THE PALLILOG

Will Watt's return help the Texans rise above just being AFC South champs?

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So do the Texans deliver and beat the Buffalo Bills Saturday in their Wild Card weekend matchup to earn a shot at Baltimore or Kansas City, or do they lose another home playoff game and continue to be a division winning team irrelevant to the contending tier of NFL franchises? It's not a coincidence that the Texans without fail have opened all of their postseasons in the Saturday afternoon time slot.

How tingly with anticipation have you been this week? "Not very if at all" would put you in a large majority. If the Texans are ever to truly matter in the NFL, unless they finally secure a bye one of these years, winning a wild card game is a necessary step. The only way to win one is to be in one, so they get credit for that much. Hey, at least the Texans have managed to win three playoff games since coming into existence. Granted two came over mediocre Bengals squads, the third over a Raiders team quarterbacked by a stiff in his only ever NFL start. The Bills last won a playoff game December 30, 1995. That's amazing futility.

This is definitely not a game the Texans clearly should win. The Bills won 10 games just like the Texans, though Buffalo's only win over a playoff team was beating the Titans when Tennessee was still spinning its wheels with Marcus Mariota at QB. The Texans beat three playoff teams: Chiefs, Patriots, Ryan Tannehill QB-ed Titans.

The Texans have the more potent offense though the gap is diminished if the ever-delicate Will Fuller is a non-factor. The Bills definitely have the much better defense. That gap is diminished if J.J. Watt's return, even in a presumed limited role, provides a boost to the Texans otherwise generally effete pass rush. It projects as a lower scoring game. That lends itself to one big play, or lucky bounce, or bad call being a bigger difference maker in the outcome.

As a second year QB a year ago Deshaun Watson was terrible in his playoff debut. The Texans hope the same for Bills' second year QB Josh Allen.

Head Coach Bill O'Brien's postseason performance has basically been awful. The lone win over the Connor Cook-lead Raiders. Last year's humiliating home loss to the Colts joined a 30-0 home shellacking by the Chiefs in Texans' ignominy. Unless blown out, a loss to the Bills would not be shameful unto itself. But where the Texans are as a franchise, should they lose, their latest cute little AFC South Champion banner should be draped upside down.

Clock is ticking on Watt

J.J. Watt as Football Lazarus. What can be reasonably hoped for/expected out of the greatest player in Texans' history? Watt last played October 27th. As opposed to when recovering from his knee and back injuries, while rehabbing is torn pectoral muscle Watt has been able to do conditioning work. Still, that's not the same as playing full contact football. The Texans this season had one of the weakest pass rushes in the NFL. Watt can't fix that singlehandedly, but if he can generate pressure over 20 to 25 snaps it would be a big boost to the Texans' cause. Before he went down with the torn pec, in eight games played Watt had only four sacks. He did however top the NFL in hits on the quarterback. If Watt is right he brings superior athleticism to his position, which would come in handy dealing with Bills quarterback Josh Allen, one of the best running QBs in the NFL

Watt moves around on the line of scrimmage but more than anywhere else he lines up at left defensive end. That is opposite the offense's right tackle. Bills starting RT Ty Ensekhe missed five straight games before returning Sunday and aggravating an ankle injury. If Ensekhe can't go, Watt gets after rookie Cody Ford.

In March Watt turns 31. The clock is ticking on his chances at making a substantial contribution with the Texans at a championship level above winning the AFC South.

Busy schedule

ESPN has the Rockets-76ers game Friday night at Toyota Center, tipping about an hour after ESPN2 has the Houston Cougars in their AAC opener vs. Central Florida. Then Saturday, ESPN has Texans-Bills.

Not much happening on the baseball front

All's been quiet on the Astros front. They've added no talent to the roster for 2020, and await Major League Baseball's lowering the boom from the Brandon Taubman and Astros-as-cheaters investigations. Their biggest loss was Gerrit Cole to the Yankees. Second biggest, Will Harris taking the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach (and 24 million dollars over three years) to sign with the Washington Nationals. That's better for the Astros than if Harris had joined the A's.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Picking the Bills to win. Show me otherwise Texans. Please. 2. If Tre'Davious White largely shuts down DeAndre Hopkins, uh oh. 3. Best NFL broadcast teams this weekend: Bronze-Buck/Aikman Fox Silver-Nantz/Romo CBS Gold-Michaels/Collinsworth NBC

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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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