Houston gets back in the win column

Kyle Tucker's big night helps fuel Astros to win over Angels

Photo by Rich Schultz / Getty Images

After a tense two-game series against the Dodgers in Houston earlier in the week, the Astros made their first trip on the road, starting with the opener of a three-game series against the Angels in Los Angeles on Friday night. Here is how that game went:

Final Score: Astros 9, Angels 6.

Record: 4-3, first in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Brandon Bielak (2-0, 1.69 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Matt Andriese (0-1, 4.91 ERA).

Astros jump in front with big second inning

After a scoreless first inning, the Astros had their first chance at runs in the top of the second. They loaded the bases with one out, and Kyle Tucker would drive in two with a two-RBI double to put Houston out front 2-0. Still with one out, George Springer came to the plate with the bases loaded again and was able to work a walk to bring in another run. Jose Altuve followed, and he beat out a double-play to drive in another, extending the lead to 4-0.

Both teams go back and forth, ending McCullers Jr's night at after four innings

After getting through the first two innings scoreless, Lance McCullers Jr. ran into trouble in the bottom of the third, giving up a walk and single to set up an RBI-single to get the Angels on the board. Los Angeles would load the bases with two outs, but McCullers Jr. would get out of the jam with a strikeout to end the inning.

Kyle Tucker helped get the lead back to four runs at 5-1 in the top of the fourth, getting a leadoff single, stealing second, moving to third on a wild pitch, then scoring on an RBI sac fly by George Springer. However, the Angels answered right back with a big inning in the bottom half, getting an RBI-double and two-run homer off of McCullers Jr. to cut the lead to 5-4. He would finish the inning, but at 91 pitches, that would be the end of his night, making his final line: 4.0 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 6 K, 1 HR.

Both teams go back and forth, but Houston holds on

Alex Bregman led off the top of the fifth with a double, moved to third on a Michael Brantley single, then scored on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel to make it a 6-4 lead. Brandon Bielak, who made a great debut against Seattle on Monday, was first out of the bullpen in the bottom of the fifth and worked around two walks for a scoreless inning.

He returned for another scoreless frame in the sixth, then the Astros added to their lead in the top of the seventh, loading the bases to set up a two-RBI single by Kyle Tucker, bringing his total to four on the night and expanding the advantage to 8-4. Bryan Abreu took over on the mound in the bottom of the seventh but would face only three batters, getting a strikeout while walking two. Enoli Paredes would finish the inning, but not before allowing a run to make it 8-5.

Paredes came back out for the bottom of the eighth, and despite allowing another run to come across to make it 8-6 would get a much-needed double play to send the game to the ninth. In the top of the ninth, the Astros were able to load the bases for Jose Altuve, who added an RBI-groundout insurance run to make it 9-6. Andre Scrubb would come in for the save opportunity and preserved the three-run lead for the Houston win.

Up Next: Game two of this three-game set between Houston and Los Angeles will be Saturday at 6:10 PM Central. The pitching matchup will be Griffin Canning for the Angels going against Zack Greinke for the Astros. Greinke will try to improve upon his first start of the year in which he was only able to go 3.1 innings while allowing three runs.

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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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