August 18, 2017
The First 162: Alex Bregman
It’s difficult for a former no. 2 overall pick and top-50 prospect to be overshadowed in their own infield while thriving in their first full season as a big leaguer, but such is life playing alongside Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Alex Bregman takes a clear backseat in Houston’s deep, powerful, MLB-best lineup, not only to star infield-mates Altuve and Correa, but also to George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, and at times Yulieski Gurriel, Carlos Beltran, and Josh Reddick. Bregman has spent much of the year batting seventh or eighth, only recently becoming a semi-regular in the top five spots with Correa on the disabled list.
Yet at age 23, he’s hit .270/.342/.473 with 21 homers and 71 total extra-base hits through his first 162 career games, totaling 4.1 WARP in one complete season’s worth of playing time. How does a player like Bregman make short work of the minors after being a top draft pick and consensus top prospect, and then live up to the considerable hype in the majors, all while flying under the radar? Having the best-hitting teammates in baseball plays a large part, certainly, but his initial struggles upon being called up last season also seemed to take Bregman’s hype off the burner and for whatever reason it’s still cooling.
Make no mistake, though: Bregman is a star in the making, and he’s damn close to being one already.
Bregman was an elite college player for all three of his seasons at LSU, batting .337 with 21 homers, 87 total extra-base hits, 66 stolen bases, and more walks (87) than strikeouts (68) in 196 total games. Picked second in the 2015 draft, sandwiched between fellow shortstops Dansby Swanson and Brendan Rodgers, he signed for $5.9 million and reported directly to low Single-A. Bregman played 29 games there and then moved up to high Single-A for 37 games to finish his first professional season, hitting .294/.366/.415 with four homers and a 30/29 K/BB ratio overall.
Bregman was a consensus top-five prospect in the 2015 draft class, but there were some questions about his upside compared to less polished players. His pro debut seemed to add fuel to that fire, as he hit for a strong batting average and controlled the strike zone well, but showed little power as a 21-year-old former college star facing Single-A pitchers. Those doubts vanished pretty quickly in his second season, as Bregman batted .306 with more walks (47) than strikeouts (38) in 80 games at Double-A and Triple-A, and slugged .580 with 20 homers in 314 at-bats. Suddenly he looked like a polished player with upside.
And then ... he struggled. Called up by the Astros for his big-league debut in late July, he shifted to third base full time and stumbled to a 2-for-38 (.053) start. Houston stuck with him and after two weeks of looking lost at the plate Bregman looked like himself again, finishing the year by batting .313/.354/.577 with eight homers and 24 total extra-base hits in his final 39 games. His overall rookie showing was very impressive and his last six weeks were eye-popping, but there was one oddity within his 49-game performance: Bregman struck out 52 times compared to only 15 walks.
Plenty of rookies strike out more and walk less than expected early on, but a hitter who controlled the strike zone exceptionally well at every level doing that while also thriving at age 22 is much rarer. Bregman could have been consciously sacrificing some contact-making ability for all that slugging. Or maybe it was about how big-league pitchers chose to attack him initially, forcing Bregman to alter his usual approach. Instead, the actual answer was even better for the Astros: His strike zone control simply arrived in the majors a bit later than his slugging skills, liked checked baggage that took a detour to Houston.
Everything is safe and sound in Bregman’s toolbox this season. As you can see in the table below, both his isolated power and average exit velocity are in the same range as last season, when he did all of that slugging, but Bregman has chased pitches outside the strike zone 20 percent less often, his walks are up 50 percent, and his strikeouts are down 40 percent. That trio—keep power, add walks, ditch strikeouts—is just about the best-case scenario for any 23-year-old, and realistically fits within Bregman’s overall career progression.
Focusing on this year, Bregman has batted .275/.358/.471, smacking 47 extra-base hits along with a solid 67/47 K/BB ratio in 113 games. And much like he did as a rookie, he’s done that after bouncing back from a slow start. He carried a sub-.700 OPS into late May, but since then he’s hit .293/.386/.541 with more walks (33) than strikeouts (29) in 65 games. Among all qualified hitters with a strikeout rate below 15 percent, only Altuve, Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Anthony Rendon have a higher isolated power than Bregman.
Here are the top OPS+ by 23-year-old third basemen who qualified for the batting title since 2000:
Toss in solid defense—FRAA pegs him at +4.2 runs through 162 games at a relatively new position—and he’s already one of the best third basemen in the league. In fact, WARP ranks Bregman (2.9) as the AL’s second-best third baseman, behind only All-Star starter Jose Ramirez. Across both leagues, Ramirez (24) and Bregman (23) join Machado (24) and Miguel Sano (24) as the only under-25 third basemen to top 1.5 WARP. Bregman is on pace for 3.9 WARP. Third basemen with more WARP in their age-23 season since 2000: Machado, Bryant, Wright, Cabrera, Chavez, Longoria, Nolan Arenado, Aramis Ramirez.
You get the idea. It’s by no means uncharted territory for a 23-year-old third baseman, but he’s keeping a lot of very impressive company. Bregman is one of the best players at his position and one of the youngest players at his position, and his upside is clearly no longer in any doubt. There are certainly still some things to work on, like avoiding slow starts and putting his skills together at the same time more consistently, but he seems close to becoming a household name even if he may never be the biggest name in Houston. Most teams would be thrilled to have a player like Bregman as their main long-term building block.