Cody Stoots: 3 headlines, 2 questions, 1bet

Plenty of reasons Texans win streak can continue

Bill O'Brien and the Texans face a tough test Sunday. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"If you start to take the cheese, you start to drink the Kool-Aid, you’re going to get humbled."

Bill O'Brien's comments when he was asked about the future beyond Cleveland were fantastic. He is right. This league will have you tumbling from the top of the hill in no time. The Texans though have not tumbled yet. They have won eight games in a row and just finished perhaps their most impressive win of those eight. There is still room to get better for this team too which should scare the rest of the NFL. This is the longest win streak in franchise history and the first time a team has started with three straight losses and followed it with eight straight wins. 

The Browns are a team that is playing well now so there is no pushover element like previous Cleveland teams. Baker Mayfield is playing really well right now and they are a team on the rise with two wins in a row. 

"It's definitely understood," O'Brien said when he was asked if he had explained to the team it isn't the Brown of old. "This is a big challenge. Big, big challenge."

Running Wild

The Texans set a franchise record for rushing yards in their win over the Titans with 281 yards. Let's first praise the offensive line. They have really come together as a unit in the back part of this win streak and rarely do they struggle in pass protection and rushing the ball. Monday, they struggled a little in pass protection but they were mauling the Titans on the ground early. This is a unit that week to week can really set the tone, good or bad, for the offense. 

Lamar Miller went nuts in this game. One of this best as a Texans player. You can read more about him being the player of the game here.

Let's talk about one of the most important developments for this team, the return of Deshaun Watson's legs. He had just 74 yards on the ground in the past five games. Those were the five games after he suffered an injury against Dallas. Against Tennessee, he rushed for 70 yards. It can't be understated just how big of a weapon his rushing ability can be. You saw it on the scoring run where the play call was executed to perfection and he went almost untouched for six points. 

"You have to be able to run the ball," Bill O'Brien said. "I know the league and the stats say it is a passing league, and I think we've thrown the ball pretty well...We want to be a physically tough, smart football team. We feel like we have to be able to stop the run and we have to be able to run the ball."

The rushing attack getting going the past few weeks has been a pleasant surprise and has helped ease the sting of D'Onta Foreman's long road back to the field. The Texans still aren't activating Foreman. O'Brien said he is feeling "better" but the team had a "little more time" to make the decision. Foreman can be activated to the roster or put on injured reserve. 

Welcome back, your sacks were your ticket out

Welcome back to two pass rushing presences that have been sorely missed in Christian Covington and Whitney Mercilus. Both had struggled to get going this season but it seems now they're hitting their stride much to the chagrin of opposing offenses. 

Mercilus had been a step slow to start the season but he is starting to ramp up. He has at least a sack in back to back games and is hitting the quarterback regularly. Plenty has been made about how the team is using him as to why his sack numbers and other pass-rushing elements have been down but he has been better the past couple of weeks. The injury in training camp torpedoed his start to the season but he's grooving now. 

Covington played his best game as a member of the Texans against the Titans. It was the first multi-sack game of his career as he had two solo sacks and split one with J.J. Watt. Covington was starting to come into his own last season before an injury ended his season and he's been up and down for most of 2018. He has even been inactive for some of the games despite being healthy. The most important element of his game last night was he brought pressure up the middle. If he is adding that type of rush while Watt and Jadeveon Clowney go to work on the outside it will be tough for opposing quarterbacks to get comfortable. 

Can the Texans count on Keke Coutee's hamstring?

The team can count on Keke Coutee when he is healthy. He has had some really nice snaps this season but from the preseason he has been bothered by a recurring hamstring injury. He missed all of the preseason and the first three games with the injury. Then he played in four games before missing two games. After the bye, he had a big performance against Washington but he left the Titans game again with the hamstring injury. 

He is clearly a playmaker when healthy but he hasn't been healthy all year. The best the Texans can hope for is he can manage this and after a good offseason program, he doesn't have to deal with this injury anymore. He didn't run into this problem at Texas Tech so I imagine it is very frustrating for him to go through as well. DeAndre Carter caught a pass and ran some routes from the slot so if Coutee has this issue continue it seems likely he is the guy that could benefit. 

How good are these Browns?

Good, it would seem. Baker Mayfield has taken to his new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens well and it has showed. The top pick from 2018's draft has tossed seven touchdowns his past two games. Nick Chubb has been a monster since taking over as the lead back. Their defense has held two pretty impressive offenses, albeit Andy Dalton got hurt in one of the game, to tiny scoring outputs. Though they have a slim chance to make the playoffs in the AFC, this season is all about building momentum for this team. Mayfield has helped change the culture and their defense has plenty of talent. This won't be an easy out on Sunday. 

I bet Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield battle in the playoffs more than a few times in their careers. They have matched up once before, in 2015 in the college football playoff. Mayfield had the better game passing by far but Watson's rushing ability and the Clemson defense was the difference maker. They both are a part of the young and talented quarterback crop in the NFL right now. If the Browns rise continues and the Texans can solidify their footing we are in for some epic battles between the two, hopefully in January. 

 

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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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