NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round

NFL Divisional Round: Good, bad and ugly

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Last week's Wildcard Round of the playoffs delivered some close games. All four games were decided by one possession/score. The Divisional Round decided to go in a much different direction. Here are my observations:

The Good

-Another week of football, another monster day from Titan's running back Derrick Henry. He totaled 195 yards on 30 carries. He's been their Eddie George 2.0 this season. The last time they had a bellcow running back, good defense, and a quarterback capable of making plays when need be, they were a few yards short of winning a Super Bowl. Just saying.

-Major props to 49ers brass. General manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have made all the right moves in building this team and dialing up the right plays. Those moves have paid off to the tune of being one win away from a Super Bowl appearance after their 27-10 win over the Vikings. This was in large part due to the rushing yardage differential stats: +165 in yards, +37 in attempts, and +17 minutes in time of possession. There's my contribution to the analytics world.

-In a quarterback dual on the "Frozen Tundra", Packers' quarterback Aaron Roders outdueled Seahawks' Russell Wilson in a 28-23 win. Both quarterbacks made great plays and kept their teams either in the lead (Rodgers) or fighting for a chance to win (Wilson). This was the lone one-score game this weekend. It came down to Rodgers finding his favorite target, Davante Adams, on the final drive for a crucial 3rd down conversion. He sealed the deal with another 3rd down conversion to Jimmy Graham a few plays later.

The Bad

-Special teams is the phase of the game that people forget about. It's often critical in deciding games. While the score was 24-10 in favor of the 49ers with 1:05 left in the 3rd quarter, Vikings' punt returner Marcus Sherels muffed a punt the 49ers recovered at Viking 10 yard line. They went on to kick a field goal in what was the final score of the game. The Vikings could've cut the deficit in half. Instead, they went down three scores and never recovered.

-The Ravens made several uncharacteristic plays and mistakes that led to their one and done exit in this year's playoffs. Their three turnovers, seven penalties for 56 yards, and 2:1 pass to run ratio all led to their 28-12 upset special. This was a team that set an NFL record for rushing yards and were a +10 in the turnover department. I'll say it again: dance with the one that got you there.

-For as good as the Seahawks' defense can be, they couldn't find an answer for Davante Adams. He went for 160 yards on eight catches with two of those catches being touchdowns. He repeatedly torched the Seahawks' secondary as Rodgers owes half of his 16 completions to Adams. Oh, and Clowney still jumps offsides, just in a different uniform. That happened to move the ball a half yard closer on a 3rd&Goal from the 1-yard line greasing the skids for another Packer touchdown.

The Ugly

-The Packers were hit by some sort of illness this past week. While some members of the team were able to recover, right tackle Bryan Bulaga had to leave the field during warmups. While the nature of the illness wasn't revealed, it must've been something pretty bad to take him out during warmups. He was qouted as saying he felt sick when he woke up.

-The Titans were able to beat the Ravens by jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never looked back. Lamar Jackson threw an interception that was brought to their 35-yard line and led to the Titans' first touchdown. On their next possession, the Ravens decided to go for it on 4th&1 on their own 45-yard line and failed to convert. Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill connected on the most important of his eight completions with a 45-yard touchdown strike to Kalif Raymond. That sequence cost the Ravens the game.

-Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was 10th in the league in rushing yards this season with 1,135 and the team was 6th in the league with 133.3 rushing yards per game. It's hard to hit those kind of numbers when you only run the ball 10 times as a team. They went into the half down 14-10 and seemingly in striking distance. From there, they pissed their pants and never recovered. Kirk Cousins was also sacked six times. Maybe a more consistent run game would've helped that final score.

The Wildcard Round fooled us into thinking we'd have more great games this weekend. The Divisional Round laughed in our faces as it put out three games decided by multiple possessions. These games were like waiting to spend your holidays with your dysfunctional family: you already know the outcome before it's over. Thankfully the Packers and Seahawks saved the weekend like that one cool cousin does when he/she gets the family to get along right before everyone leaves. We now have a Chiefs vs Titans matchup in the AFC Championship game, and a 49ers vs Packers matchup in NFC Championship game. Three of these teams were almost expected to make it here. It's the one that wasn't (Titans) that could be the most problematic.

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The numbers show a concerning trend. Composite image by Brandon Strange

Michael Brantley signed a two-year, $30M deal with the Houston Astros prior to 2019 to little fanfare. The then 32 year-old was coming off of yet another injury riddled season with the Cleveland Indians, and the signing was seen as a safe gamble (if there is such a thing). Brantley would produce if healthy, but would he ever be healthy?

Brantley went on to have two of the healthiest seasons of his career, putting up big numbers for the Astros. Across two seasons, Brantley slashed .309/.370/.497 with a 134 wRC+. The Astros got the best version of Brantley, who had slashed .295/.351/.430 with a 114 wRC+ during his tenure with the Indians.

Brantley is set to hit the market once again, and the Astros face a couple of questions. One, is Brantley worth bringing back? Two, is Brantley worth a qualifying offer?

Hard Hit % - 37.3%

Barrel % - 4.9%

K % - 15%

BB % - 9.1%

Chase % - 20.1%

(All numbers from 2020)

Brantley's greatest skill is controlling the strike zone. He forces pitchers to come to him, and he's only getting better at it. His chase % was the best of his career, and it was 6% better than his 26% mark in 2019. Brantley was t-19th in MLB in chase % with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Yasmani Grandal. Brantley combines this enviable level of plate discipline with another enviable trait: he doesn't swing and miss. His 16.4% whiff % was in the 93rd percentile of MLB. By comparison, Acuña and Grandal were in the 29th and 26th percentiles respectively. Those two don't chase often because they keyhole one spot that they know they can drive. Brantley forces pitchers to come in the zone similar to those two, but he usually doesn't swing and miss when the pitchers do come to him.

However, there are some alarming trends for a hitter now well onto the wrong side of 30.

His 15% K% was the highest it's been since 2011, when he was a 24-year-old in his first full big league season. It was a 4.6% increase in K% over last season. Brantley's 16% whiff % is far and away the worst it's been in his career, and it's 5.6% worse than it was in 2019. That 5.6% is the difference between swinging-and-missing the second least in MLB and swinging-and-missing the 11th least. That's a steep drop over one season. Remember, Brantley chased pitches outside the zone the least he ever had in his career. That increase in whiff % mostly came on strikes. His contact % on strikes dropped 4.8% from 2019.

A big indicator of age is the inability to catch up with the fastball. Brantley's 13.2% whiff rate against fastballs in 2020 was the worst it's been in his career. The second worst? 7.5% back in 2011. On the surface, Brantley performed fine on fastballs in 2020. He batted .295 with a .438 SLG against them. But it gets a little uglier just one level deeper. Brantley's xBA on fastballs was .242. His xSLG was .410.

Compared to his 2019 performance against fastballs, it was quite the downturn. Brantley batted .320 against fastballs in 2019 with a .311 xBA. He slugged .501 with a xSLG of .506. Lastly, Brantley had an 89.3 average exit velocity on fastballs in 2019 compared to 87.4 in 2020. The downturn in fastball productivity is alarming.

Brantley performed great against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2020, but once pitchers realize that he can't stay on the fastball like he used to, Brantley will be setup for failure, not success.

Brantley doesn't run well either. His average sprint speed of 26.2 ft/s was in the 34th percentile in MLB. Brantley did perform well defensively by nearly every metric, but he was in the 39th percentile in outfielder jump. He really can't afford a downturn defensively, and with Yordan Alvarez returning as the full time DH next season, they won't have the ability to give Brantley the occasional day off his legs at DH

The qualifying offer has been set at $18.9M for the 2020 offseason. Considering Houston's lack of draft picks due to their punishment for technological sign-stealing, recouping some of that draft capital would be helpful for the club. $18.9M would represent a $3.9M raise for Brantley, which is exactly the price of not being able to bring back Brad Peacock.

It's unlikely that Brantley will regress so quickly that he'll be unplayable in 2021. He will likely be a productive ballplayer. Considering that the Astros can afford to pay the raise in salary if he accepts the qualifying offer, it is worth giving it to him. If he declines the QO, however, it isn't worth giving him a multi-year deal. There are too many signs of regression, and anything more than one year is a risk. If Brantley demands a multi-year deal, the Astros should let him walk and take the draft pick compensation.

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