The Astros’ Emerging Superstar by Jeff Sullivan August 9, 2018 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.