Sunday Notes: The Astros Changed Alex Bregman for the Good

Alex Bregman slashed .337/.409/.514 in three seasons at Louisiana State University, twice earning All-American honors. Displaying outstanding bat-to-ball skills, he fanned just 68 times in 786 collegiate at bats. The Houston Astros rewarded his efforts by selecting him second overall in the 2015 draft.

And then they asked him to change.

“A ton,” answered Bregman, when asked how much he’s evolved as a hitter since signing. “In college, I tried to hit the ball on the ground and low line drives. Up here, there aren’t a lot of hits on the ground with guys like Carlos Correa and Andrelton Simmons playing shortstop. Now I try to not hit ground balls.”

The ink had barely dried on his contract when he was told to alter his approach. Organizations typically let first-year players finish the season before suggesting changes, but Bregman was told “right away” that something else was expected. Before he could get his feet wet at the professional level, he had to “learn on the fly how to drive a baseball.”

He proved to be a quick study. Two short years later, in his first full big-league season, the 23-year-old infielder put up a .284/.352/.475 slash line, and his 63 extra-base hits included 19 home runs. He strikes out more often than he used to — “I never used to swing and miss, and now I do occasionally” — but it’s not as though he’s become all or nothing. His K-rate was a wholly acceptable 15.5%.

The adjustments he made were both mental and mechanical in nature.

“My bat path has changed a little bit,” Bregman told me. “I used to be a little more ‘cutty.’ I was trying to stay more through the inside part of the ball, so my swing kind of cut in and out of the zone. Now I try to stay in the zone for a longer time. I also used to push my hands back, whereas now I try to take the barrel kind of around my head a little bit.

“It’s also about trying to get a good pitch to drive. That’s huge. You have to get a pitch that you can hit in the air, and not swing at balls you’e probably going to hit on the ground. You want to take pitches until you get to the one you want.”

He’s done a good job of that so far in the postseason. In the first two games of the ALDS, Bregman is 3 for 9 with a double and a home run.

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There are a handful of players in the game for whom ‘What have you been thinking about lately?’ is a good interview question. Matt Bowman is one of them. Here is how the St. Louis Cardinals reliever responded when I went that route earlier this summer:

“I’m supposed to get a lot of ground balls, and this year I haven’t got quite as many ground balls,” said Bowman, whose 54.6 GB% was down from last year’s 61.7. “There are some reasons for that, but where are they?

“Certain guys have adjusted to the low fastball — they can get that off the ground — but it’s almost an inversion. The low one goes up, and the high one actually gets hit into the ground. And if you can get ground balls… you always want to get them.

“If everyone across the board is hitting fewer ground balls, no matter where the pitch is, that’s fine. But I would guess that there has to be some compensation somewhere. You have swings that are more of an uppercut, and in order to get to the high pitch… it’s almost a chop down. It’s two different swings. In order to get to the high one they give up on that first move, which is down, then up.

“Pitches at the bottom of the zone, they hit very well, but as you move up in the zone, they’re not handling them as well. Whether it’s the launch angle, or the fact that they’re just not hitting it as hard, some of those end up being ground balls when you might not expect them to be. So my question would be: ‘Are there more ground balls to be found higher in the zone?’”

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Earlier this week we ran a Players’ View that asked the question: Are Today’s Analytically-Inclined Players tomorrow’s GMs? Recently-retired outfielder Sam Fuld wasn’t among the people quoted, but he does have an opinion on the subject. Fuld shared the following shortly after the article went up:

I do see an increasing role for former players in front offices. Over the last five to ten years, most teams have embraced the role of advanced metrics/big data/creativity, but this change has been met by a lot of cynicism from players and coaches. However, as this approach continues to seep into baseball culture, the notion of having front office, coaches and players all on board with the same ideology is fast approaching. 

“Now there exists a first real wave of former players who were both exposed to, and believe in, this sort of ‘new school’ thinking. With a player’s perspective, coupled with an understanding of the team’s philosophy, their role in connecting all members of the organization will be integral.”

There’s a decent chance we’ll see the Stanford-educated Fuld in a front office in the not-too-distant future. Asked about his interest, he said he’s definitely exploring the possibility now that he’s hung up his cleats.

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There were a record number of home runs hit this season — 6,105 in all — and as usual, first basemen provided a fair share of them. A glance at our leaderboard shows that 29 players who qualified at the traditionally-power-heavy position went deep 20 or more times.

Ryan O’Hearn wasn’t one of them. The 24-year-old Kansas City Royals prospect homered 22 times, but 18 came in Triple-A, and four more were hit in Double-A. Next year could be another story. O’Hearn didn’t have a great season — his OPS was .785 — but thanks to his power potential and Eric Hosmer’s free agent status, he could find himself in the middle of the Kansas City lineup next year. If he does, he won’t be looking to spray singles.

“As a middle-of-the-order guy, you’ve got to hit the ball in the air and drive in runs,” O’Hearn told me this past spring. “The home run is a huge stat for me. It is for all first basemen, because that’s one of the main things they’re going to measure. Home runs are kind of the elephant in the room. You can’t really think about them, but at the end of the day, they matter.”

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When I recently asked Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Daniel Descalso how he’s evolved as a hitter, he told me that he’s learned to drive the ball better. That adjustment began last season, when he added “a more pronounced leg lift” and “started (his) movement a little sooner” helping him to identify pitches earlier. And as you might expect, he is well aware of terms like launch angle and exit velocity.

Which isn’t to say he believes the wheel is being reinvented.

“It’s pretty basic baseball,” reasoned Descalso. “The harder you hit the ball, the better chance you have of it not getting caught. That’s something that’s never changed. I’m trying to hit the ball hard in the gap.

“Singles are great, but doubles and homers are what drive in runs, so it’s OK to hit balls in the air. But I’m trying to hit the ball with a launch angle in the high teens, or 20 degrees, and with the right velocity it will get by the outfielders. If I happen to catch it on a little higher launch angle and it goes out, then it goes out.”

Descalso has 18 home runs in 594 at bats over the past two seasons. He had 15 home runs in 1,408 at bats prior to last year.

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Following last Sunday’s regular-season finale at Fenway Park, Astros manager A.J. Hinch referred to that afternoon’s affair as being “probably the most relaxed major league game you could have.” A day earlier, their loss to Boston had settled the seedings for both teams in the forthcoming playoff rounds.

I asked Houston’s head honcho if having just one “relaxed game” is optimal for a team heading into the postseason.

“The least amount of meaningless baseball you can play, the better,” opined Hinch. “Obviously it’s nice to clinch — you don’t want the anxiety of the last day of the season having to mean something — but I like the intensity that we played with the entire month of September. We were chasing something. We wanted as many wins as we could get, and we got as many as we could.”

Boston manager John Farrell had a less-certain response to the same question.

“As far as clinching on what day… I don’t know,” said Farrell. “We had our foot on the gas all the way through, and we needed to. Sunday was a day we gave a couple guys a breather, but I don’t really know how to answer that.”

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Farrell did have a definitive answer to a question I asked at yesterday’s workout-day press conference: Given the way bullpens are used in the postseason, most starters aren’t normally going to go through the lineup a third time, so do you want your pitchers to go into the game not thinking about setting up hitters for subsequent at-bats?

“I don’t think anyone has gone in with the thought of pacing themselves or trying to hold back a pitch mix,” answered Farrell. “We’ve gone in with the thought of pitching every inning as if you’re a closer. We just haven’t executed to the consistency we need to. So no, we’re not thinking about third and fourth time through the order at all.”

Red Sox starters have allowed 11 runs in seven innings over the first two games.

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Derek Lilliquist won’t be returning to the St. Louis coaching staff next year, and while his ouster garnered a fraction of the attention, neither will Blaise Ilsley. The 53-year-old Ilsley had served as the club’s bullpen coach for each of the last five years, and before that he held the position for the Cardinals’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates.

Leaving the organization he’s been with for the last 16 seasons frees him up to root for the team he grew up following in Alpena, Michigan.

“My heart is obviously with the Cardinals now, but back home most of my friends and family are hardcore Tigers fans,” Ilsley told me this summer. “So there’s still a little bit of that there for me. Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, Bill Freehan, Dick McAuliffe, Willie Horton… I can remember them from when I was a young kid. As I got older, the ’84 team really stands out; they started 35-5. Growing up in Michigan, I liked all the Detroit teams. For the most part, the people of Michigan love the Tigers.”

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OCTOBER TIDBITS

Prior to this season, six teams in Dodgers franchise history have won 100 or more games. None of them went on to win the World Series.

Joe Maddon is the first manager to lead the Chicago Cubs to three straight postseasons since Frank Chance in 1906-1908.

Carl Edwards Jr. held opposing hitters to a .134 batting average this season. Over his career, the Cubs reliever has allowed 47 hits in 107 innings. He has 150 strikeouts.

Billy Hamilton’s stolen base totals in his four full seasons with the Reds are 56, 57, 58, and 59.

Following Wednesday’s loss, the Minnesota Twins are 2-13 in postseason games against the New York Yankees. They are 0-6 in postseason games against the Baltimore Orioles.

With his two-run triple on Wednesday, Arizona’s Archie Bradley became the fourth reliever in MLB history to drive in two-or-more runs in a post-season game. The others are Rosy Ryan (1924), Johnny Sain (1953) and Mike Jackson (1995).

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto had 36 home runs and a 1.032 OPS this year. In his 2010 MVP season he had 37 home runs and a 1.024 OPS.

Colorado’s Nolan Arenado became the fourth player in MLB history to have multiple seasons of 40 doubles, 35 home runs and 130 RBI before his 27th birthday. Hank Greenberg, Chuck Klein, and Hal Trosky are the others.

The Washington Nationals had the best road record (50-31) in the National League this season..

The Los Angeles Dodgers led the National League with 47 comeback wins. The Los Angeles Angels led the American League with 47 comeback wins.

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Dave Roberts had a great answer to a great question prior to NLDS Game One. Asked if he wants his starting pitchers “to be kind of crazy,” the Dodgers skipper responded as follows:

I think that if I scripted it, probably not, but if you look at the body of work from our guys, they’re all crazy. I think Yu is probably the most mild-mannered and most normal. But Clayton, he’s crazy on his day. Rich, you guys just had Rich; he’s crazy. Alex, sneaky crazy. Yu’s kind of, I’m still learning him, but I would say he’s the most normal out of all of them. So I guess maybe.

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How old are each of the managers in this year’s League Championship Series, where did they attend college, and which positions did they play professionally? Here are the answers to those questions:

A.J. Hinch: 43, Stanford, catcher
Dave Roberts: 45, UCLA, outfielder
Torey Lovullo: 52, UCLA, infielder
Joe Girardi: 52, Northwestern, catcher
John Farrell, 55, Oklahoma State, pitcher
Terry Francona: 58, Arizona, outfielder
Joe Maddon: 63, Lafayette College, catcher
Dusty Baker: 68, American River College, outfielder

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Steve Cline was the oldest of the 24 baseball insiders quoted in Thursday’s Players’ View on coaching age in the minors. Milwaukee’s low-A pitching coach is 65 years young. How long does he hope to continue coaching?

“Probably until they take the uniform from me,” proclaimed Cline, who told me that his wife asks him the same question. “The kids keep me young, and I feel fine physically, so as long as professional baseball wants me, I’m going to keep going. I enjoy this. My father will be 90 this year, and I’ve told him that I’m just not ready to go to work yet. He got a chuckle out of that, of me not being ready to get a real job.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Wall Street Journal, Jared Diamond and Andrew Beaton wrote about how Terry Francona unwinds by playing Scrabble on his iPad. As Andrew Miller put it, “He likes to play dumb, but he’s not.”

Over at ESPN, Marly Rivera interviewed Jose Altuve about his AL MVP chances, his new appreciation for analytics, and much more.

Derek Lilliquist is no longer the Cardinals’ pitching coach, and according to The St. Louis Dispatch’s Derrick Goold, the desire for a more modern focus is the reason why.

According to The New York Post’s Ken Davidoff, Derek Jeter’s cliche act won’t work now that he’s the Miami Marlins CEO.

The Rays made several changes to their coaching staff this week, and Marc Topkin explained the logic behind each of them at The Tampa Bay Times.

James Wagner of The New York Times told us about a form of stickball that is popular in the Dominican Republic. Gary Sanchez asked the rhetorical question: “What Dominican doesn’t play vitilla?’

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Bruce Bochy’s managerial record is 1,853-1,855. His teams have had 12 winning seasons and 11 losing seasons. The most games any of his teams has won is 98. The most games any of his teams has lost is 98.

Dusty Baker’s given name is Johnnie B. Baker, Jr.

The Detroit Tigers named Alan Trammell their manager on this date in 2002.

Mark Lemke holds the record for most postseason games started at second base, with 61.

On October 6, 1966, Jim Palmer — just 20 years old at the time — threw a complete-game shutout as the Baltimore Orioles beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-0 in Game 2 of the World Series. The losing pitcher was Sandy Koufax.

On this date in 1972, Oakland A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris threw his bat at Detroit Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow after being hit by a pitch in Game 2 of the ALCS. For his actions, Campaneris was suspended for the remainder of the series and fined $500.

On this date in 1995, Edgar Martinez’s 11th inning double gave the Seattle Mariners a 6-5 win over the New York Yankees in the deciding game of the ALDS.

Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first African American to appear in a MLB game, was born on October 7, 1856. Walker played for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: The Astros Changed Alex Bregman for the Good by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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SubmarineSailor
Member
SubmarineSailor

Weird, I would have thought somebody gave Alan Trammell his name well before his mid-40’s…..

Johan Santa
Member

I think something got left off at the end of that.

SubmarineSailor
Member
SubmarineSailor

Yeah, I’m assuming it’s a typo and he meant to say he was named the manager?