A Look At The AAC

UH fought hard and came up short; seven AAC teams are bowl eligible now

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We've come to the end of the road in the AAC regular season. It's been quite the ride. We've seen old powers return to form, and newcomers show promise, while some has fallen from grace. Here's my take on Week 14 in the AAC:

UH failed to stop Navy; future looks promising

The Coogs lost to the Midshipmen 56-41. This game reminded me of a boxing or MMA match in which one fighter was always a step ahead of the other. Just when the Coogs would land a nice combo, the Midshipmen would counter with something more fierce. Though they ended this season with a 4-8 record in Dana Holgorsen's first year bcack as head coach, you can see the promise this team has moving forward. There's some talent on this team that'll be returning, plus there's more talent coming in via transfer and new recruits. Either way, I see Holgorsen's vision for this program and love what's coming. When you remodel an existing home, there's a period of ugliness it goes through. You have to tear stuff out, rebuild, and redo before it can be beautiful again. Holgorsen is doing just that. This season wasn't a homecoming queen. It was more like the awkward freshman who is present at all events and functions, but chills on the perimeter. However, that same awkward kid blossoms into something so beautiful after some fine tuning and seasoning, nobody thought it was possible in that freshman year. Give it some time Coog fans. I think this is the start of something beautiful.

Other Key Results

#18 Memphis 34, #19 Cincinnati 24: These two teams will play next week in a rematch for the AAC title game and a shot at the top Group of Five school for a possible New Years Six bowl birth.

SMU 37, Tulane 20: The Mustangs continued to roll as the Green Wave continued to slide. Although Tulane is bowl eligible with a 6-6 record, I doubt they make a bowl game unless there's a shortage of teams eligible. Meanwhile, SMU has made its case for a decent bowl with their 10-2 record.

UCF 34, USF 7: This game is only a talking point because it led to the firing of USF coach Charlie Strong. The Golden Knights have been on a roll even after Scott Frost left and McKenzie Hilton suffered a career-threatening injury. Strong is best served as a defensive coordinator. Here's to hoping he gets another job because he's a good dude by all acounts.

Stars Of The Week

Damonte Croxie, WR, Memphis: With six catches for 145 yards and a touchdown, Croxie accounted for 40% of the receptions, 62% of the receiving yards, and half of the receiving touchdowns for the Tigers.

Clayton Tune, QB, UH: The presumed backup next season for D'Eriq King went 23/35 for 393 yards and four touchdowns against Navy in a loss. If King decides to leave for greener pastures (something I don't see happening), the program is in good hands with Tune.

Jamale Carothers, RB, Navy: With 188 yards on just 18 carries, Carothers had a helluva game. His five touchdowns were more of a wow factor than his 10+ yards per carry average.

Games To Watch This Week

#20 Cincinnati vs #17 Memphis: The AAC Championship game will determine if one of these schools will possibly get a New Years Six bowl game. I expwct another good game, but the same result as the game they just played this past week.

Army @ Navy: This is one of the best and most interesting rivalry games in college football. The pagentry and tradition that surrounds it are unmatched. It's the most Merica thing outside of wearing a bald eagle with stars and stripes shirt.

Players To Watch This Week

Malcolm Perry, Navy: I can see a big game coming from Perry since Carothers was the one to get the shine vs UH. Rivalry games seem to bring out the best in top players.

Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis: While he had a decent game against Cincy last week, it wasn't his best. You can bet he's chomping at the bit to show what he can do this week in their rematch.

Brady White, Memphis: If Gainwell and the run game don't get the Tigers going, look for White and the pass game to take over to propel the Tigers to an AAC title.

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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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