fact that the Rockets now can get stops at any given time is a underrated plus in their playoff push.

With all that said, there are still plenty of question marks heading into the playoffs and there is a large population of doubters who trust that seeing is believing and they haven't seen anything from this Houston team yet. Chris Paul has never been to a Western Conference finals let alone gotten any further. We all know the shortcomings of James Harden in the last several years when it comes to postseason excellence and for all that Mike D'Antoni has done as a coach and all the great teams that he has had, he too is without a Western Conference title, let alone an appearance in The Finals as a head man. 

All eyes will be on those three when the rockets open up the most important part of their season and begin their quest for an NBA championship. With all that pressure and all that scrutiny zeroing in on those guys, the question remains who do you trust the most after you get by Paul and Harden and who are you counting on to come through in the clutch for this year's version of the Rockets to return H-town to the days of clutch city?

Let's start with the big man that has been most commonly linked with Paul and Harden to create the Rockets big 3: Clint Capela. Capela has had an outstanding season and should be the leading candidate to win the NBA's most improved player award. He is headed for a huge payday in the offseason either from Houston or another team willing to break the bank to get him, but we all know that greatness is defined best by playoff success. It's hard to say that Capela has been successful in the playoffs when all he has basically done is provide minimal support as a role player and supporting cast member of teams that have come up short in the postseason and in the process disappointed everyone that's a fan of the team. He is going to need to put up consistent numbers and double-doubles in the playoffs for this team to get to their final destination and goals. That means against teams like the Warriors, Blazers and any other team that gets in their way including the squad that comes out on top as the best in the Eastern conference.

Eric Gordon would be another logical choice for a guy that could and should step up for this team. The reigning 6th man of the year should be up for the award again but look a little deeper and realize that he isn't exactly a seasoned veteran of the postseason. Last year he was basically a non factor for the team in the playoffs when they hit crunch time and needed him most. This season has been a continuation of that performance when you look at the roller coaster shooting season he has had. During this season he has had to endure serious shooting slumps and droughts from long range. Thankfully he ended up shooting his way out of them, but it took some time and we all know that in the playoffs the team can not afford for him to go MIA. Without him and his shot, the Rockets chances to go deep and chase a title go down significantly. People tend to forget that Gordon has only been to the playoffs twice in his NBA career and once was last season with the Rockets.

I know there has been a lot of support and excitement and chatter on social media about the Rockets deep bench and many options, complete with veteran players that can step up and perform when called upon in the playoffs. Joe Johnson and Gerald Green are constantly being bantered about on social media as missing pieces and guys that need to be in the rotation come postseason. The problem is Green has never been consistent or known to make smart decisions or stay under control and play team basketball for winning teams in his career, and Johnson seems to be on the downside of his long and outstanding run, with age finally catching up to him. Ryan Anderson is also a guy that people expect to come back and be a productive shooter in the playoff rotation, but we all know and have seen his slumps have been almost as bad, if not worse than Gordon's and the trust in him stepping up has waned. He doesn't look like he wants to shoot it when he is open and the team and coaching staff don't seem to believe in him like they once did. In the playoffs it's not about how much money you make, it's about how many shots you make and Ryan hasn't made nearly enough shots to be counted on when the team needs him most.

There is one guy that seems to be in afterthought in most people's minds when it comes to scoring and leadership, as well as overall importance to the team, and that's Trevor Ariza. Ariza has always been known as one of the premier on-ball defenders in the league, and even as he gets older he still hasn't lost too much on the defensive end. Offensively he continues to be a dependable supporting cast member for this Houston band by averaging 12 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from behind the arc. He still logs over 34 minutes per game and is an undisputed leader for the roster and coaching staff, both on and off the court. He is the stabilizing and consistent voice this team needs from time to time when times get tough and decisions are rough. He has also been to the playoffs eight times in his career and has won an NBA championship, which is an extremely valuable asset to have on this roster. If the Rockets are to go far this year in the playoffs and achieve the lofty goals they have set for themselves, Trevor Ariza is who I'm looking at as the guy that has to play big on both ends of the floor and step up if this teams struggles or needs added offense in the playoff this year.

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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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