THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR rolls the dice in Vegas this weekend

All bets are off in Vegas. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Las Vegas this Sunday for the South Point 400. This track is one of the many mile and a half bullrings that we see on the NASCAR schedule. It is known for how hard it is to get on to pit road so look for the possibility of speeding penalties. Another thing to look out for is the heat. As we all know it gets hot in Las Vegas in September, this will make the track much more slippery and there is a good chance that there will be tire problems. It should be a good race though, and I am looking forward to seeing who moves on as the round of 12 begins.

Last week, Kevin Harvick went on to his ninth victory of 2020 as he continues to tear through competition. In the closing laps he and Kyle Busch battled it out in one of the best races we have seen all year. The race was different from what we usually see at Bristol as there weren't very many wrecks and there were a lot of cars that went a lap down as there were only six cars on the lead lap. A few people were critical of the racing last week which personally I didn't understand. This race had everything you would want it to, two of the best drivers in the sport going for the win.

There was news a plenty this week in the NASCAR world. It all started on Tuesday when it was announced that Ross Chastain would take over the #42 Camaro for Chip Ganassi in 2021. This doesn't come as too much of a surprise as he had driven for them in the Xfinity Series. He was lauded as the early candidate when Larson was suspended and many were surprised when he wasn't named the replacement for this year. But in the end, it all came full circle and the driver we all thought would get the ride ended up with it. Personally, I like this move. Ross has more than proved he is capable of running up front and winning in the Xfinity Series and now he is going to get the opportunity of a lifetime in decent equipment.

The other big headline this week was the announcement that Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan would be purchasing the Germain Racing charter and starting their own team in 2021 with Bubba Wallace as the driver. This is a HUGE deal for NASCAR as arguably one of the most recognizable brands in the world is coming on board. These rumors had been persistent over the last few weeks and many questioned the validity of the reports until it was confirmed on Tuesday that this was happening. More than likely what we will see with this new team is that they will receive cars from the former Levaine Family Racing team and technical support from Joe Gibbs Racing. This will also be the first time that a driver will own a team while driving for another team since Dale Earnhardt did it when he owned DEI and drove for Richard Childress. This will certainly be a huge boost for Bubba as he will now get the funding he deserves. Look out for this team going into the future.

As the week went on the rumors got even crazier as it was reported by Adam Stern that NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway were in talks to run a dirt race! This was a huge surprise to me as there was hardly anything to suggest this was even an idea. This truly came out of nowhere. This isn't really all that new to the track as it hosted a World of Outlaws race back in 2000 but never has there been a full-on stock car race on the dirt there. It will be interesting to see if this comes to fruition in the next few weeks.

The driver that I have winning this week at Vegas is Brad Keselowski. Over the last few times they have been coming to this track, he has been nearly untouchable. He has four top fives, six top tens and a victory back in 2018. His lowest finish here has been seventh! He has just been phenomenal here and I look for that to continue. This would be big for Brad if he can win considering that would put him through to the next round, and he won't have to worry so much about the unknown next week at Talladega. I look for Brad to take his Mustang to victory lane 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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