Houston's offensive struggles continue

Disastrous first inning leaves Astros in 2-0 ALCS deficit

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After an offensive struggle to start the series where they'd muster just one run in a 2-1 Game 1 loss, the Astros made the quick turnaround to start Game 2 on Monday afternoon. If they could manage a win, it would even the series and turn the ALCS into a best-of-five.

They would be unable to even it up, though, losing after another disappointing and frustrating performance in Monday's Game 2. Tampa Bay goes up 2-0 in the series while the Astros are left desperate for a change of momentum to get back in the series. A quick recap of the game:

Final Score: Rays 4, Astros 2.

Series: TB leads 2-0.

Winning Pitcher: Charlie Morton.

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr.

Disastrous first inning for Houston

Houston started Game 2 offensively much as they performed in Game 1, doing enough to get into position to score, but coming away empty. George Springer started the game with a single, then moved to third on a one-out single by Michael Brantley, but a tough-luck lineout by Alex Bregman straight at the shortstop and a strikeout by Kyle Tucker would leave both runners where they stood.

Things took an even further downward turn in the bottom of the inning when a two-out single gave Tampa Bay their first baserunner followed by a groundball that should have ended the frame. Instead, a throwing error by Jose Altuve to Yuli Gurriel, who couldn't pick it, extended the inning. That manifested itself immediately as a costly mistake, as Manuel Margot would score both runners and himself on a three-run home run to center.

McCullers Jr. deals, but can only get one run of support

With their gifted 3-0 lead, the Rays got what they needed from Charlie Morton. Despite allowing five hits, he would hold the Astros scoreless as they would continue to strand runners and lack the consistency to string together hits for runs. They would, however, raise Morton's pitch count enough to end his day at five innings. That set up four innings needed by Tampa Bay's bullpen, starting with Peter Fairbanks, who was welcomed by a one-out solo home run by Carlos Correa in the top of the sixth to get Houston on the board.

That was the first run of support for Lance McCullers Jr, who, aside from the bad pitch that resulted in the three-run homer in the first, was spinning a gem for most of the game. McCullers Jr. allowed a single with no outs in the third inning and then retired the next fourteen straight, nine coming on impressive strikeouts. That streak ended with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, when Mike Zunino would make it a three-run game again with a solo shot. McCullers Jr.'s final line: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 11 K, 2 HR, 100 P.

Rays go up 2-0 in the series as Houston's rally comes up short

Andre Scrubb would come out of the bullpen to take over for McCullers Jr. in the bottom of the eighth. He recorded a 1-2-3 inning, sending the game to the ninth to give the Astros one last chance to make a comeback. Houston would start a rally, loading the bases with no outs on three-straight singles by the bottom of their order. That brought George Springer to the plate, who would ground into a double play. That brought in a run, but that's as close as the Astros would come, dropping the game 4-2 and falling into a 2-0 deficit in the ALCS.

Up Next: ALCS Game 3 will be a night game, with first pitch scheduled for 7:40 PM Central from Petco Park in San Diego. The Astros have landed on Jose Urquidy to take the mound, while the Rays have not yet named their starter.

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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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