ALERT TO PEDAL PUSHERS

Time to start training for Houston's annual BP MS 150 charity bike ride

As Ken Hoffman notes, half the fun of the BP MS150 is off-bike. Courtesy photo

Originally appeared on CultureMap:

Again this April, I will jump on my trusty, rusty old bicycle and pedal from Houston to Austin in the BP MS 150, the biggest and most successful weekend charity ride in the world. Yeah, the world.

This year is going to be different, though. I'm actually going to train — for real — so I don't wake up crying with leg cramps the next week. (Ever get those? Man, they hurt.) The BP MS 150 is an amazing fundraising event. And it's fun, don't leave that out.

Over two days, 13,000 riders, all shapes, sizes and ages — from all across Texas — will form a two-wheel conga line to the state capital, raising money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. I said it's big and successful, right? Like $253 million since 1985 and counting. They're counting on $14 million more this year. It costs $120 to ride, and you have to promise to raise at least $400 in donations.

My first BP MS 150 was in 1998. One of the editors at the Houston Chronicleasked (ordered) me to write about the long-distance ride. Maxine Mesinger, the Chronicle's grand dame of Houston society back then, had Multiple Sclerosis, and the bosses liked her a lot more than they liked me. I said, "Sure, I'll do a column about the ride. In fact, I'll do the ride. I have a bike. How hard could it be?"

I pulled my bike out of the back of my garage. The tires were completely flat — that's how long it had been since I rode it. I showed up at the starting gate wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers. I was not properly dressed. I didn't know there was bicycle couture. Practically everybody had on Spandex shorts, skintight bicycle shirts and special clickety-clack shoes that lock into pedals on expensive bikes.

That outfit probably makes aerodynamic sense, but come on, fellas. No oneneeds to look at that.

I ran into a sports talk host who apparently had no friends — at least none who would tell him, "maybe Spandex isn't the right fabric for you." He looked like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. (He's still on the air. This afternoon, in fact.)

I did the entire ride, from Houston to La Grange on Saturday, and La Grange to Austin on Sunday...on a bike with no gears. I even did the long route, over torturous hills in Bastrop State Park. Some of those hills were like riding a bike straight up a wall. I didn't know there was an alternate route around the park. Now I know. I've never been back in that park.

There are three starting points on Saturday, and two routes on Sunday, so the ride can be as short as 121 miles, or as long as 165 miles. Which route do I take? Hey, I invented 121 miles. 

Lunch on Saturday is at a school in Bellville. I tried that once. Then, I discovered that if you ride a couple of blocks past the school, there's a Dairy Queen, a bakery, and the Bellville Meat Market. If you listen to Doug Pike's fishin' and huntin' radio show on 790 AM, he talks about the Bellville Meat Market a lot. I don't fish, and I think hunting is killing, but the place makes really good sandwiches. My Sunday lunch spot is the Roadhouse in Bastrop. Their chocolate shakes are double fudgy. You can patch pot holes with them.

Saturday night, most of the riders sleep in tents at the Fayetteville County Fairgrounds. Not me. I'm a delicate flower. My friends and I stay in a motel in La Grange. It's not exactly the Four Seasons, but it has a TV, air conditioning, and a bathroom with a door and a lock. (I like my privacy.) One year, we must have gotten the honeymoon suite, because there was a large hot tub in the middle of the room. (That's odd.) Another year, I was in the shower and noticed a cigarette burn mark on the edge of the tub. (That's classy.) There was a year when my friend Jeff Minkoff decided to wash his underpants in the bathroom sink. He threw them in the microwave to dry out. Instead, steam from his wet, nasty underpants filled the room so it smelled like the boys' gym in middle school. I haven't used a hotel microwave to make popcorn since.

I've done the BP MS 150 with different friends over the years. One year, Austin Crossley got a flat tire. He told the rest of us to go on ahead. He'd wait for a rescue van to take him to the next rest stop where he could get his flat fixed. About an hour later, I noticed that Sean Pendergast, wasn't in our group. Where did he go? There was nothing wrong with his bike. We were eating cookies at the next rest stop when the rescue van pulled in. Austin spilled out, followed by Sean. Huh? What was Sean doing in there? "We had a flat tire," he said, pointing to Austin. "We?" It was the first reported case of a "sympathy" flat tire.

I noticed that many people wanted to ride the MS 150 but thought they needed to be part of a team . Not true. So I organized a team called “The Stragglers.” We had T-shirts made for about 150 lonesome riders. I leaned on I.W. Marks to sponsor a huge tent for our (their) overnight in La Grange, and Tony Vallone — that “Tony” — catered our dinner. The lobster lasagna as divine. Take that, you over-the-top corporate teams with your designer shirts and catered meals!

The last few years, I've done the BP MS 150 with Mark George, the famous business magnate. Because of him, I pedal much faster. He has a speaker on his handlebars and plays "Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits" and "The Best of Tony Orlando" and "Bing Crosby: the Early Years." You'd pedal faster to get away from that, too.

How difficult is it to ride the BP MS 150? Very difficult ... or really kind of easy. You don't have to be whippet-thin or have legs like pistons. I can't run around the block, but I can pedal a bicycle to Austin. Mind you, I don't set any speed records. I ride between 12 to 15 mph, depending on whether the wind is my face or at my back. I prefer at my back. I've been passed by children, women on roller skates, a man in a tuxedo on a unicycle, guys dragging wagons with loudspeakers, and one guy pulling a mini-refrigerator on wheels.

Making the finish line depends more on whether your rear end is used to rubbing on a bike seat for hours at a time. If you try to do it cold, like I did the first time, your butt will scream bloody murder. Bike seats can unleash excruciating pain, especially on guys. There’s a vein "down there" that gets crushed and sore. You can do some real damage if you ride on the wrong bike seat or a bike seat that's tilted too high or doesn't fit right. I once called a friend who owned a bike shop and asked, “Is there a bike seat that doesn't hurt, or destroy any chance of there being a Hoffy Jr.? He said, “Here’s what you do. Get a bunch of sandwich-size Baggies, fill them with mango Jell-O, and stick them in your shorts. But it has to be mango, other flavors don’t work.”

Seriously? “No, I’m kidding. There is no such thing as a comfortable bike seat. The only way it won’t hurt is if you ride a hundred miles a week and you develop ‘Bike Butt,’ which only means you've become conditioned or numb in that area." Nobody wants that. I embarked on a search for a painless bike seat. I tried seats with inflatable air pockets, seats with soft implants (calling Dr. Rose), seats covered in gel pads, seats without that phallic part in front, seats with holes in the middle for...you know. Nothing worked. I just endured the long ride and walked like Fred Sanford for a couple of days.

Then I heard about the "Green Carbon Comfort Bike Seat" from RideOut Technologies. It looks a little weird, but it’s "optimized for commuting and hybrid bikes, great for distance touring as well." My bike is a hybrid with upright handlebars, like Mary Poppins or Pee-Wee Herman's bicycle. It's nothing fancy, way too heavy, and cost about $200. The only adjustment I make for the BP MS 150 is having a bike shop put on skinny tires. I’ve been bouncing my butt on the "Green Carbon" seat for a few weeks...painlessly. (And yay for no numbness!) It’s available, $85, at rideouttech.com. If it doesn't work for you, or you don't like it, you can send it back.

So you won't be surprised, here's an after-effect of the BP MS 150. Pedaling to Austin builds up your appetite. I can't get my head out of the refrigerator when I get home Sunday night. I remember asking John Lopez, then a sports columnist, now a sports radio host, “I can’t stop eating. Is this normal?” He said, “I’m eating. I’ll call you when I’m done, maybe around Thursday.”

Yeah, it's normal. 

 

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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