Falcon Points

Year in review: The top 5 Houston athletes for 2019

Each year the Houston Sports Authority does a variety of sports awards and honors the winners at a gala the next year. The biggest award is the athlete of the year award.

This year, the five finalists are Simone Biles, Alex Bregman, Deshaun Watson, James Harden and Justin Verlander. While Biles individual accomplishments are amazing (more on that in a moment), success at the highest level of team competition might be one of the most difficult accomplishments in sports. For our top five, we looked at overall accomplishments relative to competition, postseason success, awards and accomplishments. With that in mind, here are the top five in Houston sports for 2019:

5) DeAndre Hopkins

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans

While many would argue for Deshaun Watson as the Texans representative on the list, with all due respect to Watson, Hopkins deserves the spot. He is second in the league in receptions, sixth in yards, and remains one of the three best receivers in the game. While you can make an argument that Watson is a top five QB, there is no argument about Hopkins. His postseason performance keeps him lower on the list.

4) Alex Bregman

Astros Alex Bregman Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The straw that stirs the Astros potent offense, Bregman was second in the AL MVP voting and his strong finish helped the Astros to the best record in baseball. He hit .296 with 41 homers, 112 RBI, 119 walks and struck out just 83 times. He has improved every year and there could easily be an MVP in his future.

3) Gerrit Cole

Yes, he is a Yankee now, but this is for 2019, and Houston fans should appreciate what he did. A 20-5 record, 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts got him oh so close to a Cy Young Award. He had one off start in the postseason, but otherwise he was a monster. Just because he is gone, his accomplishments should not be forgotten.

2) James Harden

While the narrative about postseason struggles is more than fair, Harden plays at an MVP level every year. He just missed out on that award last season, and he is on an incredible scoring pace this year, averaging a ridiculous 38.9 points per game. Simply one of the best offensive weapons in basketball and a threat for the No. 1 spot on this list year in and year out.

1) Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander pitches Game 1. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Yes, he struggled in the World Series. But the Astros don't get that far without the Cy Young winner. He went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts and a no-hitter. In his 15th year in the league, Verlander was the best pitcher in the AL by a narrow margin over Cole. He is a future Hall of Famer who is still pitching at a high level at the age of 36, and he is worth the price of admission every night. He is truly a baseball treasure.

Just missing out

Oakland Raiders v Houston Texans

There are many who will make a case for Simone Biles, and what she has accomplished is amazing. However, sports that are won solely on judging (gymnastics, figure skating, diving, etc.) can not be judged at the same level as sports that are determined by actual competition against other human beings. In short, no one plays defense in gymnastics. (And no, don't insert your Harden joke here). Those sports are all athletic, but they are more competition than sports. So she does not make our list.

Deshaun Watson would get the No. 6 spot. He will have a chance to rectify it this year, but his abysmal playoff performance against the Colts lessened his accomplishments. Is he a top five quarterback? Maybe. Certainly top 10. But that is not enough to get him on this list.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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