Work in progress

Rockets believe they haven't reached their "peak" yet

The Houston Rockets have won 7 out of their last 10 games and on Sunday night, they climbed to the third seed in the Western Conference. All things considered, that's a pretty good spot for a title contender to be in early January. However, if you ask them, they have higher aspirations than that.

"Not bad," said Mike D'Antoni said at practice. "We want to be first. We still have a goal to finish first. [It's] definitely doable."

As it stands, the Rockets are 4.5 games behind the first seeded Los Angeles Lakers. It's not impossible to catch up, but it will require a high level of excellence to close out the season. It would be a level that they themselves will tell you they haven't exhibited yet.

"We still haven't hit our peak yet," said Eric Gordon. "We're doing what we need to do as far as winning games, but we haven't had games where we've shown complete dominance."

Gordon is spot on when he discusses the Rockets' lack of dominant games this season. Though the Rockets are the third seed in the Western Conference, they trail teams like the Clippers (fourth seed) and Mavericks (sixth seed) in Net RTG, per cleaningtheglass.com. When you subtract garbage time, the Rockets are only beating teams by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. There are five teams in the NBA with higher differentials and the top two (Boston and Milwaukee) have nearly double the number.

"We'll be able to tell by how much we're clicking by having big leads in a game, sustaining a lead throughout the game, and having good starts," said Gordon. "That's when I can tell that we're locked in and really focused on what we need to do to win a championship."

As Gordon mentioned, the Rockets have not started games as well as they would like to. In first quarters this season, Houston is barely edging out their opponents (2.9 points per 100 possessions - 11th in the NBA). They tend to ramp it up in the second quarter (8.0 net rating - 6th), they peak in the third quarter (12.0 net rating - 4th), and then let go of the rope in a major way in fourth quarters (-2.3 net rating - 21st). The bottom completely falls out, specifically on defense where the Rockets have allowed 111.8 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters (25th). This kind of inconsistent effort has contributed to why the Rockets haven't blown out teams as much as they would like.

However, there's still time to change that and it starts with convincingly beating bad teams. This is something the Rockets have struggled mightily with this season. Among the top six teams in the Western Conference, the Rockets have the worst winning percentage against below .500 teams (16-6 record).

"That's been our achilles heel since I've been here - kind of playing down to our competition," said P.J. Tucker. "For us, I think it's more challenging to win those games, because in all the big games, we usually play well. In not so big games, we don't bring as much energy, as much focus, and we tend to get in trouble. So, it's just the focus."

They will have an opportunity to improve upon that record this month as four out of their next five opponents are below .500. The Hawks in particular have the worst winning percentage in the NBA this season (8-29 record). There's no such thing as a guaranteed win in the NBA, but the Hawks are close. Houston dismantled Atlanta on November 30th (final score of 158-111), but as Tucker said, the Rockets can't rest on their laurels.

"Usually in those games we don't get off to a great start," continued Tucker. "When teams aren't doing so well, they get it going early. Then, they'll be trouble later in the game. So, we'll look to be aggressive early for sure."

To Houston's credit, they've played most of the season without a healthy roster. Wednesday will mark the third straight game since Clint Capela and Eric Gordon both returned to the lineup. They still have time to correct their inconsistencies and try and reach a new level of excellence if they hoan in on their defense and late game issues.

"The season is going to be the season," said Tucker. "We're going to have ups and downs. As long as everybody can stay consistent, as long as we stay healthy, I think we'll keep improving and keep looking better."

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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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