The Astros’ Emerging Superstar

By just about any measure that counts, Alex Bregman has been one of the best players in baseball. In fairness, Alex Bregman was expected to be one of the best players in baseball, but not quite to this degree. I can explain, using our old standards — projections and WAR! Coming into the year, among both hitters and pitchers, Bregman was tied for the 45th-highest projected WAR. He was sixth in projected WAR among Astros, behind Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer.

Right now, Bregman and Verlander are tied atop the Astros’ WAR leaderboard. And Bregman is tied for 10th in all of baseball, around names like Matt Carpenter and Nolan Arenado. It’s not that no one ever saw Bregman coming — he was already a good everyday player, and the Astros did, after all, select him second overall in the 2015 draft. But Bregman has steadily continued to improve, to the point where he’s nearly maxing out his skills. Because of how loaded the Astros’ roster has been, it’s been more difficult for Bregman to stand out. It’s funny to refer to someone as having played in Altuve’s shadow, but Bregman’s completing his star turn, and he should be recognized as such.

Bregman’s only 24, and he debuted in 2016. I’ll recite for you his year-to-year wOBAs:

  • 2016: .336 wOBA
  • 2017: .351
  • 2018: .386

You can see his improvement right there, with a start-to-present wOBA jump of 50 points. But now, with the help of Statcast and Baseball Savant, check out Bregman’s year-to-year expected wOBAs, based on his walks, strikeouts, and batted balls:

  • 2016: .308 expected wOBA
  • 2017: .347
  • 2018: .402

The improvement is even more evident, if you think of expected wOBA as being a better measure of true talent. Compared to his rookie season, Bregman now is up 94 points. For the sake of providing some context, in 2016, Bregman’s xwOBA ranked in the 39th percentile. The next year, he was up to the 74th percentile. Right now, he ranks in the 95th percentile. Bregman isn’t exactly pulling a Mookie Betts, but he still looks like one of the most improved hitters in either league. Some of it is just about his batted balls, but the bigger story has to do with Bregman’s approach.

As a rookie, Bregman walked about 7% of the time, and he struck out about 24% of the time. Over two years, that walk rate has almost doubled, and that strikeout rate has been cut almost in half. Between 2016 and 2017, Bregman’s big step forward was with regard to his making contact. Between 2017 and 2018, it’s been a matter of increased selectivity. In the following plot, you’ll see every hitter with at least 250 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons. The x-axis shows the changes in chase rate. The y-axis shows the changes in in-zone swing rate. Bregman, as you could guess, is the point in yellow.

Bregman’s isn’t the most extreme point in there, but it’s among them. Out of 206 players, he has the fourth-biggest drop in chase rate, and he has the 16th-biggest drop in in-zone swing rate. The outliers, if you’re curious, are Nick Williams and Pablo Sandoval. Williams deserves a post of his own. This is about Bregman, though, and what you’re seeing, basically, is intent to sit on certain pitches. Bregman trusts his eye, and he’s become increasingly patient. Or, if you prefer, increasingly selective. While Bregman’s top exit velocities aren’t in any way comparable to Giancarlo Stanton’s, you don’t need to hit the ball 120 miles per hour. Bregman is putting his best swing on more pitches, and he’s laying off more of the stuff he doesn’t like. That’s how he’s become one of precious few players in baseball with more walks than strikeouts.

The other day, I wrote about Juan Soto. That post has a plot that shows power (ISO) and discipline (K-BB%), and Soto and Bregman are right next to one another. I like thinking in terms of player comparisons, so I wanted to run some more math. Here’s what I did, in short: For every regular or semi-regular in 2018, I found their swing rates, their contact rates, their exit velocities, their launch angles, and their sprint speeds. From there, I calculated standard deviations and z-scores, looking for the smallest distances from Bregman’s own stat line. When I ran this analysis for player comps, one player stood out as easily the best comp in the pool. This season, the player most comparable to Alex Bregman is Jose Ramirez.

By the numbers, Ramirez came out literally twice as close to Bregman as the next-closest player. Here’s a table of the relevant information, along with some bonus stuff to drive the point home:

2018 Player Comparison
Player Swing% Contact% EV LA Sprint BB% K% xwOBA
Alex Bregman 37.4% 88.0% 89.2 16.3 27.8 12.8% 12.5% 0.402
Jose Ramirez 39.8% 87.4% 89.3 18.2 27.6 13.3% 11.4% 0.407
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
EV = average exit velocity; LA = average launch angle; Sprint = average sprint speed.

Bregman and Ramirez are similarly disciplined, and they make similar amounts of contact. The contact they make is also almost identical — right down to how they excel to the pull side — and as it turns out, Bregman and Ramirez even have comparable top sprint speeds. Because of the discipline and contact, both players walk plenty, without striking out. And their current expected wOBAs are only five points apart. This is about as close a match as you can find. Bregman is a 24-year-old third baseman. Ramirez is a 25-year-old third baseman.

They’re built a little differently, sure, but it’s nothing dramatic. Bregman bats righty, while Ramirez bats from both sides. This year, Bregman has eight steals, while Ramirez has 26. Ramirez rates as the superior defender. But both players stole 17 bases a year ago, and while Ramirez is strong in the field, infield defensive numbers are our least reliable, and many believe Bregman ought to be playing shortstop. I don’t want to go over the top and come off like I think they’re literally one and the same. But if you were wondering what Alex Bregman went and improved into, he improved into becoming awfully similar to Jose Ramirez. Ramirez just ranked first on our trade-value list. Bregman ranked seventh.

When Bregman first came up to the majors, he succeeded, but there was reason to be skeptical. He didn’t seem to possess upper-tier power, and his approach left room for improvement. That approach, sure enough, has improved, and now Bregman is one of the most selective hitters in the game. He’s also one of the most difficult hitters to strike out in the game, and the contact he can make is plenty strong enough to drive the ball to or over the fence. Just about the last thing the Astros needed was another superstar on the roster. It looks like they’ve got one. Bregman is doing almost everything he possibly can.

We hoped you liked reading The Astros’ Emerging Superstar by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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38 Comments on "The Astros’ Emerging Superstar"

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Dominikk85
Member
Dominikk85

of course there were expectations for him, he wasn’t drafted second overall for no reason. I’m a bit surprised though how good he is, most scouts expected him to be a solid but not spectacular player with ok but not special defense, a great K-BB rate and 15-20 homers.

he has fulfilled the K-BB thing but he seems to be turning into a 30+ homer guy which is the difference. as an amateur his swing was kinda hook-y and he improved his direction through the ball so that he hits the ball more in the air (less topspin rollovers) and the juiced ball also helps.

I thought he would become a good OBP 15-20 homer 3-4 win player but he seems to turn into one of the best players in the AL.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Maybe that was the narrative was when he was drafted, but Bregman was the #1 prospect on a lot of midseason lists just before he was called up. I don’t have any idea how this narrative was that he was going to be a solid-but-unspectacular player survived so long. He was crushing the ball, thwacking 14 homers in 285 PAs in AA, and then another 6 in AAA in 83 PAs. And then he was called up, and thwacked 8 dingers in 217 PAs in his first run at the league.

To me, the comparison between Ramirez and Bregman is important for another reason, though: It’s how we consistently overlook that players with elite hit tools can max out their game power (relative to raw power). This is especially important in the live-ball era, where making quality contact yields better rewards. Bregman isn’t really in Ramirez’s class yet and may never be, but guys with monster contact ability might have more power upside than we think.

mbs2001
Member
mbs2001

As someone who follows the White Sox I was thrilled to see them draft Madrigal, whos hit tool is ridiculous.

Dominikk85
Member
Dominikk85

Btw I think most teams would take a sure bet to average 3-4 war with the second overall pick. Of course you love a 7 win guy but so many picks totally bust.