Every-Thing Sports

Why I still believe in the Astros' chances

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The year 2020 is the gift that keeps on giving. As if the shortened season due to the pandemic along with the sign-stealing scandal hanging over their heads wasn't enough, the Astros are now dealing with the fact that ace pitcher Justin Verlander may be out for the season. This is par for the course. My kids have alerts set up to get any breaking sports news, so they will typically be up to date on what's going on. From time to time, they'll break news to me when I'm busy. As I was in the middle of cooking the meals they requested, my daughter broke the news to me. I didn't believe her at first, so I asked my son to verify. He was busy with the dogs and couldn't get to his phone. I stopped, washed my hands, grabbed my phone and yelled.

I didn't want to believe it was true. It sunk in and felt like an anchor on my chest. My head hung low as I finished cooking. I couldn't even enjoy my food. All I could think about was their chances of winning a revenge title were out the window. Then it hit me. It hit hard. I raised my head up, looked off in the distance, thought for a sec, smiled, and knew there was still a good chance. So what made me change course? Here's what crossed my mind:

The pre-Verlander Astros

Prior to acquiring Verlander mere minutes ahead of the trade deadline in 2017, the Astros were still considered a World Series contender. They were 80-53, had an 11.5 game lead in the AL West, a 3.5 game lead in the AL overall, had the most runs scored in MLB, and the third best run differential rate in MLB. The bats were winning them games, not the pitching staff. This lineup has to support the team if they hope to remain title contenders. They'll need to win more 7-5 games than 4-1 games. Could this lead to Dusty Baker and crew changing their analytic approach? Possibly. It will also lead to...

More pressure on the pitching staff

Next man up never meant more than it does now when it comes to the Astros' pitching staff. Baker has been known to use, or even overuse, his bullpen. Being down last year's AL Cy Young winner is a serious blow. This adds pressure to the starters and the bullpen. Every starter moves up a spot in the rotation. Zack Greinke (older vet) and Lance McCullers Jr (coming off Tommy John surgery) will be relied on to carry the bulk of the load. Meanwhile, guys like Jose Urquidy, Josh James and others will have to step up and take on bigger roles. The bullpen will need to provide the starters steady backup when they either can't go any longer, or get into a jam. Forrest Whitley was left off the 30-man roster, but expect that to change if some of the aforementioned guys don't pan out and/or Whitley seems ready to contribute.

Something to prove

When the Astros were punished for the sign-stealing scandal, everybody and their momma had something to say. After the pandemic shut down sports, the blowback went away for a while. As the season was being discussed on how to return, things ramped back up. People actually said they were upset the Astros wouldn't get booed. All the while, this team took it in stride and prepped for their return. Given their start, the Verlander injury, the talent on this roster, and an us versus the world mentality, I can see them using this as motivation to stick it to everyone. Nobody wants them to win outside of Houston, and they know it. What better way to make all the haters sick?

There's something about saying "I told you so" with your actions as opposed to verbally announcing it. It's a feeling you can't replicate. It makes you want to DX crotch chop whoever doubted or hated on you. People who operate on a different level than others can use that hate as fuel in their tanks on the road to success. You can't tell me Alex Bregman won't see this as extra motivation. He's the kind of guy that will not only use it himself, but use it to fire up his teammates as well. Pro athletes are wired different. Lots of them play for the love of the game. They thrive off the challenge of being the best and beating the best to prove it. What better circumstances do the 2020 Astros have in order to do just that? I haven't given up hope on what this team can accomplish this season and neither should you.

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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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