Alex Bregman Still Has Another Gear

I’m not breaking any news in saying that Alex Bregman is having a great year. He’s batting an otherworldly .295/.416/.570, good for a 162 wRC+, while walking more than he strikes out and playing his usual excellent defense at third base. He’s fifth in baseball in WAR, and only Mike Trout’s constant unrelenting excellence prevents Bregman from being the presumptive AL MVP.

I could talk about all of that, but that would be boring. Do you really want to hear that Alex Bregman is good? If that’s what you’re here for — he’s good! He’s great! Boring. If that’s what you’re after, go browse his player page — it won’t disappoint. I want to tackle something slightly different today.

This year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Bregman a power hitter. His .278 ISO is 14th-best in baseball, sandwiched between Kyle Schwarber and Freddie Freeman, and his 33 home runs are both a career-best and a top-20 mark in baseball. Heck, he was in the Home Run Derby, and nothing says power hitter like baseball’s annual celebration of dingers. He hit 31 home runs last year, too — this isn’t a purely 2019 concern. Here’s my hot take: Bregman still isn’t a power hitter — and if he unlocks that, there’s a new level of stardom available to him.

With an opinion like that, I’m sure to need backup. Bregman had a 200-something ISO last year, hit more than 30 home runs, and posted a 157 wRC+, for goodness sake. He had a slugging percentage over .500. How can I say he’s not a power hitter? For one, he doesn’t look the part. Bregman is listed at 6-foot-0 and 180 pounds, not a prototypical power frame by any means. His teammate Springer looks like he would have Bregman’s stats — he stands 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, with the kind of long levers that have historically been associated with home runs.

There’s also the matter of exit velocity. It’s an oversimplified statistic, but when the top of the list since the beginning of the Statcast era is Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, and Miguel Sanó, you know you’re measuring power somewhat. Frequent Bregman comp Anthony Rendon is 28th on the list, in the 88th percentile of batters with 1000 batted balls. Bregman is emphatically not that. He’s in the 53rd percentile, closer to Jon Jay than he is to Cruz.

In fact, when Bregman was selected to the Home Run Derby this July, his production on contact was almost exactly league average. His .386 wOBA on contact barely outstripped the overall average of .381 and sandwiched him between the likes of Greg Garcia and Eric Hosmer on the leaderboard.

It wasn’t a case of hard contact he had nothing to show for, either. His xwOBA was actually lower than his actual wOBA by 31 points. His overall batting line was still predictably excellent — he had the fifth-most WAR and eighth-best wRC+ in the majors at the break — but it almost all came down to his tremendous plate discipline. It turns out 17% walks and only 13% strikeouts does a lot to help a batting line.

A profile like that is often unstable. Walks are of course very valuable, and having literally 17% of your plate appearances end in free passes is a sure way to have a good batting line, but walking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Pitchers are no dummies — if you don’t give them a reason to fear challenging you in the strike zone, they’ll flood the zone and eventually sink your walk numbers. The aforementioned Garcia is a great example of this. He has absolutely stellar plate discipline and a high contact rate, which lets him foul pitches off and get more chances to walk. He also has no power (career .098 ISO), so pitchers throw him strikes more than half the time, one of the highest rates in the league. Bregman has more power than that, but with his walk numbers, it was only a matter of time before pitchers began coming after him.

At the break, I was legitimately worried about Bregman’s future output, concerned that a profile kept afloat by walks could only go on so long. Since the break, well — I’ve been wrong! Bregman has been crushing everything he’s seen, to the tune of a .485 wOBA on contact, which you can see in the sustained spike in this 50-batted-ball moving average wOBA on contact graph:

His hard hit rate is up from 40.4% to 50.7%. He’s cut his infield fly balls in half while pulling the ball more, and he’s batting a ludicrous .357, aided by a .368 BABIP. He has the second-highest wRC+ since the break, a sparkling 195, and he continues to walk more often than he strikes out.

And yet, I’m not convinced. He’s barreled up only 5.5% of his batted balls since the break, exactly the same as his first half rate and lower than the major league average of 7.4%. His xwOBA on contact is nearly unchanged in the second half, .358 as compared to .355 in the first half. His ground-ball rate has ticked up marginally. Underneath the hood, it looks as though Bregman is doing the same thing he’s always done.

Of course, xwOBA isn’t an infallible judge of ability. Bregman’s grounder-averse, pull-happy swing is perfectly suited to Minute Maid Park with its short left field dimensions. Why would we expect a statistic that captures average production across every stadium in baseball to work in an environment for which Bregman is so perfectly suited?

That’s a lovely sentiment. It also doesn’t appear to be true so far in Bregman’s career. Take a look at his home/road splits over a variety of metrics:

Selected Home/Road Splits
Split wOBACON xwOBACON wRC+ wOBA HR/FB% LD+FB% Air Pull%
Home .384 .361 142 .370 12.9% 64.8% 34.8%
Away .399 .374 146 .389 14.3% 66.0% 34.9%

Huh. Bregman’s game doesn’t seem to change much, home or away. In fact, while it’s easy to think of Minute Maid as an extreme home run park for righties, it sports average home run park factors from both sides of the plate and marginally suppresses fly ball value overall. It’s actually somewhat of a pitcher’s park, regardless of how tempting the short porch looks.

Notwithstanding the fact that xwOBA slightly undervalues pulled fly balls, it doesn’t appear that Bregman has truly tapped into something heretofore unseen. If Bregman’s second half isn’t a new level for him, is he doomed to eventually suffer the same fate, albeit from a far higher starting point, than poor Greg Garcia? I don’t think so. The fact that he’s already so good without elite power on contact makes me think he has more room to grow.

You see, just because Bregman hasn’t always demonstrated tremendous power doesn’t mean he’s incapable of it. When he turns on a pitch on the inside half of the plate, he’s a fearsome power threat. Take a look at his ISO on balls in play by zone:

That bright red on the inside part of the plate is no joke. A .400 ISO on balls in play is outstanding, and it’s not as though he swings through most of the pitches and makes the most of the few he hits — he has a contact rate above 90% across the entire inside edge of the plate and even slightly out of the zone in.

Despite that happy zone, Bregman hasn’t loaded up to swing in that zone over his career:

As Bregman swung less in 2018, he kept his swing rate up in the middle of the plate, but he dialed back on the inside swings. To some extent, that’s an unavoidable consequence of swinging less often, but with someone as naturally athletic and coordinated as Bregman, adjustments like that are always possible. There’s nothing wrong with swinging in the middle of the plate — but Bregman could tap into even more power by adding back a few more inside swings.

The adjustment could pay huge dividends. In his career, Bregman has put more outside pitches into play than inside pitches. Some of that is how he’s pitched — pitchers target low and away to try to avoid him. But if he could simply switch the amount of inside and outside pitches he puts into play despite that, his wOBA on contact would improve by 25 points. Make even more contact inside, or add a little power away, and there could be even more in his bat.

To be clear, changing his swing rates isn’t going to turn Bregman into Mike Trout overnight. Even if he boosted his wOBA on contact those 25 points, he’d trail Trout by the better part of 100 still. Trout is simply the best. There’s nothing wrong with being sub-Troutian, though. Bregman with a little more pop is a yearly 150-160 wRC+ hitter, even without the fortunate batted ball luck he’s had in the second half this year. That’s MVP-level production in a theoretical Trout-less league, and a top-five player in all of baseball regardless.

Alex Bregman is already a top-five player in baseball, but it isn’t crazy to wonder how long he can sustain it. Thus far in his two-year run as a superstar, he’s generating a lot of his value from walks. But if he’s able to change his swing habits and tap into more of his natural power, he might go from a gatecrasher of the game’s very top tier to a solo second behind Trout, the kind of player you pencil in for 7-ish WAR at the start of every year. How’s that for a hot Alex Bregman take?

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Have to love that he is so patient early in his career; that he is and can still improve is amazing.