The Rockets Report

Losing streak ends with win over Lakers, but Harden to miss significant time

James Harden's injury will test the Rockets. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last week was a series of extremes for the Rockets, as they varied between crushing defeats and thrilling victories on the way to a 1-2 record on the week. In spite of the recent slump, the Rockets still maintain a two-game lead on the division and are second in the western conference overall.

Looking to address their depth issues in the wake of a rash of injuries, the Rockets added Houston-native guard/forward Gerald Green to the team last Thursday. The signing came at a critical time as superstar James Harden fell to injury on Sunday with a hamstring injury.

Game 33: Rockets at Boston Celtics (L, 98-99)

The Rockets had lost three in a row heading into their match up with one of the best teams in the league. With Chris Paul still sidelined with injury, the Rockets nevertheless jumped out to a surprisingly dominant lead following a 30-12 first quarter. The lead ballooned up to as much as 26 points before the Celtics began chipping away towards an incredible comeback. With Clint Capela also out with an injury, Boston pounded the inside and with three seconds remaining in the game, the Celtics took their first lead of the night. Two subsequent offensive fouls by James Harden would seal the Rockets defeat and stretch the losing streak to four in what was possibly Houston’s worst loss of the season.

Game 34: Rockets at Washington Wizards (L, 121-103)

Game two of the northeast back-to-back series provided the same result as the night before, despite the return of Paul to the lineup. The tired-looking Rockets squad shot an abysmal 29% from behind the line on 48 attempts, and the Wizards cruised to a victory. Harden finished with 20 points, followed by Gerald Green and Eric Gordon with 18 and 16 respectively.

Game 35: Rockets vs Los Angeles Lakers (W, 148-142)

On New Year’s Eve the Rockets and Lakers finished 2017 with a spectacular performance that required two overtimes to determine a winner. The Rockets dug in late defensively to erase a 17-point deficit and draw even with the Lakers, before a last second offensive rebound and put back by P.J. Tucker--his only points of the night--snapped Houston’s five-game losing streak. Harden would exit the game late in the fourth with a hamstring injury, leaving Paul to guide Houston through both overtimes. Paul delivered, finishing with 28 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds in the last second victory. Harden exited the game with 40 points and 11 assists.


The Rockets are about to do something they haven’t had to do much of since Harden was traded to Houston: play without James Harden. Harden sustained a hamstring strain which will sideline him for at least two weeks—the longest stint he’s ever spent on the injured list. This sheds light on one of the most undervalued aspect of Harden’s overall game--his durability. In the past four seasons, he’s only missed one game to injury. The Rockets are still equipped to win without him, now that Paul and Capela have returned from injury, but it remains to be seen how a Harden-less Houston team can perform if his absence becomes more extended.

Gerald Green’s signing is an example of yet another successful midseason free agent signing that has proved—at least for now—to be paying off. Green is an extremely athletic back court addition and a career .362 three-point shooter. Not including the Boston game which was the day he was signed, Green has averaged 14 points per game in almost 25 minutes per game off the bench.

Looking Ahead:

This week the Rockets have three games with a back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday they will take on the Magic at Orlando, before returning home for a midseason test against the conference-leading Golden State Warriors. Houston will then head back out on the road against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. The loss of Harden is a huge blow to the Rockets, but this is still a very dangerous team as long as Capela and Paul are still healthy enough to contribute significant minutes. I expect an easy with against a rebuilding Magic team, followed by a loss against the Warriors and a rebound win against a surprisingly tough Pistons team.

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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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