TEXANS LOSE AGAIN

Texans-49ers: Garoppolo comes up big as 49ers drop Texans

DeAndre Hopkins was a bright spot. Houstontexans.com

Week 14 against the two-win San Francisco 49ers is the game the Houston Texans needed right now. They are struggling to win with an offense that turns the ball over too much and at the wrong time. The 49ers are a team that doesn't force a lot of turnovers; something the Texans need to limit if they want to win and get at least one more before the end of the season. But just because a team doesn't force a lot of turnovers doesn't mean that's the only way the Texans can lose this game. They were facing Jimmy Garoppolo in just his second game as the starter for San Francisco and he led them to a victory in his first game last week.

He did it again on Sunday, beating the Texans 26-16 at NRG.

Just because Jimmy G has hype and the Texans have been struggling didn't mean this game would somehow be exciting. The first half was anything but. The Texans defense, especially Jadeveon Clowney, were wrecking shop early against the 49ers. They forced a three and out to start the game and the pressure forced Garoppolo to throw an interception to Kareem Jackson on the next drive. Despite that effort, the Texans were only able to get a 55-yard field goal from Ka'imi Fairbairn to lead 3-0, a good start.

Most of the first half was punts, but the 49ers were slowly finding rhythm and with 6:36 left before the break they tied the game at 3 points. They forced another punt from the Texans and then took the lead after 6 plays in which the Texans defense couldn't contain fullback Kyle Juszczyk who caught 2 passes for 60 yards on the drive. The last play was a 2-yard touchdown run by Carlos Hyde and a 10-3 lead for the 49ers.

But a change at quarterback for the Texans caused by an injury to Tom Savage brought a different feel to the offense. With just over two minutes left before halftime T.J. Yates stepped in and led the Texans on a 9-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a 7-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins, his 10th of the season tying him for the league lead. But it wasn't a tie score because Fairbairn missed the extra point and the 49ers still led 10-9. The Texans defense didn't hold with under a minute to play and the 49ers kicked another field goal and a 13-9 halftime lead.

T.J. Yates wasn't done showing off. The Texans had the ball to start the second half and it took only six plays to move down the field for his second touchdown pass of the day to Hopkins and a 16-13 lead. Hopkins at this point was already at 10 catches for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns, once again showing why his new contract was a good move by the Texans front office.

San Francisco wasn't done. They went down the field for another field goal and a tie game at 16 points. On their next drive the Texans were forced to punt. San Francisco took over and got a big 61 yard pass to Garrett Celek, then took the 23-16 lead when Garoppolo threw a touchdown to Celek. They had now scored points on five consecutive drives. 

The game wasn't over as the Texans defense stepped up and; after a second down sack by Brian Cushing forced a 3rd and long. A deep pass by Garoppolo was nearly intercepted and the Texans took over on their own 40  because of a short punt by Brad Pinion. They got nothing going after some overthrown balls and gave the ball right back in a close game. But a huge sack by LaTroy Lewis on third down gave the ball back to the Texans after just six plays. The only downside to that drive was that the 49ers took almost five minutes off the clock, leaving the Texans with only 6:31 left in the game.

In an uncharacteristic move, DeAndre Hopkins had the ball popped out of his hands and the 49ers recovered at the Houston 32 yard line. They now had good field position with a 7-point lead in the 4th quarter. They would get another field goal from Robbie Gould- his fourth of the day- and take a 10-point lead with just under 4 minutes left in the game. 

The Texans got the ball back with almost 4 minutes left but could not finish it off with a touchdown. The were in range for Fairbairn but he missed from 52 yards and the score stayed 26-16 49ers. San Francisco was able to run the clock out and walk away with the 26-16 victory.

This was a really tough loss for the Texans. The defense--especially Clowney--played really well. When Yates took over for Savage and led two scoring drives there was a feeling of hope. But it was all for naught as the Texans fell once again to a team that played just slightly better than them.

They are now 4-9 on the season with at least two more tough games in front of them. Maybe T.J. Yates’ performance today will be enough to show why he should be the starter,  but I doubt it. Savage will likely be there next week when the Texans face the Jaguars on the road. Anything they do from this point on will be for pride. That's just not enough in the NFL and fans will just have to hope that every injury returns next year and they have a shot at winning the big one.

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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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