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Joel Blank: It's not time to panic, but Astros could use another bat

Derek Fisher has not developed as hoped. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If you are the Houston Astros is it time to push the panic button? In my opinion the answer to that is no, although there is reason for concern.

Houston came off a 6-2 road trip in time to get swept in a four-game series with the Mariners this weekend. Houston had a chance to all but eliminate Seattle from playoff contention, but instead let the M's back in the hunt with four straight wins. Seattle now joins Oakland, nipping at the Astros heels for the division lead.

Of course injuries are the main reason you dont have to press the panic button as Astros fans, with Jose Altuve, Brian McCann, Lance McCullers and now Jake Marisnick all on the disabled list. Add to that Carlos Correa just returned to the lineup this weekend after not having played in a game since late June with back issues. That in a nutshell is the main reason to not go full out panic mode with where this team is an how they are playing. So remain optimistic that once those guys return all will once again be right in the H-town baseball world, but what makes you so sure it will? This isn't last year and there is plenty to worry about and not just on your own roster.

The Astros are the reigning World Series Champions as we all know, but expecting them to waltz right back to a rematch with the best in the National league is unrealistic and irrational. The Red Sox improved in the off season with the addition of J.D. Martinez and are running away with the best record in baseball and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That means no H-town strong, 10th-man helping to push them over the top in a deciding game like they did twice last year. Add to that the Yankees are better with Giancarlo Stanton added to an already potent lineup and several trades bolstering their pitching staff.

The Indians are solid and steady again and the A's are young and arguably the hottest team in baseball having a 23-10 record in one run games through Sunday's game. Even if the Astros were to get back to the World Series there are strong teams in the National League playing good baseball too.

The Cubs traded for Cole Hamels to help strengthen their pitching staff and the Dodgers are going for broke with Manny Machado and Brian Dozier added to an already talented roster.  The reality is, the whole league got better and have Houston in their crosshairs as the team to beat. There is no Justin Verlander trade coming in last minute to save the day this time around, but if the team gets healthy, you don't need another one. Or do you? With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror and the waver wire trade deadline fast approaching, I think Jeff Luhnow and his staff should seriously gauge what it would take to add another bat to this years' lineup, preferably an outfielder that can boost the bats and get the boys back on track.

There are many reasons why I think it would behoove the team to make one final move for a reliable, veteran bat. Let's start with the reduced production from Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez. Last year they played out of their minds and well above their career averages. Expecting them to repeat those performances this season was wishful thinking at best and so far, they are who we knew they were all along. Help is not coming from down on the farm either as Derek Fisher went from the odds on favorite to take one of the starting outfield spots coming out of spring training to a disappointing, non hitting, platoon player in need of a massive can of insect repellent after missing a decent amount of time with a bug bite.

Kyle Tucker remains a big part of the future of this franchise, but it's becoming more obvious with each passing game that he is not yet ready for prime time and a starting role on a major league roster, let along a title contender. Tyler White and JD Davis have been top prospects in the organization for some time, but both have struggled mightily when given the chance to prove they belong on the roster and in the lineup on a consistent basis.

Even Evan Gattis has regressed to the norm after a mid-summer hot streak. Granted, Tony Kemp has been a pleasant surprise and can play multiple positions, but he doesn't have much in the playoff experience column and this is the first time he has shown he can hit major league pitching consistantly. Kemp also lacks pop and power, but you can live with that given his average and exceptional speed. He hs earned a spot on this squad going forward and if the team elects to stand pat, he should be the first guy to get the opportunity to start in left field.

I think for all the reasons given previously and then some, Luhnow and the Astros brass need to explore adding one more experienced bat that can play the outfield as well as DH. Even if it's an expiring contract or short term addition, it shouldn't cost you too much in terms of prospects and future considerations and can only help add depth and flexibility to what still is a potent and extremely talented roster when healthy.

That health is also an area of concern by the way, as you can only hope everyone on the DL is able to make a full recovery and are close to 100% down the stretch and leading into the post season. If any of those guys suffer a setback, it's just another reason why adding an extra bat is the right move to make. The clock is ticking, but there is still time, let's hope the Astros right the ship, get healthy and make one more move to put them over the top and fully prepared for another chmpionship run.

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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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