Keeping the core 4 together is critical

Open letter to Rockets fans: Don't blow it up

Jason Miller

Dear frustrated Rockets fan:

I sit here at the airport coming back from vacation in Orlando, Florida reflecting on my great experience at the Harry Potter Park. A place where kids run around and wave their fake magic wands and everything that they want appears before them at their command. A place where money can buy anything that is available, and you get exactly what you want out of the thing that you buy. Whether it be a wizards robe, the thrill of a roller coaster, or the fantastic taste of butterbeer. I had a great time, even when the Woj bomb dropped on my phone explaining the Rockets possible plan this offseason. Trade Chris Paul? Trade Clint Capela? Possibly trade James Harden? Honestly it didn't surprise me in the slightest when I saw it because failure and disappointment in life consistently bring out two characteristic traits. Overreaction and overthinking. Trust me, I can tell you personally I have experienced both to the max myself recently.

Here is what I will tell you. I am a Wizards fan, a frustrated Wizards fan. And no, I am not trying to make a bad pun by comparing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to me being a Washington Wizards fan. I actually am a Washington Wizards fan, so allow me to tell you about being a Wizards fan and how it is so similar to being a Rockets fan right now.

I grew up going to Wizards games when Michael Jordan came to DC for the end of his career. My dad split a season ticket package with people because he wanted to see the greatest player ever perform at the end of his career. Right after Jordan left there was a down period for Washington. They were horrible. However they did slowly start to rebuild with the acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Believe it or not, this was actually the first "Big 3" that I can remember. I truly believe the Wizards set the model for teams moving forward to have a "Big 3." The Celtics said they had a "Big 3" with Pierce, Allen and Garnett (Rondo always felt slighted). After that, the "Bigger 3" emerged in Miami with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Nowadays every team strives to have a "Big 3." Golden State has "The Biggest 3" with Curry, Klay and Durant. Draymond is a fantastic role player, just like Rondo was for the Celtics.

The Wizards Big 3 could not get through LeBron. EVER. It was SO FRUSTRATING. 2004 - Swept by the Heat. 2005 - Loss in 6 to the Cavs. 2006 - Swept by the Cavs. 2007 - Loss in 6 to the Cavs. Four awful years of losing to LeBron in the playoffs. Wizards fans kept saying the same phrases over and over again. "This isn't fair." "Fire the General Manager." "Fire the coach." "We have to blow it up." "When will LeBron leave the East?" "We're just not good enough." After year two of losing to LeBron I was reciting these phrases along with every other Wizards fan. It just was not working because every year this dooming sense of a loss to LeBron was imminent.

Eventually the Wizards blew it all up after 2007, and then you know what happened? Five straight years of not making the playoffs. Five awful years which in today's NBA are known as "The Process." Those years were the worst because you accelerate slowly into the unknown. Do I trust the coach? Not really. Do I trust the general manager? Nope. "The Process" years are sports purgatory where you just don't know what the other side is going to look like. Sometimes, it will end up like the the 76ers, where you will get a team that kind of works but still isn't quite there. Other times, you will end up like the Wizards did again: mismanaged, mis-coached, and floating in mediocrity. Rarely does it work with a total rebuild. What DOES work is adding on or improving a good team. Just look at the Toronto Raptors this year and the Warriors last year. The two teams in the finals this season.

Why do I tell this Wizards story? Because completely rebuilding the Rockets would be a BIG MISTAKE.

What makes a successful team? Let's look at the Warriors as our model: A stable front office, quality drafting, and proper free agent acquisitions. You hate the Warriors because they win, and because of that you would like to say "It isn't fun watching them". "It's boring, I'm done with this dynasty". "This is bad for basketball." I disagree, I actually think this team is extremely fun to watch, and I can't wait to tell my son that I was alive to watch the greatest basketball team ever. They built through the draft and took advantage of other teams failing in the draft for them to rise to success.

However like every "super-team" they will go away. Super-teams are like Houston thunderstorms in the summer: They are intense, but they are quick. Eventually this will pass, and it might pass this summer when Durant goes to New York. So lets REALLY look at the Rockets, while keeping in mind the fundamental principles for a successful team.

1) James Harden is a superstar - 

This was a tremendous front office move that should not be erased. There are guards in this league that will never win a title and deservedly never win a title. Russell Westbrook is Exhibit A because we have seen a pattern of failing behavior from him. End of games, driving the lane going 200 miles an hour and not giving the ball to a SHOOTER. It doomed the Thunder this year and it will continue to be their downfall because Westbrook's decision making continues to be questionable. Harden is different. When I first moved to Houston and went to see the Rockets live for the first time, I knew he was a dynamic playmaker. What I did not know is that he seemed to have the vision and accuracy of a dynamic point guard. I thought he looked like Steve Nash the first time I saw him play, he had 15 assists. It blew me away. More importantly, Harden is actually a pioneer for a skill in the game of basketball - How to draw a foul on a three point shot. It was never even thought about or attempted by anybody in basketball history to try and perfect that skill and James has done it. You don't get rid of pioneers or transcendent talents. You figure out a way to make it work with them because they are VALUABLE. In this case, MOST VALUABLE. Harden has struggled in the playoffs because he is a pioneer and referees want to fundamentally referee his game differently in the playoffs. This year in particular, the stamina bug hit him again because of all the injuries early on in the season. Getting rid of James is not an option because he is EVERYTHING you want in your super star. It is more about the pieces around James, which leads me to.....

2) Chris Paul is a capable supporting act

Jordan had Pippen. Steph has Klay / Durant. LeBron had Wade. The list goes on and on.. You need a quality 1B or 2A to your superstar leading act. Paul is 2A. What he brings to this team is organization, intensity on the defensive side, and the mid range jump shot. All three of those things are vital to a championship team, and I don't see his skills declining at a rapid rate. If you asked me who would I rather have on the Rockets, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook right now, I would take Paul. He knows his role, he will defer to Harden without argument, and he will be stingy defensively while directing traffic offensively. However him bringing a mid range game is his most important asset. My biggest criticism of the Rockets is that they are too much of a one trick pony. They think way too often "Why step in for a higher percentage shot when we can attempt our 38th three pointer of the game?" Chris Paul brings them back to reality with his decision making because I always see him go for the higher percentage basket, whether it's an open jump shot or an alley-oop pass to Cappella. Getting rid of Paul would be a massive mistake and overreaction. Without his injury two years ago, THEY MAKE THE FINALS. It stinks that it happened, but you should not re-invent the wheel because of it.

3) Gordon and Capela are necessary 

Let's start with Gordon. In today's NBA, you need three point shooters. We know this, and Gordon provides that for the Rockets. He is the centerpiece role player on this team, and his play is super important especially in the playoffs. We have seen over and over again, the Rockets playoff success rides on him knocking down open jump shots which come often due to the attention required by defenses on Harden. Many teams will look at their role players and say "he is a poor man's Eric Gordon." When that happens, you do not give up THE Eric Gordon. Capela is more interesting to me because his game has got to develop. Most players come into the league and excel in certain areas but lack in others. Capela when healthy is an A player in the half court game. He is tremendous in the pick and roll and a fantastic offensive rebounder while defending the rim well. His problem is against the Warriors, which obviously is horrible because that's the hump Houston cannot get over. I truly believe he needs to develop a mid range jump shot. Ben Simmons needs to as well. If you look at the recent history of basketball, necessary skills have been developed by big men over time. Chris Bosh was called upon to shoot three pointers for the Heat to make more room for LeBron and Wade around the rim back in the day where Miami was winning. Brook Lopez this season made more three pointers this year than Kobe Bryant did at any point in an individual season in his career. I'm not saying Capela needs the three ball like those guys, but players can adapt and change their style. Clint needs to do this and is still young enough where he can do it, so he can work against the Warriors. You do not trade him for subpar value.

Those four core players should be untouchable with Kevin Durant out the door in Golden State most likely at the end of the year. You can advance out of the West with those four players, I truly believe that.If you are not in that camp, I want to go back to speaking to you as a Wizards fan again.

Even though Washington was knocked out by LeBron four straight years in the playoffs, I wouldn't trade those fan experiences for bad years. I went to some of those playoff games and the building was electric. Riding the subway down to the stadium, up the escalator past the trombone's playing on the corner while you approach the building. Scalpers yelling out prices for tickets as you stand in line with every other anxious fan wondering "Will we win this game and put ourselves in good position to win the series?" "Can we finally get past LeBron?" It never happened, and it was disappointment over and over again, but I'm glad the Wizards did not "blow it up" prematurely. I got four great years as a fan before the five horrible years of rebuilding. If you think the Rockets choosing to rebuild is like waving a magic wand and every decision they make will be a good one, you are probably mistaken. Magic isn't real. What is real is the cornerstone of this team and I believe in them moving forward.

4) So what do they do?

So what is the Rockets priority this offseason? Get a defensive stopper. To me, having a Tony Allen or Trevor Ariza type player is extremely important against the Warriors. That player, when on the floor, is responsible for using his energy on stopping the other team's best player. It is not really relevant what they do offensively, because on that side of the floor they should just participate in ball movement. Defense is the reason the Rockets almost beat the Warriors two years ago. Everybody criticizes Ariza for game 7 because he struggled shooting so much, however I say, why was he shooting so much? He was chasing Durant around, that takes so much energy and he should never have been given double digit shot attempts from three. Having a defensive stopper is the equivalent of having a left handed specialist in baseball. You have one job.

I look at the Rockets just like I look at the Bucks. Both teams have game-changing superstars. Just because a loss happens (even if it's happened over and over again) you do not erase the progress you've made. Keep plugging along and adding to what you have, and eventually the puzzle will be complete and a trophy will be won. Overreaction and overthinking does nothing but keep you looking at the past when it's most important to let go of the past and keep plugging along. Keep plugging, Rockets.

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The Astros now have several arms they can depend on. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Most people considered the Houston Astros bullpen to be the team's biggest hole. Considering Will Harris and Hector Rondon left in the offseason, while no veterans were brought in to replace them, Joe Smith opted out of the shortened COVID season, and Roberto Osuna threw less than 60 total pitches, it makes sense that the 'pen would be thin. Even former bullpen mainstays like Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, and Josh James missed most or some of the season with injury. The exodus of talent and numerous trips to the IL presented some young arms with an opportunity, and a handful of them seized those opportunities.

Ryan Pressly

Once Osuna went down for the season, Pressly stepped in as the team's closer, and he did an admirable job. He converted 12 of 16 save opportunities, had a 3.43 ERA, 12.43 K/9, and 3.00 BB/9. He wasn't lights out by any means, but he certainly wasn't poor.

The advanced numbers say the Astros should be comfortable with Pressly as their closer next season. Pressly's 2.74 xERA (Expected ERA) was lower than his ERA, and same with his 2.81 FIP. Pressly was even better in his 7.1 postseason innings, when he had a 2.45 ERA and 1.42 FIP.

Pressly has two traits the Astros envy:

  • Velocity
  • Spin

Pressly was in the 99th percentile in curveball spin. Only Garrett Richards and Lucas Sims had higher spin rates on their curveballs. He was also in the 95th percentile in fastball spin, and he pairs that with average fastball velocity of 94.6 MPH.

All-in-all, Pressly does a great job of limiting damage and free bases while missing bats. His walk rate spiked in 2020, but it was back in line with his career norms by the postseason, signaling that the walk issues could be tied to the quick ramp-up of Spring Training 2.0. Aside from that, the numbers being as high as they are (which aren't even that high), seems to stem from some bad luck.

Enoli Paredes

Paredes burst onto the scene in 2020, bailing the Astros out of tough situations with electric stuff and moxie. By season's end, he was the team's second most reliable reliever behind Pressly.

Was Paredes' breakout a fluke or is he legit?

Similar to Pressly, Paredes is elite in two categories: velocity and spin.

Paredes was in the 90th percentile in curveball spin and 75th percentile in fastball spin. His 95.7 MPH fastball was in the 86th percentile. Put simply, Paredes has some electric stuff.

He also has a trait that new Astros General Manager James Click likely envies: a unique look.

Paredes has a release point just 5.1 ft off the group. He's an old school "drop-and-drive" pitcher, so despite being 5'11" tall, the ball comes out of his hand nearly a foot lower than that to the ground. His fastball explodes out of his hand with incredible life, and it's why he got so many swings-and-misses on a fastball that he threw 68% of the time.

Now, it isn't all good news. Paredes' 5.76 xERA is significantly higher than the 3.05 ERA he actually posted. His 3.63 FIP is closer, but it's still higher than how he actually performed. His 4.79 BB/9 is high.

All that being said, Paredes is only 25, has incredible stuff, a great attitude, and the best pitching coach in baseball to aid his development. As he continues to develop his secondary pitches, he should continue to be a reliable arm in the back of the Astros bullpen.

Blake Taylor

Blake Taylor was another young arm that entered Dusty Baker's circle of trust by the end of the season. Acquired in the Jake Marisnick trade, Taylor was considered an afterthought, but by season's end he was considered a great parting gift from Jeff Luhnow.

Taylor pitched his way into the hearts of Astros fans with a 2.18 ERA in 20.2 IP. He also had a 1.59 ERA in 5.2 postseason innings. Taylor's 2.99 xERA suggests his 2020 performance was legit, while his 4.55 FIP suggests he may have gotten lucky. Regardless, he's an interesting case.

Taylor's success comes from an ability to miss barrels. He induced tons of weak contact, as his Average Exit Velocity Against, xBA, and xSLG were all in the 94th percentile or better. He induced tons of weak contact, as he was 30th amongst relievers in soft hit % and 12th in hard hit %.

It is a little perplexing how he does it. Taylor is roughly average in fastball velocity, and he's exactly average in fastball spin. Same with his breaking pitches. Taylor doesn't have unique pitch usage either. He threw his fastball 76.5% of the time and his slider 22.6% of the time, essentially making him a one pitch guy. Most hitters are eliminating his slider and changeup (he threw it 0.9%) before they step into the box. Most hitters would salivate over an at-bat with those odds at average velocity, but hitters didn't have success.

Taylor doesn't do it with pinpoint control either. He walked 5.23 per 9, and he certainly didn't live on the edges.

He didn't experience success in a stereotypical Astros way, as they usually rely on velocity and spin, but his ability to induce soft contact is impressive. Similar to Paredes, there are reasons to believe Taylor can develop and continue to get better.

Andre Scrubb

Andre Scrubb is yet another arm that didn't figure to factor into the Astros 2020 plans, but by the end of the postseason, was one of the more trustworthy relievers on the roster.

Scrubb is closer to the mold of the stereotype Astro pitcher. While he doesn't have overwhelming velocity -- he was exactly average -- he does have slightly above average fastball spin and well above average curveball spin. The lower fastball velocity and spin probably stems from the fact that he doesn't throw a true four-seam fastball, opting for a cutter instead.

Scrubb is heavy on curveball usage, and he was nearly 50/50 between his cutter and his curveball. The cutter and curveball play well off of one another, as one pitch has some glove side run to it while the other is essentially a true 12-6 curveball.

Scrubb didn't rack up lots of strikeouts, yet another league average category for him, but he did rack up a ton of soft contact. He was in the 99th percentile in Hard Hit % and 92nd percentile in Barrel %.

The .195 xBA and .298 xSLG against him explain his 1.90 ERA. He limited damage so well that, despite being average in totally missing bats and walking batters left and right, he usually left the game having not allowed anyone to score.

Both xERA and FIP agree that Scrubb got lucky, as xERA has him at 4.06, while FIP has his at 4.25. Regardless, those two numbers aren't even all that terrible for a middle reliever, especially one that had never pitched above AA prior to 2020. He has to lock in on his command, as a pitcher that walks 7.61 per 9 will never have a long track record of success. If he can learn to be around the plate more, he's another arm the Astros can count on for the long haul, as he is 25-years-old like Taylor and Paredes.

Brooks Raley

Brooks Raley entered the 2020 season with the Cincinnati Reds before being DFA'd after just 4.0 IP. The Astros liked what they saw enough to trade away a PTBNL for the DFA'd left-hander, and he performed well enough that the Astros will likely exercise his $2M club option for 2021.

What did the Astros see that they liked so much? Well… what if I told you he spins the ball well?

Raley was in the 93rd percentile in fastball spin and 94th percentile in slider spin. Brooks Raley doesn't throw hard, as he only averaged 90.1 MPH on his fastball, but he does command the ball well, as he had a 2.70 BB/9.

Raley relies most heavily on his slider and cutter, and he does a good job at hitting that outside corner to lefties. In fact, lefties batted .121 with a .194 SLG off of Raley. That's an impressive platoon advantage. Raley induces a ton of soft contact. He actually had the best Average Exit Velocity Against in all of MLB. He was in the 99th percentile in Hard Hit % Against. He was in the 95th percentile in xBA. He was in the 84th percentile in xSLG. Guys just didn't hit the ball hard off of him.

The other impressive part is that, despite barely throwing 90 MPH, he missed a lot of bats too. He was in the 87th percentile in MLB in K%. His 12.2 K/9 was the same as Kenley Jansen's.

While Raley's 4.95 ERA is far from elite, four of the 11 runs he gave up on the season were in a Cincinnati uniform. He had a 3.94 ERA as an Astro, and his 3.11 xERA and 3.94 FIP suggest his performance warranted better. The quick turnaround as an Astro likely stemmed from pitch usage. While he was a Red, Raley threw his cutter 59.1% of the time and his slider 1.5% of the time. In August, when he was an Astro for the full month, he threw his cutter 38% of the time and his slider 18.7% of the time. Brent Strom loves spin, and when you spin it and command it as well as Raley does, he is going to tell you to throw it more.

Look ahead

The Astros found five relievers worthy of roster spots in 2021. Josh James had a poor season in 2020, and his time to put it together is running out, but he still has an intriguing combination of velocity and spin. James battled injuries in 2020, and the poor performance could be tied to that.

On top of those five arms and a possible sixth in James depending on health, the Astros will add Joe Smith back to the fold in 2021. Smith is a reliable veteran arm. While the sidewinder doesn't bring the typical velocity or spin to the table like the rest of the Astros arms, he does bring something to the table that James Click will bring with him from Tampa Bay...funky looks.

Here were the release points of Rays pitchers from the catcher's point of view versus the Astros in the playoffs (Chart via's the Astros bullpen pitchers discussed in this story.

There's not exactly a ton of difference. Now look at the element Smith brings to the table.

Houston does need to add a couple of bullpen arms in the offseason, but they already have six or seven they can rely on. Look for Click and Co. to add arms with diverse release points, plus velocity, and plus spin.

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