TEAM BUILDING

Texans wrap up NFL draft with focus on special teams, depth

Brian Gaine focused on special teams and depth in the 2018 draft. Houstontexans.com

Saturday was it for the 2018 NFL Draft and Texans GM Brian Gaine continued down the path he started in the third round Friday night. He continued to select players of value that will be important to the 2018 roster.

One thing of note: in all the conversations I have heard in the media, conversations I have had with friends and co-workers, and internal thoughts regarding the roster; I don’t think I’ve ever thought about getting players to fit the dual role of depth at their position and special teams impact. From the look of this draft it’s a good thing the GM did.

Not only did he draft players who fit a need at their position, but he brought in valuable bodies to run the gauntlet on special teams. If you really think about it, the third round and beyond should be guys who can contribute immediately in that regard. If the Texans can solidify that aspect, the talent they have on the rest of the roster should improve along with their win/loss record.

They started strong in the fourth round by selecting wide receiver Keke Coutee out of Texas Tech at pick 103. Then they had to sit back and watch through the fifth round, but with the third pick in the sixth round (177) they chose Duke Ejiofor, the defensive end out of Wake Forest. Not to rest on their laurels they went out and took another tight end at pick 211, Jordan Thomas out of Mississippi State. They came right back three picks later (214) with linebacker Peter Kalambayi from Stanford. With their final pick of the draft they chose defensive back Jermaine Kelly from San Jose State.

Five picks, five potential contributors on day three of the draft. Special teams have long been a knock on the Texans overall team play. On more than one occasion field position felt like a vital part of the Texans’ losses. Getting athletic players who can contribute right away on special teams will be a huge upgrade in 2018.

On the down side, the Texans have taken on a lot of project players with respect to their position. Martinas Rankin, taken in the third round, is a project at offensive tackle and might not be ready for that role in his rookie year. Their third round tight end Jordan Akins has a lot of potential as a receiving tight end but his deficiencies at the line of scrimmage will need to be addressed right away. And Jordan Thomas in the sixth round? This guy will need a lot of work to eventually be a contributor at tight end.

Houston took a lot of athletic talent in this draft that fit a lot of needs. They lost 12 games last year because when their starters went down they didn’t have a well-rounded roster to support the replacements. This draft seems to be a direct attack on that issue.

It will be about three years before we know how to grade this class of incoming players but without a first or second round pick; I think the Texans did the best they could. I look forward to seeing these players compete in training camp for roster spots. Despite their position; special teams may be their immediate calling.

All in all, this looks like a solid draft for the Texans. They didn’t make any trades and picked the best value for the team at the position they were at. As a fan you can’t ask for much more. The depth at need positions will be better when training camp arrives and as a whole; special teams should improve.

For information on the first three picks, please check here.

 

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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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