10 QUESTIONS FOR JULIA MORALES

Ken Hoffman pitches 10 hard-hitting questions to Astros reporter Julia Morales

Photo via: Julia Morales

The 2020 baseball season will be different for Houston Astros color announcer Julia Morales, too. Join the club. The veteran Astros announcer, host of Astros Bases Loaded and former Pom at the University of Texas won't be able to interact with fans - there won't be any. She won't be able to hang out near the Astros dugout - MLB health and safety rules. She won't be able to do, well, many of the things that have made her a popular figure on ATT SportsNet Southwest telecasts of Astros games.

Entering her eighth season with the Astros broadcast team, Morales isn't complaining, not at all. She's just happy to be back in Minute Maid Park talkin' baseball with fellow announcers Todd Kalas (when he kicks COVID-19), Geoff Blum and the viewers at home. I caught up with Morales for 10 hard-hitting questions after the Astros whupped up on the Seattle Mariners during the season's opening series.

1. SportsMap: I've seen you walk by the stands before a game and talk with tons of fans, especially little girls. How much are you going to miss that this season?

Julia Morales: It's what I'm missing the most. There are so many regulars at Houston Astros games that they have become a second family for me. The ballpark is the happiest place on Earth (shh, don't tell Disney World). When you're here there is a different energy and vibe, and I feed off that every day. I walked out to the Crawford Boxes minutes before first pitch on Opening Day and it really hit me hard that the concourse wasn't packed and buzzing so loud you can barely hear yourself think. I'm really hoping we can all be back together sooner rather than later.

2. SM: How will your role on game broadcasts be different this year?

JM: How I gather information for the broadcast is completely different as we are relying on Zoom calls with players and coaches, and my walkoff interviews are now done from the visiting booth. We are missing the 1-on-1 time we usually get with different people in the organization to ask questions, confirm things and get ideas. The broadcast will be very similar to what fans have seen before. TK, Blummer and I will continue to call the games and bring you stories of your favorite players.

3. SM: Will you be wearing a mask during games? Will you guys be social-distancing in the broadcast booth?

JM: I have my own booth, haha! Gary Pettis called me a diva the second he saw me in my booth from the field. It is extremely safe at the ballpark. Sanitizing stations are everywhere and a camera is set up before I arrive. All I have to do is spin around and flip on a light to be ready for on-camera appearances. If we are not on the air, we must all wear masks in the booths and everywhere else inside of the ballpark. I'm learning disposable masks are going to work best after covering the inside of mine with TV makeup every day. Lipstick on the nose isn't a great look for television.

4. SM: Have you struck up a professional relationship with Dusty Baker like you had with A.J. Hinch?

JM: I was able to get to know Dusty a little bit in spring training before we were all sent home. He's been great and extremely entertaining. So many one-liners. We are going to have exclusive time with him each Friday when we hope to hear some of his many stories.

5. SM: The Astros announcers won't be traveling with the team on road trips. Which cities will you miss the most?

JM: I hope that Seattle and San Francisco know how much I miss them. We are spoiled to be able to cover a team in the AL West with some of the best cities to visit during the hottest days Houston has to offer. A 10-day trip to Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim in the middle of July is sorely missed. My morning runs are in crisp cool air, no humidity. See what I mean?

6. SM: Will fans watching at home be able to tell a difference between normal games and this year's games?

JM: I was watching exhibition games before we started and could definitely tell a big difference with the crowd noise MLB is mandating across the league. I think Kevin Eschenfelder (filling in for Kalas) and Geoff Blum have done a great job without the roar of the crowd we're used to feeding off at the ballpark. It will get interesting when we're calling road games from the studio. Calling a game across the country off monitors in a studio while being socially distant will be new for all of us.

7. SM: Will you be able to do personal interviews and features like years past?

JM: We will continue to have opportunities to talk to players and coaches whether it's on the headset or a separate Zoom call along with the Zoom interviews that are held daily for the media.

8. SM: You recently announced that you're having a baby - will that affect anything this season?

JM: Are due dates accurate? Baby girl is due September 28, the day after the regular season ends. As we are rounding third in this pregnancy, it will all be up to her and the health of us. Until then I will be calling Astros games!

9. SM: Since you'll be at Minute Maid Park for games, will you be tested for coronavirus every day?

JM: I am considered a member of the media, Tier 3, which means we have restricted access. I will not be tested like those who are in close contact with the team.

10. SM: Can you believe this is happening?

JM: I can't believe I got sent home from spring training. I can't believe we didn't have a baseball game in April. I can't believe they figured out how to get a season started. But we are here and I am so glad to be back doing what I love.

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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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