THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400 preview and predictions

Look for Denny Hamlin to win this weekend. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for Kansas Speedway this week for the Hollywood Casino 400. This is the first race of the Round of 8 as the season gets one step closer to crowning a champion as there are four more races left in this crazy 2020 season. This track is a one and a half mile oval and it fits this package almost perfectly as there has been much closer racing since NASCAR started running it back in 2018. I look forward to seeing how this race plays out as strategy could very well play a part as it usually does here. The last time the Cup Series was here there were a lot of wrecks so that could be something to look out for as well.

Last week, Chase Elliott went on to capture his fourth consecutive road course win. The race was highlighted by the on and off rain that would soak the track and make finding grip next to impossible. We saw lots of cars spinning into the grass including Ryan Blaney who was leading at the time he spun. As crazy as the racing was we saw some surprises up near the front as Ty Dillon went on to win stage one of the race. Many people didn't care for what we saw as there were a multitude of fans on Twitter proclaiming that what they saw "was not racing." While yes, it was crazy, I think this was awesome to watch. I hope if there is ever more rain on road courses we can see more of this in the future.

The big surprise of the weekend was Kyle Busch. As we all know this has been the worst year of his racing career, he has yet to win a race this year and was eliminated from championship contention. The day started off pretty bad for him after getting a flat tire but as he always does, the defending champion went on a tear driving all the way back to the lead. It looked like the stars were going to align for him but a late race caution and the decision to stay out on cold tires cost him as his M&M's Camry gave up the ghost. While this season hasn't been the best, I would expect him to still be a major contender in the coming weeks for a victory.

The silly season continues this week as the rumors continue to swirl around who will go where next season. There are reports that next season Hendrick Motorsports will be renumbering the #88 back to the legendary #5. While the driver remains unknown, this is a big deal for Hendrick Racing as many people had been speculating that this would happen and now it seems as if it's coming to fruition. This was brought up by Dale Earnhardt Jr on his podcast. The other big story is the possibility that Erik Jones will be driving for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021. This comes as a bit of a surprise considering the struggles that this team has endured but overall maybe there are improvements being made over there that we don't know about. If I personally was Rick Hendrick, I would hire Erik Jones to drive the #5 car next year but it is becoming more and more clear who he is going to go with next season and that doesn't appear to be an option. If Jones can come in and run well in the #43 car next season, I would think his stock will go up for 2022.

The driver that I have winning this week is Denny Hamlin. This 2020 season has been a career year for Hamlin as he has won seven races and has scored almost more points than anyone. Now he heads for a track that he has made his own where he won back in July. He has been phenomenal on these types of racetracks and this weekend should be no different. Look for Denny Hamlin to take the #11 FedEx Toyota to victory lane and lock himself into the championship race at Phoenix.

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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.

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