THE PALLILOG

The Astros' offense will be fine and the return of the Rockets

Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

The problems caused by COVID-19 remain plentiful but for those who love sports the past week sure has been a port in the storm. First Major League Baseball made it back (though already possibly imperiled) and now the NBA. Life is a bit better.

First the Astros. If George Springer is going to bat .048 this season, with Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman each at .174, the Astros are finished! In Springer's case it would be the worst job ever by a player making his case for a massive free agent contract. There of course is no chance of those numbers remaining where they are, so for anyone hyperventilating over the lousy starts we recommend a few deep breaths into a paper bag. Overall the offense should be fine, especially when Yordan Alvarez fortifies the lineup within a couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, the results of the Astros' mediocre 3-3 opening homestand were vastly exceeded in importance by the lousy to devastating Justin Verlander injury. He holds out hope that his forearm strain will allow a return in perhaps a month. The smart money is probably on worse than that. The ugly elephant in the room is the possibility of Tommy John surgery which would sideline Verlander well into 2021 when he'll be 38 years old and approaching free agency. If Verlander's total output for 2020 turns out to be six innings for more than 12 million dollars, the Astros aren't doomed for the season but they drop from the top echelon of World Series contenders. With the postseason fielded expanded to eight teams per league the Astros certainly still should make the playoffs with one of the eight best records in the American League, it's just no longer a virtual lock.

It's amazing that within the first five games of the season Dusty Baker called on seven different relief pitchers to make their major league debuts.

Rockets Relaunch

The Rockets start their "seeding games" eight game finish to the regular season Friday night playing the Dallas Mavericks in Orlando. The Rockets sit in sixth place in the Western Conference, a game and a half ahead of the Mavs. A Rocket win would pretty much assure they would finish no lower than sixth. Does it really matter? The Lakers have cinched up the top seed in the West. Unless you think another team is going to upset the Lakers or Clippers, or the Clippers fall to fourth or fifth which would mean they'd play the Lakers in the conference semis, the Rockets are going to have to beat both the Clippers and Lakers to win the West. That's the simplest reason why the Rockets probably will not be winning the West, notwithstanding Daryl Morey's claim that the Rockets "should win this thing." But, hey, without upsets and dramatic runs we'd have little reason to care about sports to begin with.

Fabulous return to play for the NBA with a pair of two point games Thursday night. The look of the venues in Orlando is good. The virtual fans thing is silly but it works. Shocked that the NBA didn't make the virtual seats a "sellout." During the Clippers-Lakers game I even almost enjoyed Reggie Miller using the word "here" every two-point-three sentences! Marv Albert will forever to me be the play-by-play voice most synonymous with the NBA, but honestly, Kevin Harlan and Ian Eagle are a better one-two play-by-play punch now. At 79 years old Marv opted for caution and is skipping the "bubble."

NFL Top 100

NFL Network finished it's ranking of the top 100 players for the 2020 NFL season as voted upon by NFL players. The criteria are nebulous. Is it purely on expectations for 2020? Does body of work matter, and if so more so than 2019? Whatever the criteria, leaving out the Ravens and the Chiefs, how many NFL teams do you think would rather have Patrick Mahomes as their quarterback than Lamar Jackson? I would think 30 out of 30 or darn close to it. The players voted Jackson the best player for 2020. The guy was MVP last season but…

Tom Brady was ranked 14th, Deshaun Watson 20th. If they knew nothing else about their roster I would think more coaches and general managers would opt for Watson now. Watt came in at number 25. T.J. Watt. J.J. was number 45. Attendance is part of the grade and J.J. has failed on that front three of the last four seasons. The lone other Texan in the top 100 was Laremy Tunsil at number 66.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Joe Kelly's 8 game suspension may be too harsh (he didn't actually hit anyone and while his purpose was obvious it's not a 100% certainty), but better a penalty too harsh than too lenient on this.

2. Who'd have thought it would be the SEC to go with the plan of longest delay to the start of its college football season?

3. Best ever basketball announcer teams: Bronze-Marv Albert, Mike Fratello Silver-Dick Enberg, Billy Packer, Al McGwire Gold-Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy

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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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