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Season Review: Despite best start in club history, Houston Dynamo miss playoffs again

The Houston Dynamo roster ended with unexpected departures from the one that started the season.

It is incredible to think that, just ten months ago, flocks of Dynamo jerseys roamed to Latin America with the enthusiasm and invigoration that accompanied the start of a new season. By the start of October, the season finale arrived as a merciful end to the fatigue and frustration of what is, now, the worst season in club history.

The club has failed to make the MLS Cup Playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Over half of the teams qualified for the playoffs in each of those years, despite the expansion of Major League Soccer over that span.

The Dynamo now prepare for the start of the offseason next month. In the meantime, let's recall how they got here.

Not enough offseason fuel

Because of the way the Dynamo are built, the root of the team's success depends on the additions, or lack thereof, during the offseason. General Manager Matt Jordan and his staff replaced 12 outgoing players with eight incoming signings, of which only four were significant contributors.

Defensive additions Matias Vera, arguably the team's season MVP, and Aljaz Struna were home runs with both coming first and second in minutes played. Defender Maynor Figueroa and midfielder Thomas McNamara also made the top ten in that category.

The problem for the club comes from there being only two major offseason signings. With a lack of first team contributors coming through the Academy and the college draft, the transfer windows are the major source of improvement for the roster. The Dynamo needed to be more aggressive with incoming talent and, several months later, it's proven true.

The Manotas, Elis conundrum

To sell or not to sell. For one of the league's lowest spending teams, an influx of cash from the sale of one of their young prospects could have helped to improve the team.

The Dynamo had offers for 23-year-old Alberth Elis and 24-year-old Mauro Manotas but did not part ways with either. Elis, who has made it public on numerous occasion that his dream is to play in Europe, lobbied his case on Honduran television in an effort to force the club to sell him. Manotas was given a raise to become the team's highest earner at the beginning of the year but was almost sold in the summer, kept in Houston by an inability to sell him by the transfer deadline.

Manotas scored 13 goals (team leader) and provided 8 assists (team 2nd) while Elis scored nine (team 2nd) and was credited with 10 assists (team leader). They could be a huge part of the blueprint for the future of the club but the question remains if their role will be as contributors on the field or off it as the sacrificial lambs, and the Dynamo don't seem to have a firm posture on either stance.

Favorable home schedule early, lack of road results

The team began the year with a five-game unbeaten streak and won seven of their first eight. Supporters were right to feel good about their team's success but perhaps the results painted a much favorable picture.

By June 2nd, the team had played half of it's home schedule. The rest of the season was heavy on road games, a particular challenge for the club in recent years, and the team would only win six and draw one of the remaining 21 matches - a total of 19 points and barely half of their season total.

Even with the downward spiral, which was a carbon copy of the 2018 season but without the makeup of a U.S. Open Cup title, the Dynamo missed the playoffs by a difference of eight points. The road has been a key to their absence from the playoffs.

Dating back to the 2014 season, the Dynamo have won only 12 away matches from 102 played. Their recent playoff season (2017) was made possible by offsetting a one-win road record with a near perfect 12-1-4 (W-L-T) home record.

By the way, the Dynamo won the 2018 Open Cup title by playing every match at home.

Uncertainty at head coach

Wilmer Cabrera guided the Dynamo back to the playoffs in 2017, taking the team as far as the Western Conference finals. His shortcomings - among them, inconsistency with team lineups, a lack of improving players despite tabbed a "teacher of the game" and self-victimization when phased with poor results - were covered up by his good early results, a blanket of protection that faded in the next two seasons.

The Dynamo were handicapped by his premature extension in early 2018 but ultimately made the decision to let him go in August. Assistant Davy Arnaud was named the Interim but failed to salvage the situation with nine matches remaining in the season. Even so, his ability to reinvigorate the team may be enough to convince the club of removing the interim tag.

The reality is the Dynamo are back to where they were in 2016 - reflecting on their current situation as they prepare to hire the club's next head coach. The last two hires did not turn out as well as the club would've liked and the gap between them and the rest of the league only continues to increase.

The departure of DaMarcus Beasley

The best memory of the 2019 season for many will be the retirement of U.S. National Team Legend DaMarcus Beasley. The country's only participant in four FIFA World Cup tournaments earned a cup title but was hardly ever in reach of winning an MLS Cup in the Bayou City.

Despite his club form, his stature in the game is one that will be hard to match any other American player. Beasley played at historic clubs like PSV Eindhoven and Rangers F.C. and was part of the U.S. Men's best outing in the modern World Cup setup.

His farewell match was a bright spot in an otherwise low season and his goals at Guastatoya in the Concacaf Champions League and against Club American in the inaugural League's Cup stand among the best moments of the year.

The arrival of Christian Ramirez

In the long run, the acquisition of Christian Ramirez may be one of the more significant transfers in recent league history. The U.S. born striker has all the makings of a big time goalscorer and has made the best of playing time with the team.

"Superman" has picked up 5 goals and 1 assist in his 10 matches with the Houston Dynamo. As with any other promising player, he will flourish if accompanied by the proper team around him.

James Harden joins ownership team

In the bigger picture, Harden's involvement may just be as simple as a financial investment for the future. With a five percent ownership stake, it's hard to see the Houston Rockets star having any significant input in the comings and goings of the club.

Still, it's a significant event for many Dynamo fans as they got to see one of Houston's icons sporting an orange jersey.

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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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