NASCAR heads for Martinsville for the first short track race of 2019.

NASCAR STP 400 preview

Kylebusch.com

This Sunday, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the track they call the "paperclip" in Martinsville Virginia for their annual STP 500. Overall, the track is 0.526 miles around with twelve degrees of banking in all four of its corners. It is easily the shortest and most narrow track on the circuit, this will make it extremely difficult for drivers to pass without moving someone out of the way. Not only is the racing unique on the track but off it as well as the winner is awarded with a grandfather clock as their trophy. Look for there to be lots of action all around the track.

Last week, Kyle Busch dominated the Auto Club 400 and went on to capture his 53rd NASCAR Cup series victory. There was much controversy about this victory as it was his 200th victory across all three of NASCAR's divisions. As many fans know, the only other driver to reach 200 wins was the king, Richard Petty. Unlike Kyle Busch, Richard obtained all of his victories in the Cup series leading most to believe that his body of work was superior to Busch's body of work.

While yes, what Richard Petty did was unprecedented and will never be replicated but there are multiple factors to take into account. One is the competition Petty faced. For instance, in Petty's masterful 27 win season in 1967 many of his fiercest competitors like David Pearson did not run the full 49-race schedule, as opposed to Kyle Busch and how he faces the same field we see every week. That year, Pearson ran only 22 races while Petty ran all but one.

Another factor is the money that Petty and his team had back then as opposed to everyone else. Back before there were major sponsors like we see today, many drivers had to provide the money to race for themselves and Petty and his team were one of the first drivers to gain a major sponsor in STP. For drivers like Wendell Scott and Elmo Langley, they didn't have the same opportunities and resources they did at Petty Enterprises so it was hard for those type of drivers to keep up. Overall, if you ask anyone that followed the sport back then I think they would tell you that both Wendell Scott and Elmo Langley were just as talented as Petty but just didn't have the equipment he did.

This is where it differs with Kyle Busch, as most know in today's NASCAR these cars are much more closer than they were back then. At the end of the day while these cars may not be as difficult to drive as they were back in 1967, there is still a massive amount of skill that goes into driving now and when it is all said and done there is just no comparison between what both drivers have accomplished. When it is all said and done as fans we should accept the greatness that both Richard Petty and Kyle Busch have accomplished in their careers.

One of the drivers that you should look out for this week again is Martin Truex Jr. I am staying on this bandwagon like last week because I truly believe that he is due for a victory. Surprisingly, over the course of his 16-year career Truex has yet to win at a short track like Martinsville or Bristol. He has been close so many times like last year in the second race here in October when he was rooted out of the way by Joey Logano on the final lap who went on to win the race. This week, I think that he breaks out and finally gets that elusive grandfather clock and wins it come sunday.

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

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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