THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: Super Start Batteries 400 preview and picks

Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to the heartland for the Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway. This race will be run on Thursday as NASCAR continues their mid to late-week races. This week, they will be running the first race that I can remember on a Thursday. It will definitely be interesting as NASCAR will lead off the weekend of racing with the Truck and Xfinity Series following them on Friday and Saturday.

Also, for the first time in series history there will be a two-day doubleheader for the truck series on Friday and Saturday. Personally, I really like this idea by NASCAR. It gives the teams a full week to get to go back to the shop and prepare for the Daytona Road Course coming up. It will be fun to get to watch a race on a Thursday. While Kansas Motor Speedway may look like any average mile and a half-track, this track has really benefited from this high downforce low horsepower package and there has been some very good racing here since 2018 as the last two races have been decided in the final laps. I look forward to this week's race.

Last week, at Texas Motor Speedway we saw a bit of an upset as Austin Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander implored a two-tire strategy to take the lead with 22 laps to go. And after numerous cautions, he never looked back en route to his third career victory. In back-to-back weeks now, we have seen two winners we didn't expect to see, last week it was Cole Custer and this week it was Austin Dillon. While we have seen a dominant effort from both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, it has been great to see some of these guys get victories and good results and I look for it to continue the rest of the season.

While Austin Dillon went to victory lane, he shared some of the spotlight with his rookie teammate Tyler Reddick who came home second. This is a career best for the rookie as he continues to be one of the more pleasant storylines of 2020. The California native now has 6 top tens and two top fives including another impressive fourth place finish at Homestead earlier in the year. He has continued to improve week in and week out and is getting closer and closer to a victory here in the near future. Look for Reddick to win a race before the year is out.

While it was a great race for one rookie, it was a much different story for one of the other rookies, Quin Houff. In the late stages of the race, Houff decided he was going to pit but the only problem was he missed pit-road entrance by about a football field. Thinking he can make it, he still peeled to the bottom of the track and collided with Chrisotpher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto and then hit the wall hard in turn four. This not only ruined DiBenedtto's race but it put Ryan Blaney back in traffic after making a pit-stop that ultimately cost him the win. After the race, Brad Keselowski came up with a solid idea by suggesting that drivers should be demoted and promoted from the Truck and Xfinity Series to the Cup Series should they perform well enough. Overall, I really like this idea and think it can prevent rushing some of these drivers up too soon.

Another major story in the headlines this week is the omission of practice and qualifying for the remainder of the season. I have a major issue with this and while I understand why they want to keep as few people at the track as possible, it is really affecting the racing. It will also put these drivers in a bind as well as they don't have the extra time to work out some of the minor issues with their car. For example, last week at Texas Aric Almirola had some break issues before the race began that could very well have been resolved should they have had a practice session to bleed the air out of the breaks. It will also be a detriment when the drivers go to a new track like the Daytona Road Course. This configuration has never been raced before in the Cup Series and could leave them unprepared for the race. I hope NASCAR can come up with a compromise here soon.

The driver I have winning this week is Ryan Blaney. This has been a career year for Blaney as he currently sits second in points and has nine top fives this year with a win at Talladega. All season he has shown more speed than anyone but for some reason, it hasn't translated to another victory. I think that will change this week. While his average finish here hasn't been great, he has come out and led a lot of laps and put himself in a great spot to win, but something comes up and ruins his day. This week he will finally be able to put a race together and take his #12 Mustang to victory lane.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

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.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome