The Short Track Report: 4 high-octane questions for Stephen Nasse

Stephen Nasse is one of the stars of the CARS Late Model Series, the premier short-track racing series in America. Not only is he one of the most talented drivers out there, but he is always going to say what's on his mind and that makes for some of the best interviews. He was nice enough to talk to me about his racing plans for the rest of 2020, give a recap of his run in the Winchester 400, and a lot more.

SportsMap: So first and foremost, what an excellent drive you had in Sunday's Winchester 400, coming back from a penalty and then some mechanical issues as well. While it may not read as win on the stat sheet, it's got to feel good to get such a good result after all you went through.

Stephen Nasse: Yeah, you know it's definitely tough to swallow. I was pretty upset in the time being with the issues we were having. I felt like they were issues that could have been avoided by me and my guys but at the end of the day, my guys worked harder than anyone else. I feel in that pit area, they want to win just as bad as I do, if not more. So you can't be too mad at them. But at the end of the day, it was good to come back and have the car in one piece, so that's all you can really ask for.

SM: The penalty you guys got was kind of controversial as you were cleaning off some of the leaves on your grill. Can you kind of expand on that a bit and talk about what happened there?

SN: Yeah, I don't understand their thought process on some things. Winchester is notorious for having leaves on the back straight away. And this year it was much worse and it didn't take a very smart person to realize that they should have blown off or drove over before the race because those racecars should not be cleaning off that racetrack. I mean everyone who comes here spends way too much money to have to come here and deal with that. My water temp was pegged out and I wasn't going to spend the money just to keep my spot, but it was unfortunate.

SM: Talk a little bit about how you got your start in racing.

SN: Well growing up, my grandfather was big into racing, and they finally had a boy after having two girls. So when they finally had a boy, it was time to go racing! So they bought me a dirt bike, and I was falling off every 25 feet, so they decided it was time to go to four wheels. So after that we got a go-kart, and we moved up to Pro Late Model cars and on to Supers and it went on from there. But it's always been something I wanted to do and I love doing it.

SM: For some of the newer viewers of Late Model Racing like myself, can you kind of explain the differences between each class like the Super Late Models and the Pro Late Models?

SN: Well when you are looking at it visually, you can't really tell a difference but it mainly comes down to speed. In the Pro Mods, you have a Crate Motor which makes about 500 horse power and it's more of a level playing field. And when you look at the Supers, it's making about 650 horsepower and there is a lot more to control.

You can hear the entire interview on Audioboom below.

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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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