Can Johnson pull off a miracle in Phoenix?

NASCAR goes to Phoenix this week.

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Phoenix this week for the semifinal
race of the 2017 season and the final race to decide the Championship four. This race -- aside
from maybe the Daytona 500 or the last race of the year -- is possibly the most important race of
the season. It plays a huge role in who makes it and who doesn't and after this weekend we will
be one step closer to crowning a champion at Homestead-Miami.

Phoenix International raceway is one mile in length but has short track characteristics; the track
has a "dog leg" that allows drivers to go all the way down off the racing surface to make passes. 
This could be both a blessing and a curse seeing how if a driver is to come back up onto to the
track they could find themselves in a lot of trouble. With the past two races we have seen and the
drama that comes along with it, look for this race to be no different. Look for tire wear to also
come up seeing how this is an asphalt track as well. Three spots in the championship four
are already locked up for Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. The pressure is on for the
remaining six other drivers that need to either win the race or get in on points. For the most part
unless something crazy happens the bottom four are in a must win situation to get in. The first
driver in the top four is Brad Keselowski. He has done a great job staying out of trouble this year
and appears to be in good shape to contend for his second title at Homestead. 

The first driver looking out is Denny Hamlin. He comes into this weekend 19 points out of the
championship four behind Keselowski. Hamlin is not going to his best track this week. His
average finish since 2015 has been 10.20, While this is not a bad finishing average by any means, in the
situation he is in it does not bode well for him going into this weekend. The next driver in points is
Ryan Blaney. It has truly been a dream season for the sophomore driver from his first career win at Pocono to his 14 top 10 finishes this season. 

This young man has truly exceeded everyone's expectations. I don't see him making the final round this year seeing how he is
22 points out of fourth but this has truly been a magnificent season for him in his final two races with the famous Wood Brothers racing team.

The driver seventh in points is Chase Elliott; around here is where the desperation begins to set in. Elliot is mathematically not going
to get to the championship race next week without winning seeing how he is 49 points behind and the most you can get without winning is 40. He is going to need a Hail Mary to qualify.

Even though this has been one of his better race tracks I don't see him winning this race.

The eighth and final driver is none other than Jimmie Johnson. This is truly uncharted water for a
man who has won seven championship. Johnson comes into this race a staggering 50
behind fourth place but in no way would it ever be smart to count out the legend which leads me
to my predictions for this race. Johnson will defy all the odds this week and win 
this weekend. Even though he has struggled at Phoenix he has won at this track four times and
has the highest finishing average amongst all active drivers who have raced here more than once.
Getting a victory when their backs are up against the wall is something this team is not used to
doing seeing how in the past they have already had the championship all but locked up but this
time it will be different. Johnson is going to win a race for the ages this weekend. My Dark horse
driver this weekend is Erik Jones. This year's likely Rookie of the year has been so impressive at
tracks like this and even though in his two starts at this track he has finished 19th and 8th,
I think that he will only get better this week. Look for him to finish in the top ten this week and
who knows maybe even contend to win it. Keep a look out for the number 77 to have
a good run this week at Phoenix

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driver and the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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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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