The Left Turn

NASCAR heads to Martinsville to kick off round of 8

Jerry Markland/Getty Images


This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for Martinsville, Virginia for the First Data 500. This is the first race of the round of eight and a win for any of the drivers that made it to the next round automatically earns a trip to Homestead-Miami for a chance at the championship. This track is no stranger to controversy considering how narrow it is and how there isn't much room to pass. Over the past two fall races here, there has been a conflict of some sort, in 2017 Denny Hamlin rooted Chase Elliott out of the way for the lead with two to go then last year, Joey Logano gave Martin Truex Jr the chrome horn for the lead on the final corner to win and move on to Homestead. If one thing is for sure, this is a can't miss race and should play a huge role in who gets to contend for a championship.

Last week, Denny Hamlin went on to win his 36th career win at Kansas after fending off Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch. The race was relatively clean until a caution came out for Ryan Blaney. This completely bunched up the whole field and led to three more cautions including a multi-car incident involving Daniel Suarez, Daniel Hemric and playoff contender Joey Logano. As Denny Hamlin was about to cross the finish line to take the white flag and make the race official, the yellow light came on and forced another restart. This was important for a number of reasons considering it gave Chase Elliott and the rest of the field a chance to overtake Hamlin but in the end, it made no difference because there was no stopping the Virginia native as he led a race high 153 laps.

While Hamlin might have won the race, the focus was on both Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski as they were the final two cars battling for the last spot in the round of eight. While Brad's car was good early, he faded towards the closing stages and went one lap down but in the final twelve laps it looked like Brad was going to do just enough to move on to the next round but after multiple cautions, it appeared that Chase Elliott was going to be able to gain the spots needed to overtake Keselowski but then unexpectedly, Joey Logano was involved in a late race caution which would put him in the final spot. When it was all said and done, Brad was not able to beat neither his teammate Joey Logano or Chase Elliott and was eliminated from championship contention. It was definitely a tough break for the 2012 champion considering it has been a good season for him. On the flip side, it was a huge shot in the arm for Chase Elliott and Joey Logano as they were able to overcome adversity and keep their championship hopes alive.

Coming into this next round, many would consider Hamlin the odds on favorite at Martinsville. And while he hasn't won here since 2015 this is still a track that Hamlin has dominated in the past. Overall, he has five victories here and has led over 1,000 laps and while a lot has changed since his last victory here, it is obvious that Hamlin knows how to get around this place. Over the years, Hamlin has done everything but win a title. This year has been easily his best season since 2010 and now he appears to be the championship favorite going into the next four races. I look for Hamlin and his Fedex Camry to be one to watch on Sunday.

The driver that I predict will win come sunday is Martin Truex Jr. Over the course of Truex's illustrious 13 year career, it is hard to believe that he has only won one race at a short track when he won this year at Richmond in May. As I wrote earlier, Truex was a corner away from claiming his first short track win here at Martinsville but was knocked out of the way by Joey Logano. I think come Sunday, Truex will get his redemption and take his seventh victory of the year and will be the first driver to clinch his ticket to Homestead. It will be interesting to see what he does should be in a position to where he would have to move someone out of the way considering he has gone on record by saying he isn't that kind of driver but I don't know if he will have too. Look for Truex to take the Bass Pro Shops Toyota to victory lane.

The eight drivers still alive are Kyle Busch, Truex, Hamlin, Logano, Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome