FALCON POINTS

These 5 teams of interest in Houston have the most to prove in the new year

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

As the calendar turns on a new year and new decade, the sports scene in Houston has not changed all that much. The Astros are going to be contenders again (and accused of cheating again), the Rockets will continue to tweak to try to take the ultimate step, and the Texans will be hard to get behind as long as Bill O'Brien prowls the sidelines. Still, when it comes to the local pro and college ranks, these five programs/franchises will have the most to prove in the new year:


1) Can the Texans rise above mediocrity?

They get their first chance Saturday against the Bills. While just winning A playoff game should not be the goal, considering the Texans past postseason appearances under O'Brien, a loss would render the season a major disappointment and call into question the entire operation (again). And make no mistake, the Texans can lose this game. A second-round setback against a better team would not really be a success, either, but it would be an improvement. Getting to an AFC Championship Game should be the minimum goal. Does anyone really believe that can happen? The window is now for the Texans, and a playoff run this season or massive improvement next year might silence some critics. Of all the teams on this list, they have the most to prove.

2) The big state schools

The Texans Longhorns did not proclaim themselves back after winning the Alamo Bowl, which is smart. They did follow up a 10 win season with an 8-win one, and eight should be the floor there. The Longhorns should be serious contenders for the Big 12 title and a playoff berth at worst in 2020. It's time to find out if Tom Herman is the right man to get it done.

In College Station, the Aggies went all in on Jimbo Fisher, and the results have been, like the commercial says, just OK. Fisher has gone 9-4 and 8-5, and this past season they lost to every good team on their schedule. They did play perhaps the toughest slate in the nation, but at some point, Fisher is supposed to win some of those games. It needs to happen this year.

3) Harden and the Rockets

The Rockets more than any other team in Houston keep pushing their chips in the middle and trying new things. The addition of Russell Westbrook is still a work in progress, although the team has shown some signs of life. The Rockets have at least been to a couple Western Conference Finals in the Harden era, but the franchise makes no bones about its goal of winning a title. They still look to be a little short of teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks in the title hierarchy, but they aren't done tweaking, either. Mike D'Antoni's job remains in flux. This latest all-in move has to pay off.

4) UH's bizarre, bold move

When Dana Holgorsen took over UH's football team, expectations were high. But it did not take long to figure out the cupboard had been left awfully bare by Major Applewhite and his staff. So Holgorsen basically punted on the season after the Tulane loss, red shirting some key seniors and limping to a 4-8 record. Star quarterback D'Eriq King was one of those players. If King stays and is joined by a bevy of high quality transfers, the Cougars could be right back in the AAC race next season. If he leaves and the strategy backfires? Holgorsen's job is safe, but this year's moves will be defined by next season.

5) Does a controversial off-season derail the Astros?

The dumb sign stealing saga has dominated the off-season, along with the loss of Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, which makes New York the likely AL favorites. The Astros have not made any significant additions, and do not appear to be poised to do so, suddenly concerned about a bloated payroll. The off-field messes, from the sign saga to the former assistant GM saga to the forcing the Ryans out saga...To the on field: A.J. Hunch's bizarre handling of his pitching staff in the Game 7 Series loss. The Astros will have their lineup intact for another year, but the starting pitching - so strong last season - is a big bunch of question marks. While the off-field stuff should not impact things on the field too much, who knows? The Rangers and Angels will be better. The Astros are still the class of the AL West, but did their title window close? Probably not, but there will be real questions in 2020.

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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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