Solid Victory

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets grind out win over Pacers 111-102

Despite Danuel House being out with a sacral contusion, Eric Gordon being out due to his recent right knee surgery, and Clint Capela being out due to his concussion, the Rockets grinded it out defensively and beat a good Pacers team Friday night. This obviously starts and ends with James Harden's performance (44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals), but it's also much more than that. The Rockets have figured it out defensively to an extent many observers didn't think was possible just two weeks ago.

"A lot of guys had to step up and they did," said Mike D'Antoni after the game. "Right now, like we talked about so many times, we just got to get wins and then we'll get some guys back [from injury]. I thought our defense is getting better all the time, big stops, and James [Harden] was ridiculous. It was a good win."

D'Antoni is correct in that there is a huge value in banking regular seasons early and figuring it out with a healthy roster later. These wins count the same as the ones late in the season as Houston found out last season. While they're trying to get healthy, they need contributions from guys they wouldn't normally lean on and they found that tonight from Ben McLemore. McLemore really stepped up tonight as Houston's second scorer, tallying 21 points on 67.1% true shooting.

"I continue to be a pro, and then continue to do whatever I need to do to help my teammates or help the team win games," said McLemore. "This summer, obviously I signed with them and I was just preparing myself for moments like this."

Tyson Chandler was also huge for the Rockets even though his numbers didn't pop out to you in the stat sheet (2 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal). Chandler was a team high +24 and really shined defensively with the Rockets being without Capela.

"He does everything else," said Harden. "Tip basketballs for rebounds, the contested shots, everything else, the communicating, the talking. Everything that doesn't show up on the stat sheets, he does it."

Star of the game: James Harden continued his hot streak, tallying 44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals on 68.4% true shooting. Down Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela, the Rockets needed every bit of Harden's heroics and he delivered. Harden's performances are becoming so regular that they almost feel normal or pedestrian. Let me remind you that nothing about what Harden is doing is or should be considered 'normal'. This is a truly historically special player we're watching on a herculean stretch.

Honorable mention: Ben McLemore delivered his best game of the season for the Rockets scoring 21 points on 6 of 13 shooting from the field, 5 of 6 shooting from the free throw line, and 4 of 11 from three-point range. When Gerald Green went down for the Rockets before the season, there was a void to be filled for a player like McLemore and Houston is fortunate that they found McLemore when they did. He's been the definition of a pleasant surprise

Key moment: From the 8:07 mark of the 4th quarter to the 5:00 mark, James Harden went on a personal 12-0 run for the Rockets that took the Rockets from a 2-point deficit to a 10-point lead. The Rockets were badly in need of offense as Westbrook was struggling to carry the second unit and Harden showed up right when they needed him.

Up next: The Rockets travel to Minnesota at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday to play the Timberwolves.

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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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