Falcon Points

Power ranking the 5 most hated Houston sports figures in the national media

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The Houston sports fan has long lamented that their teams do not get enough love from the national media. In the past year, however, local teams and athletes have been in the news. The good news? The national media has taken notice. It might be for all the wrong reasons, but the city is now on the national map, giving the hot take artists and talking heads no shortage of ammo. Not everyone has become hated; the Roughnecks aren't old enough, and the Dynamo have not won enough recently. Kelvin Sampson has been a good story with UH basketball and has built a nice program, so that one is a positive. But let's look at the ones who have made headlines in the wrong ways:

5) Bill O'Brien

Texans Bill O'Brien Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

O'Brien has had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with the Houston media for some time. The national media always questioned why he was so disliked. Then in a short span he yelled at a customer, blew a 24-0 lead in a playoff game, and the national sharks went into a frenzy. His weird play calling, clock management and general small man's syndrome has been the bane of Houston for years. The national media got to see it on the biggest stage, and immediately started piling on. Don't fret for O'Brien, however. He reacted by getting a promotion.

4) Daryl Morey

Daryl Morey Rockets.com

This is more of an international hatred thing, since he angered all of China. But he also got both praise and heat around the country after his "stand with Hong Kong" tweet. The incident has cost the NBA millions and sparked a worldwide controversy. Morey has been quiet since and his re-tooling of the Rockets roster has made a lot of the controversy disappear, but for a short time, this was a monster story.

3) Jim Crane

Jim Crane Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

The Astros owner got off light on the sign stealing punishment, and much of the national media and many of the players on other teams were critical of that. He didn't help himself with his spring training "apology," which was never going to be good enough for some people, even if he had not botched it. What Crane did or did not know will remain a mystery, but even if he had no knowledge of what was going on, the national media is out for blood. Crane's players, however, will likely bear the brunt going forward (more on that in a minute) and the Crane hatred will likely fade, but it was a dominant story earlier in February.

Interestingly enough, the two management guys who got punished by losing their jobs - Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch - have dodged most of the bullets, probably because they were the two who paid a price.

2) James Harden

James Harden.

This has always been an odd one. Harden has won an MVP, leads the league in scoring, and has put up some historic numbers. But his playoff failures coupled with a style of play that rubs some people the wrong way has always made him a target. It doesn't help that he has the personality and charisma of an old shoe. He also gets some love nationally, but overwhelmingly it is dislike. Winning a title would probably only make it worse. Most players become disliked because of fatigue of seeing them in the championship so often. Duke basketball, the Patriots, the Yankees, Red Sox, etc. Harden has done it without the title. It will be interesting to see what the narrative is if he and the Rockets can hoist a trophy.

1) The Astros star players

Astros Jose Altuve Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and even Justin Verlander - who did not cheat - have been the most hated men in the national media over the past month, because none of them were punished. While the story was completely overblown, nationally very few came to their defense. It became a daily dose of who criticized them next. Bregman and Altuve seemed to take the brunt, because they were the ones who were part of the "apology." And rest assured, this won't go away anytime soon. The players will likely face boos and will have to answer the same old questions with every road trip. Is it fair? No. But that's how the media world works these days. Plus, the hatred far transcended the traditional media. Housewives who never watched an inning of baseball weighed in on social media. So no matter what they do, there will always be a fair amount of disgust for them.

The epilogue

The truth is, locally, most of these guys are beloved, other than O'Brien and to a much lesser extent Harden. But the view of the national media is a different thing, and Houston sports figures have put themselves in the crosshairs with tweets, cheating scandals and more. The good news is Morey seems to be getting past it, O'Brien can still prove he deserves his promotion by winning big, and maybe Harden will start winning more people over, because he does have some supporters. The Astros might never win back the media, and who cares? If they win back the title, people in Houston will be just fine.

And hey, embrace the fact that the national media has noticed, even if it is for negative reasons.

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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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