A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Watt joins elite company

More recognition for J.J. Watt. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

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The Time 100.

It’s the iconic magazine’s annual list of the most influential people in the world. And when the list was released Thursday morning, congratulations started rolling in for J.J. Watt.

The only surprise? That it was Roger Federer who graces this week’s cover. Not Watt.

No disrespect to the greatest tennis player in the game and a man whose philanthropy off the court goes relatively unnoticed, but this was Watt’s year.

The Texans’ defensive end touched the heart and soul, not just of the city of Houston, but the world when he turned to Twitter after Hurricane Harvey devastated the area with more than 50 inches of rain with a video and the following message:

Recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey will be massive.
We must come together to help rebuild our communities.http://YouCaring.com/JJWatt 

 His goal? To raise $200,000. He raised over $37 million in just a few weeks.

 We all knew what the three-time NFL Defensive Player could do on the field, but what he did for Houston – and continues to do – is just as legendary. He has been giving back since he was playing at Wisconsin, but what he did last year caught the eye of everyone, earning him the inaugural Houston Sports Awards Sportsmanship Award, as well the NFL’s highest honor - Walter Payton Man of the Year.

 Now, just months away from training camp, he’s on the way back from a freak injury and we’re already wondering what the 2018 season has in store. He is a team leader and, when he’s at this best, a devastating defensive force.

 But you know that. Just like everyone else, you’re thinking about what might be for the Texans this year with a healthy Watt and the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson.

So this Time 100 got us thinking.

Who are the most influential sports figures in Houston right now?

My list? Definitely not a slam dunk, but here’s what I came up with.

It starts with Watt, who could probably run for mayor when Sylvester Turner leaves office and win.

There’s nothing a healthy Watt can’t do on the field and now we know what he can do off of it. He’s a Houston’s rock star – a man who shared the passion for literacy with the late Barbara Bush, a guy who steals the show in commercials and makes the day for fans when he flashes that signature smile. That his girlfriend Kealia Ohai, who is also coming off surgery, is the team captain for the Houston Dash? Just one more reason people love him.

My other top four? Well, here they are in no certain order:

* Tilman Fertitta. The new owner of the Houston Rockets brought a lightning bolt of energy and swagger to a loaded roster that now seems destined for the NBA finals. His real estate dealings, restaurant empire – Landry’s is one of the country’s largest restaurant corporations – and his television show Billion Dollar Buyer made him a national celebrity before the Rockets. And, as chairman of the University of Houston System’s Board of Regents, his passion for his alma mater  has turned UH into a into a Tier One institution and put UH athletics back in the national spotlight. His Post Oak Motors and new Post Oak Hotel property just add to his influence in the city.

* Jose Altuve. Who doesn’t love the Astros’ second baseman? At 5-foot-6, the native of Venezuela may be the shortest player in Major League Baseball, but he also packs the biggest punch. Last year’s American League MVP  and Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year was also the league’s batting champ and helped lead the Astros to the World Series title. Every time he stepped to the plate, you waited for the magic last season as he hit.346 on the year with 204 hits and 81 RBI with 24 homeruns.  Hit .472 at Minute Maid in the playoffs and .310 with 7 homeruns in the playoffs. Can he top that? We’ll find out.

* Justin Verlander. No one has come into an MLB clubhouse and immediately commanded as much respect from his new team as the Astros’ ace did last fall. And no one has captured the hearts of fans as quickly, either. Following an August 31 trade from Detroit, Verlander stepped into the Astros starting rotation, went 4-1 and helped lead the team to a World Series title. A few days later, he was on a plane to Italy where he married super model girlfriend Kate Upton. Talk about a rock star. The guy is made for the red carpet and has a 4-handicap on the golf course. And when the Astros reported for spring training this year? No one was more excited.

* Deshaun Watson. Two words – scary good. Or unlimited potential. Or, make one up yourself. We had what felt like the briefest of glimpses into what Watson could do as a starter last season before he went down with a torn ACL. He was leading the league with 21 touchdowns and seemed headed toward Offensive Player of the Year as a rookie. He is still rehabbing his knee, but fans already have visions of Watson-to- all-pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins dancing in their heads. He only started weeks 2-8 last year and threw for 19 touchdowns and completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards.

There. You have my top 5. There are plenty of others to consider for sure, buy hey, I said only 5. 

Feel free to chime in and send us yours on Twitter - @HOUsportsAwards.

We’ll compile the top submissions and put it to a vote!


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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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