CHARLIE PALLILO

It's a Houston-Boston weekend, and the pressure should be on Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien was rewarded for...what? Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Fun weekend of Houston-Boston action with the Astros at Fenway for three games plus the Texans opening their season at the Patriots. The Astros are closing in on their second straight division title but the headliner is Texans-Pats.

Head Coach Bill O’Brien did not merit the fat four year contract extension the Texans gifted him in the offseason. O’Brien did credible but far from spectacular work in going 9-7, 9-7, 9-7 his first three seasons before last year’s 4-12 debacle. O’Brien now has five more years of big salary coming. That matches the contract length of the extension Doug Pederson got in Philadelphia. Pederson was rewarded for winning the Super Bowl.

O’Brien is an offense guy. Well, in four seasons the only time his offense hasn’t been regularly offensive (to the senses) was when Deshaun Watson flashed brilliance for a month and a half last season. The Texans’ hopes ride overwhelmingly on Watson’s arm, and legs, especially his each once torn ACLs. J.J. Watt’s return is rightfully heralded, but A: it’s unlikely Watt gets back to Defensive Player of the Year level, and B: the last two times Watt was Defensive Player of the Year, the Texans went 9-7. Without Watson the Texans’ offense would again be garbage, and another season would go into the dumpster.

The most logical guess at the Texans record is probably…9 and 7. Taking that off the table, given that after their season opening road games at the Patriots and Titans, the Texans have on paper the easiest schedule in the NFL, I’ll take over 9 wins…if Deshaun Watson plays at least 14 games.

Bregman killing it

Alex Bregman just continues to go off for the Astros, and man have they needed it.  Oakland charged magnificently to create a surprising American League West race, but after being tied for the lead twice,  the Astros re-forging a four game lead in the loss column going into the weekend means they would have to falter to not wind up winning it.

The Astros are back on pace to make it 100 wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. Last season they won 101 with Jose Altuve the American League Most Valuable Player, Carlos Correa having his own MVP level season before missing a third of the season injured, and George Springer having the best season of his career. This season Altuve has been very good but nowhere close to what he was last year. Correa and Springer are both having the worst seasons of their careers.

Bregman meanwhile has exploded to bonafide superstar stature, and is the only Astro core four guy not to spend time on the disabled list this season. Bregman isn’t the American League’s best or most valuable player this season, that’s Mookie Betts of the Red Sox. But Bregman is now arguably top three, certainly top six.

Bregman is playing at such a spectacular level that Kate Upton’s friends are probably now asking her to set THEM up with HIM.

Pitching in

A.J. Hinch has interesting pitching decisions to sort through ahead of the postseason. There is no good reason to carry more than 11 pitchers for a best of five series (or best of seven) that would have two off days should it go the distance. There is zero chance of needing five starters, so that’s a seven man bullpen. Five definites are Roberto Osuna, Hector Rondon, Collin McHugh, Ryan Pressly, and Tony Sipp. Brad Peacock would seem pretty certain as number six. That leaves one spot. Chris Devenski? Better show something the next three weeks. If Devo is a no-no maybe Framber Valdez as a second lefty? Whither Lance McCullers? No spot for Will Harris. Even if the Astros unnecessarily go with 12 pitchers, a couple of familiar names must be left off.

Over the last couple months Dallas Keuchel is the Astros best starter, but Justin Verlander certainly will get the ace call for game one. Keuchel or Gerrit Cole in game two? Is Charlie Morton a game four starter? Should the Astros be down 2-1, Verlander on short rest in game four with the game two starter then on full rest if there’s a game five?

Bad Bevo

It would be ironic if Tom Herman’s tenure at Texas turned out to be all hat, no cattle. He coaches Longhorns after all. It’s one mediocre season plus one game, so any “Fire him now!” ranting is absurd. But losing to Maryland in the opener for the second year in a row? Lame if not necessarily ominous. UT should have it easy with Tulsa but a four game gantlet follows: #17 USC, #16 TCU, at Kansas State, #6 Oklahoma. 1-5 is certainly possible.

Buzzer Beaters

 1. A&M-Clemson is roughly a billion times more interesting than UT-Tulsa  2. Burt Reynolds and the original The Longest Yard, excellent. The Adam Sandler remake, awful.   3. Best live college mascots: Bronze-Ralphie (Colorado) Silver-Traveler (USC) Gold-UGA (Georgia)

 

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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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