The defensive juggernaut

Who was the best key defender in Rocket’s history?

In Rocket's history there have been three key defenders. Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, and PJ Tucker have been dominant on the defensive side for the Rockets. But the main question is who was the best?

Shane Battier played in Houston for four seasons and was a great necessity to the team. Battier played extremely hard against different opponents like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James. Battier would guard any team's toughest opponent. The biggest trick Battier would use was put his hand in the defender's face. Battier would use his hands to disrupt the shot from going off. He made NBA All-Defensive Second Team two times with the Rockets. He would never let off the gas when it came to guarding an offensive opponent. Battier was also helpful on the offensive side as well by making clutch three-point shots. His numbers never blossomed offensively, but he made shots when they counted.


Shane Battier's defense on Kobe Bryant (2009 playoffs) youtu.be


In all honesty, Battier's career was wasted in Houston. He did play is role to perfection but the team itself would fall short because of injuries. Battier was traded back to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2010 then won two NBA Championships with the Miami Heat.

Trevor Ariza was brought to Houston in 2009-10 because of the success he had with the Los Angeles Lakers. Even though Ariza stayed in Houston for a year, he was traded to the New Orleans Hornets. Daryl Morey decided to bring Ariza back after the Rockets lost Chandler Parsons to free agency in 2014. Ariza was able to use his length and athleticism to guard opponents. He also had great lateral quickness to stay in front of people. His best attribute was to fight and chase opponents around screens. Ariza would guard anybody who would cause a threat to the Rocket's defense.


Trevor Ariza Defense On Russell Westbrook , March 23, 2017 youtu.be


Ariza was a better scorer than Battier because of his shooting and ability to finish on fastbreaks. He had a quick trigger when it came to taking shots. Ariza was faulted for the 22 missed threes against the Golden State Warriors in game seven though. Houston decided to let him walk into free agency because of the money he requested.

PJ Tucker is a big body that Houston got in free agency when he left Toronto. Even though Tucker is 6'6 ft, he is very strong and has great feet. Do not let Tucker size fool you from defending players who are bigger, smaller, and taller than him. Tucker can stick with any opponent in the league. He has great hands that allows him to be disruptive in the passing lanes. Players also have tough time getting their shot off because he defends the shot well.


P.J Tucker Lockdown Defense on Kawhi Leonard Rockets @ Clippers 12/19/19 youtu.be


Tucker has become real good corner three-point shooter for the Rockets. He is shooting 49% from the left corner this season. Tucker is not much of scorer but has his moments. His moments really come in the playoffs. He shot 45% percent in the playoffs last year

Tucker and Battier are both tangible because they are great with their hands.

Each player was valuable but who is the most important defensively? Let the tapes tell the story.

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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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