ON THE PITCH

Weekly Soccer Recap: Dynamo’s “Cubo” Torres in transfer talks; Coutinho arrives at FC Barcelona

Erick "Cubo" Torres remains a Houston Dynamo as negotiations with Liga MX side Veracruz come to a standstill. Victor Araiza/SportsMap

The first week of 2018 brought about new business off the field but not much has changed on the field at the top of the league tables. The interesting headlines are happening with teams like Arsenal and Real Madrid, who are hovering in and around the top four. Off the field, the winter transfer window is in full swing and many teams are looking to boost their rosters - including with Usain Bolt?

Premier League

The Premier League kicked off 2018 with some exciting matches on New Year’s Day (as told in last week’s soccer recap) but the drama ensued into the following days of matches. For starters, Tottenham and West Ham had to play twice in three days because of their postponed match from a few weeks ago. Both picked up wins on Tuesday before the London rivals faced off in a 1-1 draw on Thursday. Back to Tuesday’s action, Manchester City easily handled Watford, 3-1, while Crystal Palace earned a 2-1 win at Southampton. Arsenal and Chelsea fought to a 2-2 draw on Wednesday, after which Arsene Wenger expressed his discontent with the officiating because of a penalty call in Chelsea’s favor.

The league took a break over the weekend as English clubs took part in the FA Cup. On Friday, Liverpool defeated their Merseyside rivals Everton while Manchester United were victorious over Derby County. Chelsea and Leicester City were among the sides that tied and will have to replay their 3rd round matches. The biggest upset came from Championship side Nottingham Forest who eliminated Arsenal 4-2, in part thanks to two goals from U.S. defender Eric Lichaj.

Top 5: Manchester City (62), Manchester United (47), Chelsea (46), Liverpool (44), Tottenham (41)

La Liga

The biggest news in La Liga this week came off the field with FC Barcelona’s acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho on a €160 million transfer fee (approximately USD $190 million). The Catalan giants already held a nine-point lead in the league, which they kept after a 3-0 win over Levante. Meanwhile, second place Atlético welcomed back an old friend as Diego Costa’s transfer from Chelsea became official this month. The Spanish national team forward scored in both Atleti’s midweek cup match and Saturday’s league bout with Getafe - where he was ejected due to a second yellow card. Yep, Costa’s back.

Valencia continues to hang around in third thanks to a 2-1 win over Girona. Sevilla was upset 5-3 by Real Betis, who are currently in 10th place and five points from the top five. This adds another shocking result to Betis’ season after producing a win at Real Madrid back in September. Speaking of Real, the defending champions look farther than ever from retaining their title after a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo.

The 5: Barcelona (48), Atlético Madrid (39), Valencia (37), Real Madrid (32), Sevilla (29)

Bundesliga

The Bundesliga winter break has concluded as the league will resume on Friday when leader’s Bayern Munich host Bayer Leverkusen. Off the field, Usain Bolt has earned headlines with the announcement that the Olympian will go on trial with Borussia Dortmund in March.

Top 5: Bayern Munich (41), Schalke 04 (30), Dortmund (28), Bayer Leverkusen (28), RB Leipzig (28)

Ligue 1

French teams returned to action by taking part in domestic cup competition. As expected, all top five Ligue 1 teams won their cup ties and are through to the Coupe de France Round of 32. League play resumes Friday as Strasbourg hosts Guingamp.

Top 5: Paris Saint-Germain (50), Monaco (41), Lyon (41), Marseille (38), Nantes (33)

Serie A

Inter Milan - at one point at the top of the table - could not start the year off right as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Fiorentina. League leaders Napoli and second place (by a point) Juventus rightfully took advantage and went on to pick up three points. Roma is another team that was set back, losing 2-1 at Atalanta, and dropped to fifth after Lazio’s 5-2 win at SPAL. Milan fans can rejoice as they get right to start the year in a 1-0 win over Crotone.

The top 5: Napoli (51), Juventus (50), Inter Milan (42), Lazio (40), Roma (39)

Liga MX

The Clausura 2018 season is off and running in Mexico and team’s who missed the playoffs were eager to get going with results. Santos Laguna, Pumas UNAM and Puebla were all victorious. Of course the sense of urgency to win exists with Santos and Puebla, particularly, as  both teams within the bottom five in the relegation standings. Of last season’s playoff teams, León and Club América were the only ones to start 2018 with a win. Defending champions Tigres were among the losing sides. Four of the nine encounters in the first matchday ended in draws.

The top 5: Santos (3), Pumas UNAM (3), León (3), Puebla (3), Club América (3)

MLS offseason

With only a few weeks to go before all teams are in preseason, transfers and rumors continue to be the talk of the league off the field. The biggest transfer this week coming from expansion team LAFC who acquired former U.S. men’s national team midfielder Benny Feilhaber from Sporting Kansas City.

The Houston Dynamo have been active in negotiations with several players this offseason but the biggest noise came from the potential departure of their highest-earning player, Erick “Cubo” Torres. The 25-year-old Mexican was rumored to return to Mexico after a deal between the Dynamo and Liga MX team Veracruz was all but done Monday, according to reports. The deal reportedly fell through because the Mexican side could not meet the player’s salary demands. The Dynamo did re-sign veteran MLS defender A.J. DeLaGarza, announced by the team Tuesday morning.

Upcoming Matches (All Times CT):

Tuesday, Dec. 26:

12:30 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Atletico Madrid vs. Lleida (beIN Sports)

1:45 p.m. - [EFL Cup] Manchester City vs. Bristol City (ESPN3)

Wednesday, Dec. 27:

2:00 p.m. - [EFL Cup] Chelsea vs. Arsenal (ESPN2)

2:30 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] Real Madrid vs. Numancia (beIN Sports)

Thursday, Dec. 28:

2:30 p.m. - [Copa del Rey] FC Barcelona vs. Celta Vigo (beIN Sports)

Friday, Dec. 29:

1:30 p.m. - [Bundesliga] Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich (FS1)

1:45 p.m. - [Ligue 1] Strasbourg vs. Guingamp (beIN Sports)

Saturday, Dec. 30:

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Werder Bremen vs. Hoffenheim (FS1)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Augsburg vs. Hamburg (FS2)

9:00 a.m. - [Premier League] Chelsea vs. Leicester City (NBC Sports)

9:15 a.m. - [La Liga] Real Madrid vs. Villarreal (beIN Sports)

11:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Tottenham vs. Everton (NBC)

11:30 a.m. - [La Liga] Eibar vs. Atletico Madrid (beIN Sports)

11:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] RB Leipzig vs. Schalke (FS2)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Deportivo vs. Valencia (beIN Sports)

Sunday, Dec. 31:

7:30 a.m. - [Premier League] Bournemouth vs. Arsenal (NBC Sports)

8:30 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Koln vs. Borussia Monchengladbach (FS1)

10 a.m. - [Premier League] Liverpool vs. Man City (NBC Sports)

11 a.m. - [Bundesliga] Dortmund vs. Wolfsburg (FS1)

1:45 p.m. - [La Liga] Real Sociedad vs. FC Barcelona (beIN Sports)

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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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