POINT BLANK

Joel Blank: Rockets will live or die based on whether or not "Elimination James" shows up

James Harden needs to bring his "A" game. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It's time for the second coming of Big Game James as the Rockets try to avoid elimination.

One game, winner-take-all for the Western Conference and loser goes home. For all the obsessing, talking, hard work that got you home court advantage and the upper hand that came with it, no one mentioned the devastating hand the Rockets would be dealt. Now it could be the final hand if James Harden and the rest of the team don't find a way to win Game 7. 

We've heard the term "elimination James" and are far too familiar with the narrative and the history that backs that moniker up. James Harden had nine turnovers in Game 6 and gave his critics plenty of ammunition to continue the criticism and add to that negativity. This is a guy who disappeared a year ago in an elimination game against a short-handed Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The same guy that set an NBA record for turnovers by an individual player in a playoff game the last time the Rockets were in the WCF. Even this year, his biggest games came in Game 1's of the first two series and without Chris Paul's late series and late game heroics, this Rockets team may already be fishing. Now there is no CP3 to save the day and guide the troops to victory which makes the spotlight on the Beard brighter and the expectations of Red Nation even higher.

Even if Paul can somehow pull a Clyde Drexler a la Game 5 in Phoenix in 1995, he will probably be as ineffective as the Glyde was and only there as motivation for the rest of his squad. Sure, the role players have to step up and do their part as they have done in every playoff victory, but with Coach D'Antoni basically going with a 7 man rotation, they can only do so much. At the end of the day, this is why James Harden is paid the big bucks and for all the glory and accolades, there are times like this when your shoulders have to be wide enough to carry the team and the entire city of Houston to victory. James Harden is the MVP.  

The Beard has put together a four-year run that has included three years where he could have won that award and two that he should have. He is a great player and has a huge window of future success ahead of him, but there is also a rear view mirror full of playoff failures. Stars are born and reputations built in the regular season, which coincidentally is also when the MVP is voted on.

The playoffs are a different animal, where legends are constructed and history is written. Robert Horry was never an all-star but is the subject of legitimate Hall of Fame discussions because of his postseason success and his ability to transform into "Big Shot Bob" when his team needed him the most. So, for all of the broken dreams and busted bubbles of the past, all can be right if he can just lead his team to victory in the biggest game of their season and with it, punch their ticket to the big dance and a date with a guy who has shown the world how it's done and how big games are won.

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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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