Important Victory

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat the Nuggets in Houston 130-104

This was as important of a win as the Rockets are going to get this season. The Denver Nuggets are one of Houston's direct rivals in the Western Conference and Houston dropping a game earlier in the season to them hurt. The tiebreaker between these two teams has the possibility of becoming really valuable down the line so preventing Denver from getting it tonight was huge.

The Nuggets were also one of the first teams to effectively employ the trapping scheme on James Harden so Houston being able to show that they can counter that as effectively as they did tonight is also big. There's a non-zero chance Denver is one of the teams Houston will have to get through in the playoffs so this game could serve a blueprint for Houston.

Eric Gordon's return has been huge for Houston (7 of 12 from three-point range in two games) and his threat from beyond the arc provides an instant solution to teams running to trap Harden. D'Antoni went to Gordon several times in this game when the traps started to work for a brief period. Gordon also took away a significant minute burden away from Westbrook and Harden tonight (both played 34 minutes).

Surprisingly, one of the big stories of this game may end up being 21-year old big man Isaiah Hartenstein securing the backup center role in the rotation for Houston. Hartenstein posted his first NBA career double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal on 6 of 8 shooting from the field and 4 of 6 shooting from the charity stripe) off the bench in 14 minutes. The Rockets have struggled to find competent and reliable backup center minutes all season so Hartenstein emergence could help shore up one of their weakest roster spots.

Star of the game: James Harden continued his trend of playing unbelievable on New Year's Eve, tallying 35 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 1 steal on 10 of 17 shooting from the field and 6 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Harden did this on a surprisingly low 34 minutes as the Rockets were able to pull away from the Nuggets late and Eric Gordon provided some much needed depth for Houston's guard rotation.

Honorable mention: With the Nuggets trapping James Harden hard early on, Russell Westbrook responded by attacking the basket, hitting tough mid-range jumpers, and finding teammates for open shots. Westbrook had 28 points, 7 assists, and 3 rebounds on 11 for 22 shooting and 6 of 6 shooting from the free throw line.

Key moment: After the Rockets had as much as a 17-point lead earlier in the game, the Nuggets had cut it to 92-89 by the end of the third quarter. Houston responded with a 19-3 run to open the fourth quarter and effectively put the Nuggets away.

Up next: The Rockets play their next game in Houston on Friday at 7:00 p.m. against the Philadelphia 76ers.

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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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