Every-Thing Sports

Good Rockets can be better, and they will need to be as the season goes on

Coming into this season, the Rockets were thought of as a possible Western Conference contender. Maybe not one of the teams that could make it to the Finals, but one of the top four to five for sure. Well, 14 games into the season, they're 11-3 and a half game behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. James Harden is off to another MVP level start averaging an unbelievable 39.5 points per game. The experiment of pairing Harden with longtime friend Russell Westbrook is looking like a success so far. Although Westbrook has had to be load managed given his injury history, things appear to be flowing smoothly.

If you know me and follow my writings and whatnot, you know there's a but coming. Well, here it is: as good as things are, they can and need to be better. Some of the issues I have are necessary in order for them to contend for not just for seeding in the West, or a deep playoff run, but possibly an NBA title.

Harden's shooting percentages

While Harden is making history with his 39.5 scoring average, his field goal percentage (41.7) is his lowest since his rookie season (40.3) and his three point percentage (33.2) is his lowest since the 2016-17 season (34.7). While those are career lows or close to it, his free throw percentage (88.1) is a career best. Imagine if Harden was shooting at his career averages of 44.2% from the field and 36.4% from three? I'm pretty sure he'd be averaging well over 40 a game.

Health

Harden has been very durable over the course of his career, so this applies to him as far as his stamina is concerned, especially when going deep into the playoffs. Westbrook has been load managed, and rightfully so. His history of injuries, specifically his knees, at his age (31) and style of play require his minutes to be closely monitored. Eric Gordon is out for another month or so after knee surgery. Hopefully this'll have a twofold effect: getting Gordon healthy, and allowing other guys to play. With other guys playing, they will hopefully gain Mike D'Antoni's trust come playoff time given his penchant for shrinking his rotation in the postseason. Health isn't something you can correct or fix, but it's crucial to this team given the way they're built.

Defense dammit!

When you can score at the rate the Rockets can, if you can play average defense, you'll win a bleep ton of games. While they currently have .786 win percentage, it could be even better if they weren't giving up 114.2 points a game! That's 22nd in the league for those keep score. Letting Jeff Bzdelik go was a horrible decision. I don't care what was the issue, it should've been settled. Maybe switching everything isn't a good idea. Zone schemes and outside the box ideas should all be on the table right now. We're talking about a team that gave up 158 points in regulation, but won because they scored 159.

The D'Antoni Factor

D'Antoni is essentially a lame duck coach. His coaching staff was picked apart this past offseason and he put the word out there that he ended contract extension talks. As previously mentioned, he notoriously short with his bench, and is known for being an offensive-minded coach. If he can go against the grain and focus more on defense, as well as learn to trust guys outside his top seven to eight in the rotation, this team may go places. Harden is playing 37 minutes a night right now. Guys like Ben McLemore and Chris Clemons deserve a fair shot at more minutes. Isaiah Hartenstein has improved some over the last few years and may be ready to play more despite the team signing Tyson Chandler. D'Antoni has a say in all these matters which are all critical to any successes this tea wishes to have this year.

I'm not going to be overly confident the Rockets will have any and/or all of these fixed. I also won't be a homer and think they'll be in the NBA Finals either. They're off to a hot start. The Golden State Warriors' deal with the devil appears to be up given their current state. The Lakers have formed a "super team" and are sitting on top of the West. Meanwhile, the Celtics and Bucks in the East, as well as the Clippers and Nuggets in the West are all formidable. The Rockets have to be able to clean up some of their messesif they expect to make it through the wide wild West. Even if they manage to make it that far, they still have some heavy hitters from the East to beat in order to win a title. It hasn't gotten easier because the bully (the Warriors) appears to be broken. If anything, it's harder because there's so much parity that one can't pick one or two teams and say they're the overwhleming favorites. There is more hope than previous seasons for the Rockets. But it's ultimately up to them to produce.

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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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