THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR goes road course racing on the Charlotte Roval

Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Charlotte Roval this week for the final race of the round of 12. The layout at Charlotte Motor Speedway has provided some of the craziest racing in history. In the first two races here, the finishes have been insane. In 2018 Jimmie Johnson took himself and Martin Truex Jr out in the final corner coming to the checkered flag and gave the win to Ryan Blaney. Then one year later, Chase Elliott smashed head on into the wall in turn one and came all the way back to win and advance to the round of eight. This is a can't-miss race and I look forward to seeing the chaos and who makes the next round. There is also potential for a race in the rain so look out for that as well.

Last week, Denny Hamlin took his seventh victory of 2020 after a controversial finish. In the last lap of the race, Hamlin took to the apron passing William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones and Chris Buescher to take the win. The move that Hamlin made was called into question as he very clearly went under the yellow line to pass four cars. After reviewing the finish, NASCAR allowed the win to stand after they determined that Hamlin was "forced below the yellow line." This has been a call that NASCAR has been ridiculously inconsistent on over the years. You can go all the way back to 2008 when they took the win away from Regan Smith after he was in a similar situation with Tony Stewart. They also penalized both Matt DiBenedtto and Chris Buescher for forcing Chase Elliott and Hamlin below the line as well. Overall, I believe that the yellow line rule needs to be amended. When it comes to the last lap, I believe that all bets should be off and anywhere on the racetrack should be fair game. If a driver has to go under the yellow line to make a pass, they should be well within their rights to do so. I hope that NASCAR can rethink this rule and make a change here in the future. I mean, why can it be legal on all the other tracks other than Daytona or Talladega? This needs to change.

This week, there were headlines a plenty as it was finally announced who would drive the #48 Ally Chevy in 2021 and that driver is Alex Bowman. This comes as sort of a surprise as Alex has been driving the #88 car for Hendrick since 2018, so moving him over to the #48 car seems like a lateral move. This leaves a spot open for a fourth Hendrick team as speculation continues to grow that Kyle Larson will return from his suspension and take over Bowman's former car. There is also a possibility that there will be a number change as well. This wasn't the only story at Hendrick as it was announced that legendary Crew-Chief Chad Kanaus will be taking a front office role at Hendrick in 2021 and no longer be on top of the pit-board for William Byron. Needless to say, there will be a whole new Hendrick Motorsports next season.

Friday was also a huge day for news as well as it was announced that Matt DiBenedetto will return to the #21 Ford Mustang for the Wood Brothers in 2021. This is a great sign considering how well he has run over the last two weeks. While his fate is sealed for next season, 2022 becomes a little bit more iffy as Austin Cindric is scheduled to move up to the cup then and take over. This will be an interesting storyline for next season as he looks to continue on his path to be a contending cup driver.

The other major bombshell that was dropped this week was Clint Bowyer as he announced on Twitter that he will be leaving racing at the end of the season and transition to the NASCAR on Fox booth with Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon. While I figured this was coming, I am more surprised by the timing of the decision. Needless to say though, I think Clint will be awesome in the booth as he provides a lot of funny insight and excellent knowledge of the sport. The question now moves to who will drive the #14 Mustang next year and more than likely it is looking like it's going to be Ford Racing phenom Chase Briscoe. This year in the Xfinity Series, he absolutely torn it up winning eight races and is single-handedly the favorite for the championship. I have been a big supporter of this driver since I watched him in the truck series for Brad Keselowski, and he has shown so much talent from the beginning. He will definitely be a contender for years to come.

The driver that I have winning the Roval on Sunday is Kyle Busch. Listen, I know a lot of people have been fading the defending champion and rightfully so. This season has been horrendous for him. He currently sits outside the round of eight and almost needs a win to get to the next round. If you had told me in January that Busch was winless and in jeopardy of not even making it to the round of eight, I would have told you that you were clinically insane. But now I think he can prove everyone wrong and get maybe the most important win of his career. While he hasn't had the results here at the Roval, he has shown a lot of speed and has been in contention. I look for Rowdy to come up with a clutch victory come sunday.

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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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