The Left Turn

NASCAR Watkins Glen preview

Kyle Busch won again. Kylebusch.com

NASCAR turns right and left this week as they head for Watkins Glen International raceway  for their second of three road course races in 2018. Located in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, this track is easily one of the most difficult on the schedule. It is 2.45 miles in length and has eleven corners making it the longest road course in NASCAR. The toughest corner on the track is the chicane in turn five. In 1992, this was added to the track due to the major crashes including the late J.D. McDuffie who died a year earlier in this corner. This Corner is also difficult due to the high rate of speed the drivers are carrying from the straightaways exiting corners two,three and four. Due to how fast they are going, it is easy to miss the corner and possibly crash.

This track arguably has provided one of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history back in 2012, when former driver Marcos Ambrose fought off future champion Brad Keselowski in possibly the greatest last lap battle of all time. Ever since then this track has been one of the most anticipated races of the whole season so look for a great race come Sunday.

Last week it was much of the same as we have seen all season as Kyle Busch was able to take his sixth checkered flag of the year. His Joe Gibbs racing teammates Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones gave him a big challenge in the closing laps but the M&M’s Camry was too quick for them to really do anything.

In spite of the fact that they were not able to win, this was an excellent result for NASCAR’s next generation, as sophomore driver Suarez got his career best finish of second, Alex Bowman finished third, Jones fifth and William Byron was able to claim his second top 10 of his career as he finished sixth. Sure at the end of the day, the experienced veteran in Kyle Busch won the race but this race could very well be a shifting of the tide for the sport. Look for any one of the drivers mentioned above to be a force to be reckoned with in the not to distant future.

As I covered last week, Ryan Newman seems to be getting back on the right track. Last week he was able to back up his sixth place finish at New Hampshire with an impressive eighth place finish at Pocono. All throughout the day, Newman laid in the weeds and wasn’t really in contention but in the closing stages, he and his crew used pit road strategy by only taking two tires and gaining more track position. His tires were able to hold up and he scored his sixth top 10 of the season. Currently, the rocketman is 34 points out of the playoffs but if there is anyone who can get in by points it’s Ryan Newman. This was a guy who nearly won the championship in 2014 without winning a race due to the sheer number of top 10 finishes he had all season. Look for Newman to be exciting going into the final weeks of the regular season

The favorite to win this week is who else? But defending champion himself Martin Truex Jr. He comes to this track as the defender after he held off Matt Kenseth for his then fourth win of the 2017 season. This week, he looks to settle the score amongst his rivals in “the big three” after Kevin Harvick won two weeks ago at New Hampshire and Kyle Busch won last week at Pocono. He goes to a track where he has run extremely well at over his last three starts in fact, he has the third highest average finish amongst all active drivers here since 2016. It truly would surprise no one if Truex is able to repeat come sunday, he surely will be the car to beat come sunday.

My prediction to win this weekend is sort of a wild card but, I am going with Suarez. This season has been an uphill battle for the 2015 Xfinity series champion but I think he is in the best position to get his first career win here. Last year, Suarez won the second stage of the race and then brought home his Stanley Tools Camry in third, his career best finish at that point. Suarez at that time was on the same strategy as his former teammate Matt Kenseth and was catching race leader Martin Truex Jr., who didn’t look to have enough fuel. Unfortunately for him, he was much too far back to really do anything with the front two cars. This year, Suarez has a whole year of experience under his belt and is improving each and every week and I think Sunday he breaks through. Look for Suarez to drive the No. 19 Stanley Tools Toyota all the way to winners circle and clinch a spot in the playoffs.

 

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

 

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