IT'S THAT KIND OF YEAR

Fear ye not: how MLB history provides plenty of reasons for Astros fans to believe

Never say never. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One day, when Dusty Baker turns in his toothpick and wristbands and leaves as Astros manager, Kenny & Ziggy's delicatessen should hire him as a cook.

Because only Baker could make chicken salad out of … the light-hitting, under-achieving, injury-ravaged 2020 Houston Astros.

Unless the roof caves in at Globe Life Field, this bamboozled band of Astros will lock up second place in the American League West and clinch a spot in baseball's post-season sometime soon, maybe tonight, possibly tomorrow, but c'mon, definitely by Sunday.

What a difference a year makes, huh? Last season, the Astros hit the hell out of the ball, finished with a team-record 107 wins and came within one dumb managerial decision of winning the World Season.

This year? Playoffs … you're talking about the playoffs? I'm not sure this has ever been done, but every regular on the Astros has a lower batting average in 2020 than last year. In this nutty coronavirus season, the Astros developed herd immunity – to scoring runs.

Even after last night's offensive explosion, 12 runs on 18 hits in a win over the Rangers, let's run down the lineup:

George Spring is hitting .264 (last year .292)

Jose Altuve .225 (last year .298)

Alex Bregman .254 (.296)

Michael Brantley .305 (.311)

Yuli Gurriel .235 (.298)

Carlos Correa .256 (.279)

Josh Reddick .243 (.275)

And the hits do stop coming.

Last year, DH Yordan Alvarez hit .313.

This year, DH Kyle Tucker is hitting .266.

More?

Last year, primary catcher Robinson Chirinos hit .238.

This year, catcher Martin Maldonado is hitting .218.

Don't look for help on the bench, either: Abraham Toro is hitting .145, Myles Straw (.211), Jack Mayfield (.179), Aledmys Diaz (.240) and Dustin Garneau (.125).

Last year's Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, 23 years old, had surgery on his two old-man knees.

The Astros pitching staff doesn't compare to last season, either. In 2019, the Astros had the two best pitchers in baseball. Gerrit Cole racked up 20 wins, Justin Verlander (21 wins). Don't forget that Wade Miley pitched in with 14 wins. This year, those three combined for one win. At least Verlander stuck around for Opening Day. The American League's save leader from last year, Roberto Osuna is MIA, too.

There you go, the 2020 Astros, limping into the playoffs, thanks to a flukey, one-year-only rule that expanded the number of teams qualifying, NHL-style.

It's hardly the first time a team foundering around .500 made the post-season.

The 1973 Mets finished 82-79 and not only made the post-season, they made it to the World Series, where they fell to the Oakland A's. The 2005 Padres finished 82-80 and made the post-season. The Texas Rangers made the playoffs with a 52-62 record, somehow winning the American League Central in strike-shortened 1994.

The first team to make the playoffs with a losing record was the Kansas City Royal in 1981. A midseason strike forced a split season, with division leaders from both halves making the playoffs. The Royals stunk up the diamond during the first half, played better the second half, and got in despite a combined 50-53 record.

Coronavirus was the Astros' MVP (most valuable pandemic) this year. Because of the shortened season, the Astros played only teams in the American League West and National League West. No fans were allowed to attend. The Astros didn't have to endure 50,000 villagers chasing them with pitchforks at Yankee Stadium. If things had been normal, surviving Astros would be wrapping up a three-game series in New York today.

This was the season when opposing pitchers were supposed to use the Astros lineup for target practice. Didn't happen. Fans weren't able to turn Oakland-Alameda Stadium into gladiator fights at the Roman Coliseum. Off with their batting helmets!

While fans weren't able to yell "cheater!" at Jose Altuve, suffering the slump of all slumps, that didn't stop Dodgers broadcaster from snickering after a called third strike … "guessing is harder than knowing." Ouch!

The silver lining on Altuve's disastrous season and 60-point drop in batting average? It's nowhere close to Norm Cash's crash landing in 1961-62. In 1961, Cash won the American League batting title with a sterling .361 average. The following year, look out below, Cash sunk to .243.

Post-season play begins next week. Bring on the White Sox or Twins or whomever. I'm sticking with my prediction that the Astros win the World Series. With this bizarre, upside-down, inside-out season, the Astros are a lock.

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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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