Rams (and refs) beat the Saints in OT

The good, bad and ugly of the NFC Championship game

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These teams combined for 80 points in their week nine matchup. They combined to score a bit more than half of that amount this time as the Rams are onto Atlanta courtesy of a 26-23 overtime shocker. Here's how I saw it:

The Good

-Both Seans showed their penchant for gambling in the first quarter. Saints' Payton drew the Rams offsides on 4th & 2; Rams' McVey faked a punt for a passing first down. This was a matchup of two highly innovative offensive play callers: one the proven vet, the other a prodigy. The defensive coordinator matchup (Dennis Allen of the Saints and Wade Phillips of the Rams) was fun to watch as well.

-Saints running back Alvin Kamara was a matchup nightmare. Drew Brees found him 11 times for 96 yards. He routinely made the Rams defense look bad no matter how they tried to defend him. Prime example was the wheel route he caught for a 21-yard gain.

-Rams quarterback Goff outdueled Brees when it counted most. He was able to make several plays in the fourth quarter and overtime. His throw on 2nd down when he was in the grasp of Cam Jordan to gain yards was clutch. It put them within field goal range and ultimately won the game for them.

The Bad

-Saints tight end Dan Arnold dropped a touchdown pass in the first quarter. Brees put it on the money with two defenders nearby. Arnold caught it and dropped it as he was falling to the ground. It forced a field goal try. Four points can make a huge difference in games like these.

-Rams didn't force a Saints punt until midway through the second quarter. The Saints couldn't convert a couple possessions into touchdowns, but were able to maintain a two score lead. The Rams put themselves behind the eightball early again.

-The Saints offensive line couldn't keep Brees clean enough all game. He was sacked twice and was forced into throwing a crushing interception in overtime. Left guard Andrus Peat played through a broken hand that he just had surgery to correct two weeks ago. The Rams pass rush exposed this line's deficiencies.

The Ugly

-Rams linebacker Cory Litteton gave Saints tight end Josh Hill a forearm shiver to the head in the first quarter. Hill went out under concussion protocol, but there was no flag on Littleton. Saints were already without Benjamin Watson at tight end.

-Rams running back Todd Gurley must still be injured. His play has been limited the last few weeks. When he has played, he hasn't made an impact. He dropped a pass that Saints linebacker Demario Davis intercepted and led to a field goal. Another dropped pass would've been a for sure first down, if not a touchdown, and forced the Rams to kick a field goal.

-The refs missed several calls, but what's new. Saints defensive end Cam Jordan appeared to have horse collared Rams Quarterback Jared Goff. Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman clearly held Saints wideout Tedd Ginn Jr on a third down incompletion. But the missed pass interference call against Robey-Coleman on Tommylee Lewis was blatant!

Another NFC Championship game in New Orleans and another overtime thriller. The Saints had the game in their hands, only to have it taken away from them. A lot will be made of the non-call on the third down that caused them to kick a field goal with 1:45 left and not ice the game on that field goal with no time left. The Rams are now on to Atlanta and Sean McVey is on his way to becoming the youngest head coach to possibly win a Super Bowl.

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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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