Andrew Luck: Can we say it now?

r134348_576x324_16-9

I’m not usually one to kick a player while he is down (unless he’s a Cowboys player and isn’t down because of injury). I also feel that some of Andrew Luck’s bad luck this and last year has a shared responsibility (GM and HC). This year, one can comfortably say that Andrew Luck isn’t great because his team isn’t great. He’s come back from 2015 showing he can play on par with his previous non-injury seasons. But, coming into his 5th year in the NFL, and into his big contract (being the highest paid QB in NFL history, with a 6 year, $140 million contract with an $87 million injury guarantee/$47 million guaranteed at signing, which levels out to $23.3 million a year average), Andrew Luck still has a lot to prove in the NFL.

Coming back from his terrible start and later injury-laden season, Luck has shown some improvement – albeit simply getting back to his previous play. 2015 worked a number on Luck, even before he was sidelined with a shoulder injury, and then later with a lacerated kidney (knocking him out for the rest of the season). In his first 3 starts, he threw for 7 interceptions – putting him on pace for a record incerception count. After a shoulder/rib injury sidelined him for 2 games (where the Colts actually went on a 2 game winning streak), he began to show some signs of improvement (can the “he was still injured” talk. He was cleared for play, and no results came from investigating his non-status on the Colts injury reports), but still fell short of an improved year.

The question is can Andrew Luck improve from what his 4 (and coming into 5) year stint has shown? Basically, he’s played the same with little to no improvement. In his 5th year, he’s beginning to learn how to slide. He’s still not learning to back off the linebacker mentality and takes hits he shouldn’t. He makes bad throwing decisions that has led to his interception count to be one of the highest counts in the league for a starter. There is a learning process, of course, when it comes into reading the field and making better decisions. Experience leads the way here. However, Luck is coming into his 5th year and he’s barely showing any progress here. The season is still early, though, so perhaps his banged up 2015 have taught him to take fewer chances.

One argument here is Andrew Luck has been carrying the team for the past 4 years and counting. During that same tenure, he was playing with a top 10 offense for 2 years (#3 in 2014), and a top 10 defense for 2 years (and coming into year #3). Unfortunately, they all happened in different years, with 2013 being the most balanced team (#15 in offense and #13 in defense). So, Luck’s had weapons. It hasn’t been JUST him the whole time. Truth be told, if anything carried the Colts through the Luck era, it has been the consistent mediocrity coming out of the AFC South. I’ll say it – it’s the same advantage that the Texans have had in the past few years of playoff appearances (especially in 2015). Outside of the overwhelming domination of the AFC South, the Colts are 22-21 under Luck.

So stop with that talk. If Colts were in another division, Luck would not likely have a single playoff win under his belt.

Only time will tell if Luck has learned from the past 4 years in the NFL to improve on his decision-making on the field. This is where his weakness lies. You can’t argue his talent. He’s got the arm and accuracy. He’s mobile. He is a prototypical NFL QB in terms of build and talent. What he lacks is decision making skills. This is what turns a good QB into a top 5 or elite QB. Currently, Luck sits at good. He is better than average, has the natural ability to succeed in the league, and could quite possibly take any well-rounded team far into the playoffs – even all the way to the championship. What gets him to the next level is all on him, though. Not the coach. Not the team. Not even the owner. What gets him there, and what will hold him back, is him. Until that happens, we can say it: he’s overrated.

Advertisements

Houston Astros: the wrap-up

635795191723366199-usp-mlb-houston-astros-at-arizona-diamondbacks-76456186

Raise your hand if you spent the entire 2015-1016 off-season riding the high of meaningful baseball in October, for the first time in 10 years, in Houston. Yes, it was all of us. The Astros jumped ahead of schedule in 2015, gave an impressive showing in the postseason, and had the city chomping at the bit for a legitimate Pennant run in 2016. The front office made some moves in the off-season that seemed to trend towards tweaking the roster just enough to fix a few roadblock issues from 2015 – among those were Doug Fister for the starting rotation, and Ken Giles as the up-and-coming closer. Chris Carter was traded, and one of two promising rookies would be sent to 1st base for their debut.

Contracts were also extended to a vets, including Colby Rasmus and Tony Sipp. Both Rasmus and Sipp shined in 2015 during some rather rough patches for the rest of the team, and the hope was that they’d hold their numbers through 2016, and possibly improve upon them. Additionally, the decision was made for Gattis to eventually take back-up catching duties, which led to Hank Conger being traded off, and Erik Kratz (remember this guy?) temporarily brought in to cover while Gattis transitioned. The moves, outside of the Giles contract, were somewhat conservative, but they seemed to be the right moves to strengthen the roster overall.

Then 2016 happened. Specifically, April 2016 happened. The Astros went .292, 7-17 to start the season. We were discouraged, but didn’t outright panic because 5 more months of baseball was coming. Surely they could get back on track and still make a showing. If they pulled together and fixed the hemorrhages. Among these nasty leaks were starting rotation, bullpen, defense, and total offense (including stranding runners and bad base-running). In April, the only thing that did not completely stall was the at-bats – but you wouldn’t know because runs and RISP stranded were basically equal, which meant the line up was out of whack and not reflective of the batting.

The 1st half or May showed similar results, but a few changes that helped. The lineup was finally adjusted to reflect hitting patterns, and the Astros started winning. Even though they came back hot at the end of May, throughout June, and headed into the All-Star break, the slow start of the season was simply too much to overcome. Even though the Astros pulled within 2.5 games of the AL West lead, their inability to shake the mental block that has formed against the Rangers kept them from being a real contender for that spot. In fact, the combined April/Rangers losses for the season was 29 – that’s 18% of the total games played and almost 40% of their total losses.

Let that one sit for a minute.

Those were the two fatal blows dealt for the 2016 season. The slow start and the Rangers record. You can argue a number of things – lack of trades at the deadline, injury, poor AB production, poor pitching performances, young roster – it doesn’t matter. It comes down to 29 losses that stalled the Astros run for 2016. The Rangers spent money, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline, to make a legitimate run. The Astros didn’t. That still didn’t make the difference, however. The path to the playoffs went straight through South Oklahoma, and the Astros couldn’t get past that wall. The most inexplicable thing about this is that the Rangers didn’t even have their best games vs the Astros.

The Astros just sucked worse against the Rangers.

Neither one of these fatal blows were because of lack of trades. In fact, I’m happy the Astros didn’t bet the farm for a maybe. That’s what it was this year at the deadline – a maybe. There were already too many holes to be filled to make a meaningful trade, and then the injury bug hit. McCullers went out. Valbuena was lost. Rasmus struggled. Gonzalez spent some time on the bench. Gregerson went out. And then Keuchel. These were some pretty big injuries to deal with, along with a few Correa and Bregman misses. However, this didn’t sink the Astros. It just didn’t help. Overall, the Astros had the fewest number of injuries in the entire league. Check it out.

ct3ew9dwiaeg5jm

The impact of these injuries hit a little hard, but it was nothing that any other playoff team (outside of the Dodgers and Cubs – perhaps) didn’t roll through. It did expose the ultimate lack of depth and experience with the club, but that is what will happen with a young team. It’s part of the process, and either you have a coaching staff that can shore things up and move forward, or you don’t. The Astros don’t. Some of that has been discussed here, but both Luhnow and Hinch deserve some credit for mishandling their roster both throughout the season and especially during these injuries that hit. We’ll discuss that a bit later, though.

We can also take a look at a primary recipe for success or failure when it comes to a young roster. Since depth was one of the issues shown after the 2nd half injury, the need for the right investment in veteran players has been shown. This was a weak link for the Astros, who went with players such as Rasmus, Gomez, and Valbuena, as well as pitchers like Fiers, Feldman, Fields, Sipp, and Gregerson to get them through. There’s no star in that line up (although Valbuena did start to heat up before injury, his fielding and ABs left a lot to be desired in the first half). There’s no strong veteran leadership on the team, outside of Altuve – but as great as he is, he can only do so much.

In hindsight, the front office was a little too conservative moving into the 2016 season, fresh off the 1st postseason run since the 2005 season. Perhaps you can count this for a little inexperience all-around, with Crane being a relatively new franchise owner, Luhnow’s first stint as a GM, and, well – Hinch has been around the block. The team’s young age factors into this greatly, which is why strength is needed in veteran contracts – it gives the team a few years of overall experience, as well as depth in core positions. This season certainly doesn’t spell out disaster in the long run. It points to a learning experience for the whole club, and a great opportunity to improve on mistakes.

Houston Texans: Buckle up

alex-smith

One quarter of the season has been played, with the Texans sitting atop the AFC South and a 2 game cushion, at 3-1. Not a bad start, with a brand-spanking-new offense and some key injuries on both sides of the ball. The offensive line is still shaky, with Duane Brown hinted at coming back this week, after his season-ending injury last season, and the defense lost their top player, JJ Watt, for the season. O’Brien has taken play-calling duties over for Godsey, who couldn’t figure out a way to use the running game’s biggest weapon, Lamar Miller, in 3 games.

The team is finally showing some flashes of greatness, stalled by some bad decision turnovers from Osweiler. Hopkins hasn’t yet been utilized to his 2015 playtime, with most of the turnovers coming off of forced passes to him. The stumbles and stalls haven’t stopped the Texans from picking up a winning record so far, and gaining that 2-game cushion on the rest of the flailing AFC South (including what shouldn’t have been such a nail-biting game against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday). Each game brings a few signs of improvement (we’re not going to talk about that one game).

The Texans have a powerhouse defense that can keep the offense in the game. Even with the loss of JJ Watt, the Texans have bounced back with other key players like Mercilus, Clowney, Cushing, and Simon, with Wilfork putting in a heck of a season so far. The CB depth is enough to keep the passing game in check (although there are still some tackling issues being settled). The offense, however, doesn’t create a march down the field with the same ease, and has had some pretty rough turnovers in the interim. And special teams is finally figuring out that you get 25 yards on a return by taking a knee.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scratching your head at the ST kickoff return game plan in the first few games of the season, considering the new touchback rule that adds 5 yards to the line of scrimmage. In at least 1 game when we’ve seen turnovers after a returning from the endzone, you’d think the Texans ST coach is crazy. They’re not alone, though. Despite the rule’s intentions of lessening the chance of injury in those rough, full velocity return tackles, returns have actually increased throughout the league. That hasn’t worked well for the Texans, though, and it looks like they’re finally getting wise to this.

But the meat of the schedule is about to start, and we’re left to wonder if they’re ready for it. The Texans are next facing the undefeated and rather mesmerizing Minnesota Vikings, who lost both Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson within a few short weeks. Despite losing their 2 top offensive weapons, they’ve managed to go 4-0 with Sam Bradford, now seemingly healthy and playing with a vengeance, without even a hiccup. Led by a top defense, the Vikings have capitalized on creating turnovers and then scoring on them, but can just as readily march down the field for a touchdown.

With Osweiler as a continuing work in progress (and I hate to break it to you, but this work in progress looks like it will be continuing throughout the season), are the Texans going to play conservatively to lessen the chance for turnovers, or keep forcing him into making better pressure decisions? I’d bet on a little bit of both. Duane Brown’s impending return will be a great help with keeping Osweiler out of such pressure situations, as it will open up the possibility of shuffling the line around to bolster it on both ends. This will open up the running game down the middle a bit more too.

That’s not likely to all click in place this Sunday, so I’d expect to see more conservative calls on offense to keep from giving the Vikings an opportunity to do what they do best – force a turnover and turn it into points. That may also mean that Hopkins will see a few more games without a target – which may work out best for him and the team in the long run. One of the keys to this offense is having limitless targets on field, and it seems to be working so far. That lingering if/when will Osweiler clean up his throws and make better decisions will decide what level the team will eventually play at this season.

Moving forward? Remain cautiously optimistic. Osweiler’s struggles with decision making under pressure are not an anomaly from a newer QB. I don’t care when he was drafted, he’s not even had a full season starting under his belt. That matters, because you don’t pick up experience to improve on the bench. He’s also got a brand new offense to work the kinks out with, as well. So, be prepared for this to be a season-long test. It should be, when you’re giving a new QB the opportunity to be the franchise QB. We’re well past the days of next QB up. It’s new territory, guys, and the rules are different.

And, at the end of the season if he doesn’t pan out, it’s really not as bad of a deal as you think. Osweiler is guaranteed for 2 seasons at 18 million per season. That’s the average pay for a starting QB in their second contract in the NFL. And if he still continues to have some of the problems under pressure, then the concentration in the free agency and draft for 2017 will beQB and o-line. He’s our guy for at least this season and next, so let’s get used to that. For the time being, recognize he’s in his 2nd year (and 1st full season) as a starter, and give him the room to improve.

Minnesota may not be a win, but it won’t mean the season is over. This won’t be an easy win for either team, and it won’t be another blow out embarassment for the Texans. I’ll put my predictions that far. What we’ll see from the Texans, hopefully, is an extension of the improvement on the running game seen last week, with some quick, up-tempo short passes to move the ball down the field. If Duane Brown returns, that puts a little more strength on the o-line (especially if Clark can slide down to RT for a few plays). I’d really like to see some movement on the o-line with Brown’s return.

Defense needs to keep being defense. They’ll have a tough time getting to Bradford, but should have some success shutting off the running game. Time to start forcing some turnovers, as well. The Vikings haven’t faced a defense like the Texans just yet, so that should shake up Bradford and co, and make them reach outside of the comfort zone. This will be another game where the defense will be counted on to carry the load, but I’ve got the confidence they can step up and do this. Secondary will have to make some leaps in this game as well, because Bradford can use his arm effectively.

And the Fuller on ST was a nice trick, but I wouldn’t use it for this game.

I predict the Texans will come out of this with their second loss, but still sitting on top of the AFC South in 1st place (and it’s quite possible to keep that same 2 game cushion). This is an early test for the readiness of the team, and it’s fine if they don’t pass. There’s still a lot of season left to improve on offense (which is the game changer), and like I said, it will take the season to vastly improve. The next few games should show whether or not Osweiler begins to make better decisions under pressure, and I’d expect him to. But if he does, and starts throwing it away, don’t scold him for that.

Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got.

In the long run, if the Texans can manage to dominate the AFC South (and currently signs point to that being quite possible) then they have some wiggle room to improve the offense overall. They’re actually quite fortunate with that this season. It’s the same circumstance that has put the Andrew Luck Colts in the playoffs practically every year, but the key difference is that the Texans have actually build a team. This next game may not be pretty, and the season may not be pretty, but it’s a season going on a learning curve that will eventually pan out.

Houston Astros: Dave Hudgens needs a new job

MLB: Houston Astros at Arizona Diamondbacks

The Astros hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, needs a new job.

Before we get out the pitchforks and place the blame solely on any shoulders, however, let’s take a look at what a hitting coach realistically does, and how this job affects the team. Typically, the hitting coach’s involvement is analyzing player at-bats in the game versus batting practice. He sees the technique used, and works with the player if there are huge discrepancies between practice and games. He also works with players to tweak performance, in the event that a player’s hitting technique declines over time. This position certainly cannot be blamed for the season – the season play was indeed a team and staff effort – but there are some numbers that I find pretty discouraging, as far as how a hitting coach can and can affect a game or player, and with Hudgens’ own track record as a hitting coach. Let’s take a look.

Dave Hudgens was hired in the 2014-2015 offseason, after being fired from the Mets organization toward the beginning of the 2014 season; his 4th year as hitting coach for the Mets. One could say his firing was a simply casualty in the organizational shake-up for the Mets that continued into last year. Many people do. However, there exists some decent evidence that the Hudgens hitting philosophy and approach (as quoted in a now-defunct chron.com article as being rather relaxed, with the simple goal to get on base no matter what) did not cut it for the Mets organization. Here’s 3 years of batting stats for the Mets (collectively) with Hudgens as hitting coach:

Batting Average

2011 – .264 (Ranked 2nd)

2012 – .249 (Ranked 10th)

2013 – .237 (Ranked 14th)

On-Base Percentage

2011 – .335 (Ranked 2nd)

2012 – .316 (Ranked 11th)

2013 – .306 (Ranked 14th)

Strikeouts

2011 – 1,085 (Ranked 13th)

2012 – 1,250 (Ranked 7th)

2013 – 1,384 (Ranked 1st)

Not great. In fact, there’s a steady decline in offense performance by the total team. Does this reflect as a negative pattern for Hudgens, or is it simply the outcome of a Mets organization that didn’t expand their purse strings in order to pick up quality players? Obviously, a hitting coach can only do so much as far as improving a team’s at-bat. Once a player gets up to the MLB, they are pretty set in player style and ability. So, we can’t expect miracles. However, as discussed above, the main goal of the hitting coach is to keep that consistency the player has shown, whether it be analyzing swinging technique, or offering tweaks when necessary.

In Hudgen’s final year as a hiting coach with the Mets, one stat was fairly noticeable – a much lower production in at-bats at home versus away. Hudgens took this split difference to the team about a week before he was fired, the stat was simply washed away as a player problem – with the home field stadium getting to the heads of the players. A mental block when playing at home. This makes some sense – there’s extra pressure to perform at home versus away, when the team is directly and primarily playing for their fan base. This could also be a fluky situation that bears no responsibility from the hitting coach. Unless there’s a pattern that begins to emerge. Let’s look at some team stats for the Astros with Hudgens as hitting coach:

Batting Average

2015 – .249 (Ranked 23rd)

2016 – .246 (Ranked 24th)

On-Base Percentage

2015 – ..315 (Ranked 16th)

2016 – .319 (Ranked 19th)

Strikeouts

2015 – 1,406 (Ranked 2nd)

2016 – 1,438 (Ranked 4th)

I’m adding one more stat, to make sense of some of these numbers

Walks

2015 – 3.02 per game (Ranked 11th)

2016 – 3.42 per game (Ranked 7th)

Of course these 2016 stats will change slighty, given there are 2 more games left in the season, but not much. What we can see is, overall, a dip in batting average, a slight rise in on-base percentage (walks being added to show one reason for that slight rise), and higher strike-out rate from Hudgens year 1 vs year 2 with the Astros. That’s only 2 years worth of stats, but it does show a similar pattern to the decline at-bat for the Mets. Also somewhat alarming to what could be a pattern developing is the Astros dip in performance at home for 2016 versus away. In 2015, the Astros had a BA/OBP of .247/.310 away vs .253/.321 at home. For 2016, the split was .255/.327 away vs .238/.311 at home. So, either the Astros have developed the same mental block of playing at home as the Mets did during Hudgens’ tenure, or Hudgens isn’t a great fit for the young, growing team.

I tend to think it is the latter, and we’ll take a look at 2 players that went into a serious decline with the Astros in 2016 to break this down. I think we all know at least one of the players we will be discussing here, and nobody really wants to bring it up – but, this player’s performance is key to uncovering what may be a big issue with Hudgens as hitting coach. The other is a player who has seen a steep decline at bat during Hudgens’ tenure as the Astros hitting coach, as well. Both are stars in the centerfield, and have struggled at bat with the Astros. So, without further adeiu, let’s take a look at the yearly stats of Carlos Gomez and Jake Marisnick, prior to working with Hudgens, during his tenure with the team and, for Gomez, after being picked up by another team.

Marisnick is finishing up his 3rd year with the Astros, and 4th year in the MLB. He’s a great asset in centerfield, with his speed and depth, but has stalled out at bat. His at-bat performance in 2015 was a primary reason, actually, for bringing in Golden Glove CF and slugger Carlos Gomez. We know how that turned out, though. But let’s specifically examine Marisnick’s at-bat stats over the 3 years he’s been with the club:

Batting Average (career: .223)

2014 – .272

2015 – .236

2016 – .204

On-Base Percentage (career: .267)

2014 – .299

2015 – .281

2016 – .253

Strikeouts

2014 – 48 (out of 51 games, .94 per game)

2015 – 105 (out of 133 games, .78 per game)

2016 – 81 (out of 116 games, .69 per game)

Marisnick’s BA and OBP both declined steadily since 2014, but hey – fewer strikeouts! Fewer strikeouts is a good thing, as it means he’s taking pitches and waiting for more pitches in the zone. However, this isn’t improving his performance at bat – at all. Here are a few more numbers to show just how much he’s declined since his 1st year with the Astros:

Hits

2014 – 47 (out of 51 games, .92 per game)

2015 – 80 (out of 133 games, .60 per game)

2016 – 57 (out of 116 games, .49 per game)

Runs Batted In (RBI)

2014 – 19 (out of 51 games, .37 per game)

2015 – 36 (out of 133 games, .27 per game)

2016 – 20 (out of 116 games, .17 per game)

Pretty terrible decline overall, especially considering Marisnick only in his 4th year in the MLB. One could argue that he’s an on-the-fence player who may not belong in the major league (if you take out his OF performance, that is), and that he had a breakout year when he came on with the Astros. This is a possibility. Or, perhaps he needs some more hands-on coaching.

Now, let’s look at Carlos Gomez. This, perhaps, is the most damning evidence that there’s some deficiency in Hudgens’ philosophy of – well, the trend seems to be get on base no matter what, especially if that means taking pitches and being walked. There has been a pretty distinct overall surge in walks for the team, and I’m not sure this is the best philosophy for a young growing team. But, I digress. Gomez stats (we’ll look at the same 3 year average, with direct splits between teams played for):

Batting Average (career: .257)

2014 – .284

2015 MIL – .262

2015 HOU – .242

2016 HOU – .210

2016 TEX – .289

On-Base Percentage (career: .312)

2014 – .356

2015 MIL – .328

2015 HOU – .288

2016 HOU – .272

2016 TEX – .367

Strikeouts

2014 – 141 (out of 148 games, .95 per game)

2015 MIL – 70 (out of 74 games, .95 per game)

2015 HOU – 31 (out of 41 games, .76 per game)

2016 HOU – 100 (out of 85 games, 1.18 per game)

2016 TEX – 35 (out of 32 games, 1.09 per game)

And further…

Hits

2014 – 163 (out of 148 games, 1.10 per game)

2015 MIL – 75 (out of 74 games), 1.01 per game)

2015 HOU – 36 (out of 41 games, .88 per game)

2016 HOU – 62 (out of 85 games, .73 per game)

2016 TEX – 33 (out of 32 games, 1.03 per game)

Runs Batted In (RBI)

2014 – 73 (out of 148 games, .49 per game)

2015 MIL – 43 (out of 74 games, .58 per game)

2015 HOU – 13 (out of 41 games, .32 per game)

2016 HOU – 29 (out of 85 games, .34 per game)

2016 TEX – 16 (out of 32 games, .50 per game)

Aaaaaaannnnndd 31 HRs for MIL in 2014-2015 (.14 per game), 9 HRs for HOU in 2015-2016 (.07 per game), and 8 HRs for TEX in 2016 (.23 per game). Gomez virtually falling off the radar during his short stint on the Astros roster is pretty telling. We can bring up that he had some injury issues during this time (he did – with a stint on the DL for a knee injury in 2015, as well as a stint on the DL for something (although it seemed like more of a timeout) in 2016. But, the sharp jump in performance since finding a new team in 2016 can’t be ignored.

While 2 players can’t tell the whole story (since perhaps Marisnick had his peak, and Gomez simply struggled with injury), we can also look at Chris Carter’s stats – which made a measurable dip in 2015 before being sent off to MIL to resume his high strike out/high HR performance. Feel free to take a look at his 2014-2016 stats here to see for yourself. It’s rather telling. And honestly, if you have taken a look at Gomez as a Ranger, his AB presence is night and day (and you can check out his full AB history, and the dynamics and tweaks made to boost his overall slugging performance here).

Perhaps we can still say that coaching staff doesn’t make or break the team, but there seems to be no denial that the hitting coach (specifically) can either help boost or stall a team. For the Astros, the stats point to him simply not being the right fit for the young, growing team (and his history as a hitting coach and slight patterns emerging point to the possibility that he’s not right for the MLB, period). What if we did have someone who took the time to work on Gomez and his swing this year, and he ended up hitting for the Astros like he now is hitting for the Rangers (killing it, by the way)? Would that make a 4-5 game difference and put the team into the playoffs? Probably. Would that have made a difference in a few of the 27 games lost by 1 run or extra innings? You betcha.

With the Astros 2016 season winding down with no playoff spot, and a slightly worse record than 2015 (even if they win the last 2 games, they’ll still be a game under last season’s record), it’s quite possible that there will be some changes to the coaching staff, along with the necessary changes on the roster. All the coaching positions (as well as management) need to be scrutinized at this point, and Hudgens seems like the weakest link on the coaching staff. There may be more (and we’ll get into that in the next week), but the team’s overall offensive decline cannot be ignored – especially the stalled out veteran player whose hitting technique suddenly improved with a 258 mile northern migration. What also cannot be ignored is the emerging pattern in Hudgens as a hitting coach with 2 different teams, with both teams suffering a decline AB during his tenure.

 

 

Houston Texans: How Belichick emasculated O’Brien

0518145001451334142_filepicker

It began Monday morning, but we didn’t realize it. Reports that Garoppolo would sit the game out, 3rd string rookie Jacoby Brissett would start his 1st NFL game. Back up to Brissett would be WR, once QB in college Julian Edelman. He didn’t even bother the insurance of a FA QB signing in the interim. For once, Bill Belichick did not hide his game plan for the short week and Thursday night game, and this game plan told the story of what we saw unfold last night.

On Monday Belichick’s actions said, without saying a word, we don’t need to prepare for the Texans; the Texans need to prepare for us. It was a call to the Texans, and a challenge to Bill O’Brien. It was cocky, insulting, and downright genius. And it got in their heads. Belichick, with that small, yet bold, move, won the game before it even started.  And none of us realized it until the Texans hit the field and started crumbling before our (and the nation’s) eyes.

In those three days – that short week to prepare for the Patriots game Thursday night, it’s hard to really see exactly what the Texans did to prepare. Granted, they were at the slight disadvantage, having to face a rookie QB with half a game’s worth of NFL film on him. To the Texans advantage, however, they were facing a rookie QB in the 1st start of his professional career, so simplified play-calling to this rookie QB’s strengths would likely be the game plan.

Through most of the 1st half, this is exactly what we saw from the Patriots on offense. Conservative plays, ball protection, and limited drives. Enough to manage the game, protect the young QB, and eliminate turnovers. Enough to take Texans strongest weapon – the front 7, out of the game. On defense, all they had to do was cover receivers. That’s it. The Texans o-line destroyed everything else, as well as Godsey’s terrible usage of Lamar Miller. Their game plan was simple, and almost relaxed.

After that relatively simple prepwork, all the Patriots had to do was to sit back and watch the Texans defeat themselves; overcompensating for how little Belichick and the Patriots took this match up seriously. Because that’s pretty much how predictable the Texans play-calling has already become this season. And defeat themselves they did. The bonus for the Patriots was the lousy Texans special team play, which allowed the Patriots to not only defeat the Texans, but humiliate them on National TV.

The good news out of this is that the Texans have a good core of veteran players that don’t give up, and can lead their team. This is 1 game, and 1 loss. The better news is that this core group usually comes back steaming mad and ready for revenge when they have a terrible game like this (see Falcons and Dolphins games in 2015). The best news is that the team has upgraded their talent since 2015, and the team and staff have a long week to start working to fix these issues.

The bad news is that our special teams unit has not improved over last year. Tyler Ervin has shown, in his special team appearances, that he may not be ready for the pros just yet. Charles James II has no margin for error moving forward. The whole unit needs to make some drastic improvements, and rely on conservative play in the interim. THIS MEANS TAKING THE DAMN KNEE IN THE ENDZONE. That’s 25 yards, every time. Take it. Please. We all beg you.

In the interim, Godsey’s got to take some time making plays that utilize Lamar Miller’s strengths, as it is clear that one of Miller’s strengths is NOT running up the middle. This should be obvious by watching him with the Dolphins, as well as recognizing his build. He’s got speed, use it. And use Jay Prosch on 3rd and short. That’s why he’s on the roster. The stalled running game needs to be worked out immediately – like in this long week ahead in preparation for the Titans.

Onward and upward.

Houston Astros: Limping towards the finish line

Correa nets 22nd Homerun of the Season

Okay, before we talk about the latest Astros struggles, let’s just do this and get it out of our systems.

SCREW YOU, JIM JOYCE!

Okay. I feel better, how about you? No? Well, a collective anger isn’t going to change yesterday’s game, so it’s best to move on and focus on the remaining 22 we have in the season. We can be mad at Jim Joyce, who obviously learned physics differently than the rest of us, or his officiating crew who not only couldn’t see a ball hit the dirt then shoot up toward the area of the checked-swing bat then magically do a 100 degree change in trajectory and bounce off into foul territory, but couldn’t hear the distinct noise of a leather ball hitting wood and not dirt, or a leather glove.

Or we could be mad at arbitrary replay rules that don’t allow such blown calls to be reviewed, regardless of how clear they are, while having the ability to replay base running  ad nauseum or, even more comparatively, turn a homerun into a foul ball. I know the argument toward reviewing plays like this could lead to the want and need to scrutinize every ball that crosses the plate, but that is a hyperbolic retort if that is being used. In calls like this that lead to runs scored, review should be allowed. That’s precisely how the rule should be changed, too. Questionable calls involving runs scored, and leave it there.

Or course this will likely upset MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who is already looking for ways to keep the average baseball game from hitting 3 hours (hint: 1 less commercial per break will solve this, Manfred. Seriously – I don’t think any of us need any advertisement reminder from the MLB or our respective teams during the game we are actually watcing. We’re pretty self-aware of our role as fans, in that regard. Considering we’re watching the damn game). All I can say is to this is, well, deal with it. The integrity of the game shouldn’t be cheated based on time constraints.

. . .

Anyway – now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems (kind of, not really), let’s move on to the latest injury report from the roster. Carlos Correa was sent back home to Houston a few days back with an inflammation in his shoulder. He is currently day-to-day, as with his previous ankle sprain, but will be held out of the lineup for a third consecutive game vs the Chicago Cubs tonight at Minute Maid Park. This is slightly worrisome, but with Alex Bregman heating up at bat, and Yulieski Gurriel coming into his own and effectively covering 3rd base, this isn’t as bad as the starting rotation struggle.

Starting ace Dallas Keuchel is still out of the rotation with shoulder inflammation, Lance McCullers is just beginning to start throwing from his DL stint, Collin McHugh continues to be unpredictable McHugh, Mike Fiers has somewhat straightened up enough to start winning games again and staying out on the mound for more than 3 innings, and Fister is sliding downhill fast. Then we have the 2 rookies, Joe Musgrove and David Paulino, who both would clearly benefit more this season from developing in the bullpen with a few stints in the starting rotation, instead of being thrust in, due to injury.

And then the real tragedy is PCL Pitcher of the year and latest call-up to the roster, RHP Brady Rodgers, who has been a disaster in his first 2 games in the MLB, with a total of 9 hits, 10 runs scored in 1.2 innings (5 runs in each game played), and an embarrassing ERA of 54.00. I’m sure he’ll eventually even out, but he’s not someone that the Astros need in the bullpen for the final 22 games of the season. The Astros are already carrying 18 pitchers on the active roster (including 7 SR and 11 BP), which is at least 2 more than the average. Rodgers is a waste on the roster in September, plain and simple.

What I’d rather see, instead of carrying dead weight in an already robust bullpen, is a final shot for AAA Fresno 1st Baseman Jon Singleton.

Before you react, hear me out. You may think I am clearly insane for suggesting the call up of a once highly-touted but recently fallen from grace (but still has potential) 1st baseman that was beat out by 2 other 1st basemen who have stunk in the MLB this season. After all, he’s been less than impressive overall this season with the Fresno Grizzlies, but his averages have been pretty great (especially his slugging and on base percentage) facing RHPs. He can handle the fielding at 1st base (which was never the issue), and can be used in a pinch hitting situation.

He wouldn’t be a savior by any means, and he’d be getting this last-ditch effort in the MLB for the Astros no doubt, but he’s being paid and he would be a fresh player for a week or two.  He’d be a good strategy substitution in late innings with weaker bullpens, and with RHPs who struggle with lefties at bat. Whether we trust Hinch to be able to pull off those strategic moves is another conversation, but we’d at least be giving him the ammunition needed going into the final few weeks of the season. If we’re going to carry some relative dead weight on the roster, we may as well exercise all our options.

I’d honestly rather see Devenski bumped up to the starting rotation in place of Musgrove, but it seems that Hinch has got him firmly stenciled in as the mid-long relief once Musgrove, Paulino (although it’s too soon to tell), McHugh, Fiers, or even Fister putter out in the 3rd-5th innings. It could be a gamble to take a solid long reliever out of the BP (and is also why the Astros are carrying extra weight in the BP), but it’s an equal gamble to leave him there so he can minimize runs in a game already lost. That doesn’t sound like it is going to happen, so I defer to the why the hell not option, above.

Whatever is done in these last few games, one thing seems certain. The club’s going to have to find out a way to win 16 of the last 22 games. That gives the team 90 wins and a shot at the WC (taking the averages of both the Orioles and the Tigers). That means 6 more losses where the Astros will face 3 playoff contenders in 12 games. In order to get there, the Astros have to play perfect baseball. They have to get by the next 6 games against the NL 1st place Cubs and the AL 1st place Rangers with at minimum 1 win per club, and pull off series wins in the remaining games against the Mariners, Athletics and Angels.

Your move, Hinch. Make it count.

Houston Texans:The time is now

920x920-1

The 2016 NFL season is here, and with that brings a new and (hopefully) improved Houston Texans squad.

In the off-season, Head Coach Bill O’Brien heavily bulked up the offense during the 2016 NFL Draft, drafting and subsequently signing 4 out of 6 offensive positions (primarily WR/RB, and a necessary C to replace defector dearly departed Ben Jones) to add speed and versatility to a Texans offense that has struggled for years. The primary struggles were an ineffective QB, combined with a nearly non-existent passing game, and littered with constant running game injury. To summarize, the Texans offense has been largely one-dimensional, over-utilizing either/or since 2013.

In the pre-season, fans were dazzled (at times) with a promising starting QB with Brock Osweiler, a prolific WR corps, as well as some surprising TE production on offense, but very little showing for the running game.  Special teams came out and showed some notable structure and improvement, with a huge nod to new ST coach Larry Izzo. We also saw some intermittent struggles with the once-again heavily limping offensive line, as well as some customary missed blocked and tackles in the defense secondary. Most of this tightened up with each preseason game, and necessary cuts were made all around.

This had both fans and beat writers at odds with the new squad, wondering if we are going to face another year with a largely one-dimensional offense. Passing plays and attempts were made nearly 2-1 versus running, which made the RB corps seems slightly anemic. However, we can calm those fears by simply looking at all the roster moves in the off-season. The first, and biggest, news is signing Lamar Miller in the free agency. He’s an outstanding all around RB, who was brought in to replace Arian Foster. He wasn’t utilized much in the preseason because his history in the NFL speaks for itself.

This left primarily seasoned RBs and a single drafted rookie RB to compete for the 53. Among those were seasoned vets Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, who essentially had to maintain their performance from previous years, 2nd season players Kenny Hilliard and Akeem Hunt, who had to show necessary improvements to justify a spot on the squad, and newly drafted rookie Tyler Ervin, who was specifically brought in for his speed and depth on both offense and special teams. What this translates to is 2 players trying out, and 1 player justifying why he was drafted.

On the other end, the Texans brought in 2 WRs in the draft, signed an additional 4 undrafted free agents, with 5 WRs already signed to compete for 5 spots on the roster, or a place on the practice squad. Additionally, an undrafted free agent TE was brought in, and specific priority was given to the TE corps which has been perpetually anemic since the loss of Owen Daniels in 2013 to see if O’Brien’s eventual goal to heavily utilize TEs could start coming to fruition. This still has yet to be seen, but undrafted FA Stephen Anderson has already made a name for himself among the Texans TEs.

Will this be enough to give the Texans a legitimate run this season? Only time and the upcoming season will tell. One notable deficiency and area of concern heading into the season is the offensive line. 2nd round draft pick C Nick Martin, who was penciled in as starter as soon as his draft number was called, suffered a season-ending ankle injury and underwent surgery to repair a high ankle sprain was a big blow to the line.  Additionally, T Duane Brown and Derek Newton’s injuries brought on a patchwork o-line in the preseason that struggled to hold a pocket for Osweiler at times.

The good news (I guess) is that Derek Newton is slated to start in the season opener, and Duane Brown has been put on the active roster, meaning that while there has been no timetable set for return, it’s likely that Brown will return within the first 3-4 games since the front office didn’t find it necessary to put him on the PUP list (which would mean 6 weeks, at minimum). Other good news is the return of DE JJ Watt. While it’s unknown how limited Watt will be, he is slated to start in the season opener as well, after an offseason in which basically Watt’s entire lower half was reconstructed.

With the free agency signings, draft picks, current news with injury, along with the preseason performance of a newly-enhanced offense, the Vegas odds for the Texans to reach the Super Bowl have jumped from 40-1 in April to 16-1 in September.  This was the biggest offseason jump for any team considered to be a legitimate contender moving into the 2016-17 season. That’s promising. Looking at the season opener with a Chicago Bears squad that didn’t do much to bolster their roster in the offseason, analysts have pretty much unanimously given favor to the Texans.

My opinion is we should go with that, cast all doubt and worry aside, and let the team prove the hype. Osweiler has something to prove, and he showed us this in the preseason. Hopkins, Fuller, and Braxton Miller are ready to show the kind of versatile threat we want them to be. Lamar Miller is itching to have his breakout season.Special teams is streamlined and disciplined, and ready to be a productive side on the field, and the whole of the defense is ready to rank back up as a top 3 defense. I think they will. So, sit back, buckle up, and let’s all get ready for some football!

Houston Astros: Wheels off, again

071215-mlb-houston-astros-pitcher-lance-mccullers-pi-vresize-1200-675-high-71

The most unduly anticipated event in the MLB, outside of the midseason trade deadline (and often coinciding with the necessity for some trades) is the dreaded injury bug that usually rears its ugly head around the All-Star Break. Over half of the season has been put in, and the daily grind begins to show the wear and tear of our guys on the field. No team is immune, no matter what preparations are made, and a few key holes in a line up is enough to unravel any team.

For the Astros, the injury bug started hitting just after a phenomenal June record of 18-8, and an almost equally impressive July record of 12-7. Baseball was fun again and both the team and the fans enjoyed the games. Perhaps a little too much. To go off course a second, I want to take a look at the schedule in June and July, which led to an amazing catch-up run. From June 1st to July 24th, only 18 of the 45 games played were against playoff contenders, yet the win/loss percentage was steadfast .667 against both playoff contenders and non-playoff contenders.

Many of those games were divisional, and sometimes divisional opponents are tougher to face, given the number of times the respective clubs play throughout the season. For the Astros, the record for non-playoff contender divisional opponents was 15-4. For playoff contender divisional opponents, the record was 6-4, with an overall 21-28 record in the AL West. In essence, the Astros own the AL West except for 1 stupid team. Ironically, that 1 stupid team will keep the Astros out of 1st (and possibly the playoffs) because of whatever voodoo they have used hold the Astros down.

Outside of the division, the Astros have managed to dominate playoff teams 6-2, while losing against non-contenders 3-5. That’s an odd statistic, and it is hard to say whether it points to a definite pattern, given the small sampling size (16 games total), but within the record 30-15 comeback to relevance stand the Astros had, it does show that the Astros tend to play to the opponent outside of the division. The problem with that is, with teams you should be dominating, you’re giving them a chance for a win. In a streak that boasted a 30-15 win loss record, that seems almost inconsequential – except it wasn’t.

Because when the Astros hit the meat of their schedule against a husky group of playoff contenders, the injury bug hit and the wheels came off. The Astros went from being within a couple of games within 1st place in the AL West, to 3rd place in the division – all in a 2 week span. Then 10 grueling days later, the Astros found themselves 10.5 games out of 1st and 3.5 out of 2nd. Tragedy. This stretch of games against high caliber teams mirrored the awful April start the club had (7-16 and 7-17 records, respectively). Two reasons for this: injury and absolutely no plan b.

Injury is unavoidable in the sport. It it indiscriminatory. The 2 injuries that hurt the worst during this time were the hamstring and wrist soreness that knocked Marwin Gonzales out of the lineup several times during this stretch, and Luis Valbuena’s season-ending hamstring strain. Gonzalez started missing time July 24th, and Valbuena left the game July 26th. Subsequently, Gregerson, McCullers and Rasmus suffered injury or setbacks that yanked them from the lineup. And with all those injuries clustering around the meatiest stretch of the schedule, the Astros had zero back-up plan.

There were no big trades (although I’m not completely opposed to that), no rookies were quite ready to be pulled from the farming system, and no help from any veteran signings over the past few years, as far as offense is concerned. In reality, almost 100% of the run production in this stint were home grown players in the 1-4 slot in the lineup. You could pretty much guarantee, aside from the occasional walk, zero bases every second and third inning as it was, but when Valbuena was lost and Gonzalez started disappearing from the lineup, offense fell flat.

Eventually, with some hap-hazard call-ups, rookie Alex Bregman finally getting his footing, and the signing of Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel, the Astros offense has steadied and is back into producing runs and wins on a regular basis. So what better time than to hit a snag in the starting rotation pitching? With McCullers already on DL and Musgrove showing he is clearly not ready for prime time, Dallas Keuchel has been taken out of the rotation indefinitely, and there is no clear answer to who his replacement should be, or even if/when Keuchel is coming back into the rotation.

In the meantime, Hinch is again hap-hazardly juggling with call-ups and rookies to mend the starting rotation. Once again, a rookie pitcher will have his MLB debut this Thursday, in another tough stretch of playoff contenders before finishing off the season with less-challenging divisional opponents. It’s not looking great for the post season, but the Astros are not out of it yet. If rookie RHP David Paulino can make a splash in his debut, then the Astros can pull of a series win (or even sweep) against the Tribe. This would balance out the starting rotation and keep the bullpen stocked up.

If not, well…better luck next year.

Houston Astros: off field concerns

As the Astros have settled in and started playing more to the potential that fans and analysts alike predicted in 2016, primarily in May, and headed into June after a terrible start, a few glaring issues remain. Those issues tend to come up when playing high caliber teams – the exact teams that the Astros need to play consistently well against. Most obvious would be the South Oklahoma Trashcans Texas Rangers, and many arguments can be made for why the team struggles so mightily against the Rangers. And have been, so we’re not going to rehash. The struggle is largely mental at this point, and we’ll leave the team problems at that.

However, when spreading the blame around, we can target the players, as a whole and individually, only so much before that blame starts seeping out into the leadership roles of the team. I’m not talking about the veterans on the field, but the leaders in the dugout. With a young team, patience is key. With a young team lacking adequate leadership and development, patience is non-existent. The latter is about the place that most of us are sitting these days. As we come to realize that 2015 was more fluky than natural progression of the team, but the talent of the core is set to trend towards an eventual championship season.

In the interim, the team that is going to get us there isn’t going to do that this season. While drastically improving from April, core problems with consistency still allows for winnable games to get away. Primarily speaking, except for a token game here and there, the Astros can’t hit the ball consistently – at least at the right times with RISP. Worth noting: during the start of the season, the team was improved AB. Hits, batting averages, slugging, on base – all improved over the prior season. Runs were down, and allowed runs soared. Then pitching and batting did a 180, with AB production dropping while pitching and defense allowed for fewer opposing runs, and it’s been shaky since.

There are hints in these numbers that point outside of player performance, and rightly call in to question the capabilities and efficiency of management and coaching staff (emphasis on management). A caveat – it’s debatable on precisely how much the coaching staff can and does influence teams, as far as development is concerned. Given this, there are many adjustments and signal calls that fall primarily on the shoulders of this staff in the dugout during games. It is only fair to scruitinize these behind the scenes movements if we can single out individual player performance from one game to the next. Essentially, the player is responsible for performance, but that performance is part of a team vision.

In the next few installments, I will be breaking down a few primary positions in the coaching and management staff, including history and current relations with the team. We’ll start at the bottom, with the coaching staff, move to the Hinch management era, and conclude with the Luhnow role as GM with the Astros. None of these are mutually exclusive, mind you, but each level has a basic role. Of course, there are details that most of us will never be privy to, unless a disgruntled foermer player/coach decides to speak out and spill the beans about the evils of his former organization. Barring firings or cuts, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Stay tuned for the first installment on the Astros coaching staff.

Houston Astros: Here we go again

maxresdefault

Another Astros vs Rangers series, and another disappointment for Astros fans. Another game that got away against the thorn in their sides for this season (possibly for years to come), and another loss to add to the now 7 game winning streak the Rangers have over the Astros. There are 9 games left against the Rangers this season, and 2 more losses means another forfeit of the Silver Boot. Barring a miracle, that’s gonna happen. Not even half the season is down, and the Rangers have cemented the prize. Maybe next year…but, pride aside, the Silver Boot is only a side story to the season.

I can go on and on about how the Astros should be winning some of the games they’ve played – out of 7 games this season, 4 have been 1-run games. We can excuse a few of those 7 losses, because the Astros were terrible in April. There are, however, a few things that cannot be excused or overlooked, and that’s what we can talk about today. I’m not going to talk about the Astros side of the ball, though. That’s been done, and done, and done. This time, we’re going to look at the Rangers side of the ball, and how they’re managing to walk away with every win so far this season.

The Rangers have their own issues playing the Astros. Fans aside (and what horrible, terrible children the Rangers have for fans, really), the team does not walk into an Astros series betting on a sweep or win. Their own struggles on the field are apparent when playing a series versus the Astros. Most apparent are fielding errors. On average this season, the team is 23% more likely to commit a defensive error against the Astros, thus giving advantage on base, than any other team they play in the MLB. They also tend to strike out more against the Astros vs the rest of the MLB.

Shaky fielding and strikeouts show a team that is a little less than confident when facing their in-state and divisional opponent. The stats can show the wariness of the Rangers when hitting the field against the Astros, but the actual play can tell a lot as well. Throwing hesitations, excessive pick-off attempts on base, and even Jeff Banister’s shuffling around with the starting rotation in the earlier series show that the team understands the talent behind the Astros club. And what about last night’s on-field celebration for the walk-off? Only the Astros are allowed to celebrate like they won the WS during regular season play, guys. Come on.

Fortunately, for the Rangers, their formidable opponent tends to get a lot more shaken up when playing them, on all sides of the ball. Starting rotation ERA jumps from 4.73 to 5.26 against the Rangers. The same number and likelihood of fielding errors exists, and desperate offensive performance is clear (the Rangers starting rotation has an ERA of 3.44, but it dips down to 2.13 vs the Astros). As much as the Rangers have been giving the Astros numerous opportunities to win, the Astros have managed to return the favor tenfold. Pretty soon, the Rangers are going to catch on to this and play more confidently.

Last night’s game showed an Astros presence against the Rangers that hasn’t been seen all season, which was a step in the right direction. Last night’s game, in any other circumstance, would have been exciting and engaging for both Astros and Rangers fans alike, because it was a challenging, competitive game. Unfortunately, the lingering possibility of an 0-7 losing streak made the game unbearable instead of engaging, and then 0-7 happened. In 2 more games, 0-9, and a loss of the Silver Boot before midseason could be the reality. If that happens, it doesn’t matter what the Astros do against the Rangers the rest of the season, because the Rangers will officially own us, once again.

How the Astros can turn around vs the Rangers:

Take a look at some game film. Specifically, take a look at the basic fielding errors the Rangers have committed against the Astros this year. Look at their record against similar opponents this season: swept by the Athletics and the White Sox, and the Angels and Mariners have at least managed a series tie vs the Rangers. Watch the highlight reel from last night’s game, look at how inefficient the Astros were playing on both sides of the ball, and then recognize this game almost went into extra innings. Finally, recognize that the Rangers are using Ken Giles’ own words as motivation for tonight’s game.

Seriously – Ken Giles is right about the team. The Astros have the better roster, and the better team. His closing statements can be the reality, but the team needs to get out and prove all of this. And soon. For what it’s worth, it is meaningful that the Rangers chose these words as motivation for today’s game. Fan bias aside, the team knows what the Astros can be. So, it’s now time for the Astros to understand that, and start playing the part.