Trusting old reliable

Rockets not concerned about James Harden's shooting struggles

James Harden.

When players were giving their standard post game interviews after the Rockets lost to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, word quickly spread that James Harden had gone back onto the main floor to get some shots up. Harden shot 1 for 17 from three-point range and has generally been in a funk for the month of January (35.8% shooting from the field and 26.2% shooting from beyond the arc). When the Rockets needed Harden's signature step-back threes the most in the closing quarter, his shot eluded him and he spent a total of 25 minutes working to recapture that rhythm post-game.

"Just getting back to the basics," explained Harden that night. "When you're struggling, you try to get back to the fundamentals and the basics of your shot form."

One could make a reasonable argument that Harden' shouldn't have taken as many threes that night once he realized he was off. It seems like a basic principal, but the Rockets have lived off of Harden making those difficult threes in tough moments more times than they can count over the past few years. For the Rockets, a team that's crafted their entire offensive identity on Harden going one-on-one an hitting tough, contested jumpers, it's easier said than done.

"You can tell him not to do it, but we've won a lot of games [that way]," said Mike D'Antoni postgame. "That's his game and you kind of live and die with what you got."

D'Antoni will get criticized (and has) for this statement, but until you put yourself in his shoes, it's tough to say he's wrong here. The Rockets have won nearly 200 basketball games with D'Antoni at the helm and most of those wins are directly attributable to Harden hitting tough shots. When you have that kind of success, how do you then go and tell your star player to go away from his bread and butter, even if he's struggling? History has shown it's a winning formula.

"Realistically, he's going to get out of it," said D'Antoni at practice Tuesday. "You don't overreact to it. You don't tell him 'Hey, don't shoot that because you did for three and a half straight years and you won us an average of 58 games a year. Don't do that.' Well, that's crazy."

James Harden is a career 36.4% three-point shooter. He's going to have hot stretches and cold stretches, but in the end, he'll always find himself around that mark (36.1% this season). What stretch you get may just be a matter of luck and the Rockets know that it's something they can't control. If Harden elected to stop shooting, for better or for worse, he wouldn't be the player he is. Part of what makes Harden great is his unabashed confidence to take and make tough jumpers even when he's struggling.

"Those are like regular shots for me," said Harden. "That's what I work on everyday."

Harden's struggles certainly don't help the Rockets, but neither does giving away 41 points in a closing quarter or Houston's horrid transition defense that lose them a game to Memphis the week prior. Houston has a stretch of problems they need to work out before they arrive at Harden's shot selection.

"That's beside the point," said D'Antoni. "Do we switch? Do we get back? Do we talk [on defense]? Do we communicate? Are we tough as a group? Do we overcome problems? That's what we have to focus on [as a team]. Don't focus on the stuff that's frivolous."

And that has been the center of Houston's focus. The Rockets spent an hour watching film of their fourth quarter defensive mishaps from the game against Oklahoma City before speaking to the media. They believe those issues take priority over anything the team is not doing offensively right now.

"Obviously I want to make every shot that I shoot," said Harden. "It doesn't happen. The more you work, the more confidence you have in yourself to be able to keep shooting those shots and doing what you do."

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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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