ASTROS-DODGERS PREVIEW

Validation vs. vindication: Astros-Dodgers series breakdown

Composite image by Brandon Strange.

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tues. July 28: Walker Buehler vs. Framber Valdez

Wed. July 29: Dustin May vs. TBD

STORYLINES

  • The Astros and Dodgers meet up for the first time since the sign-stealing saga gripped the baseball universe. While both teams are trying to get their feet under them still, the fan bases will undoubtedly use the series for bragging rights. Dodgers fans will seek vindication for having a title stolen from them by the "cheatin' 'Stros," while Astros fans will seek validation that a trash can wasn't the World Series MVP in 2017, and that their hometown nine are just really good.
  • Who will the Astros tab to replace Justin Verlander's spot in the rotation? The ace is on the shelf for at least two weeks but probably longer. With one ace from 2019 in New York and another on the IL, the once scary Astros staff is now filled with question marks.
  • Will the Dodgers throw at some Astro hitters for payback? Whether players had scathing things to say publicly or not, all of them know that technological sign-stealing was rampant league-wide. If anyone on the Astros gets hit, it won't be for revenge in my opinion.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Roster sizes will continue to shrink as the season goes on, and there will be some competitive battles for roster spots at the back end. Between Will Harris departing for Washington, Hector Rondon going to Arizona, Joe Smith opting out of the season, Roberto Osuna getting to camp late, and Josh James having to fill in the rotation, the bullpen is unrecognizable from seasons past. Rookies Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor have impressed in the early going, while Bryan Abreu impressed enough last year to make the postseason roster. Look for Astros manager Dusty Baker to test the young guns against the Dodgers and see what they're made of. If the young guns stand up to the test, Chris Devenski and Joe Biagini's days in orange and blue could be numbered.
  • Can Kyle Tucker earn an everyday spot in the lineup? Through four games, the touted prospect has only gotten his name tabbed twice. He'll need to start living up to his prospect billing if he wants to get any type of run once Yordan Alvarez comes back to claim his DH role
  • How much longer until George Springer breaks out of his early season slump? Springer only has one hit through four games, albeit the hit was a no-doubt home run onto the train tracks. Later this week, I'll break down Springer's early season struggles at the plate.

PREDICTION

Through three games, no team in baseball was undefeated. The Dodgers come to Houston with a 2-2 record after splitting with the lowly San Francisco Giants. In an already unpredictable sport, this season is even more unpredictable. The Astros and Dodgers will split, leaving fans no choice but to wait until the teams meet again to settle their sign-stealing beef.

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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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