THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: Talladega playoff race preview and predictions

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images.

Well folks, it's finally here. The race that everyone has been looking forward to, Talladega. As we all know this is the baddest racetrack on the face of the planet. The steaks will be high as this is the second race of the round of 12 or the wild-card round as I like to call it. Not only do we see the unpredictability of Talladega this weekend but next weekend they go to the Charlotte Roval, another track that is known for its insanity. Getting through Talladega with a win could be huge or each of these twelve drivers. This will be a race you definitely don't want to miss.

Last week at Vegas, Kurt Busch went on to capture his first victory of 2020 at his home track. The race was dominated by Denny Hamlin as he led a race high 121 laps but green flag pit-stops for debris put him towards the back of the lead lap cars. While he was able to rebound for a third place finish, this was a race he should have won. But for once in 2020, luck just wasn't on his side. While Hamlin was in front, the one issue most of these drivers had was the ability to pass. For over 80 percent of the race, it was completely unwatchable. This high downforce aero package continues to provide lackluster results as the only way anyone could do anything was after a restart. This continues to prove that high downforce won't always produce good racing.

Luckily NASCAR has heard the fans and they will be changing things when it comes to the cars in 2021 as they unveiled the newest rules package on Thursday. It was announced that 23 of the 36 races will be run by the popular 750 horsepower aero package. Another thing fans have been asking for is a much smaller rear spoiler and it appears that is coming as well as it was also announced that the spoiler will be reduced from 8 inches to 2.75 inches. I think this will be a huge step in the right direction for the sport and it also shows that Steve O'Donnell and everyone at NASCAR are listening to their fans. Of course, they won't make everyone happy, but it's been awesome to see them listen to feedback. We will see this package run at tracks like Dover and Bristol, all the road courses and the rest of the short tracks while the intermediates and super speedways will continue with their 550 horsepower aero package. I am so happy to see NASCAR continue to grow and improve as we look to the future that is certainly a lot brighter.

The driver that I have winning this week is Ryan Blaney. Over the last three races here, Blaney has dominated this track as he has won two of the last three races here. Although he didn't advance to the round of 12, it will be hard to beat him. His teammate Brad Keselowski said in an interview that "Blaney has this type of racing down to a science." I look for him to continue his success with another victory here. It would be a great way for him to close out an extremely disappointing season. Look for Blaney to take the #12 Ford Mustang to victory lane.

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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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