The Astros’ Unsung Hero by Craig Edwards August 16, 2017 The Astros’ best player this year has been Jose Altuve, and it isn’t particularly close. The second baseman is one of the leading candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. After Altuve, the best players on the team are probably George Springer and Carlos Correa, though Springer spent some time on the disabled list recently and Correa remains there now. After that group, there’s Marwin Gonzalez, who’s hitting out of his mind, and a collection of other adequate players on the position-player side. As a team, the Astros have an MLB-leading 127 wRC+, miles ahead of the second-place Dodgers, who sit 16 points back. With Altuve, Correa, and Springer leading the way, the Astros offense has been great all year. A slow start moved Alex Bregman from the all-important second spot in the lineup down to the eighth spot for much of the season. Over the past two months, however — in somewhat quiet fashion– he’s become one of Houston’s most important players. It’s possible that Bregman’s profile doesn’t lend itself to stardom the same way some of his teammates’ profiles do. His relative lack of notoriety, however, might just be a result of the way he entered the majors. Consider the following players: Player A was taken with the second-overall pick in the draft out of college and, less than a year later, was destroying Double-A pitching. He was a top-20 prospect and, by midseason, had become the top prospect in the game according to Keith Law. At that point, he was promoted to Triple-A, where spent the rest of the season performing extremely well. He entered the following season as baseball’s top prospect and subsequently won Rookie of the Year. Player B was taken with the second-overall pick in the draft out of college and, less than a year later, was destroying Double-A pitching. He entered the season as a top-20-ish prospect (No. 42 was on the low end) and, by midseason, had become the top prospect in the game according to Keith Law. At that point, he was promoted to Triple-A and crushed it, but only stayed there briefly before getting promoted to the big leagues and holding his own. He then lost his prospect eligibility, any Rookie of the Year buzz, and got off to a slow start. Would our collective esteem for Alex Bregman more resemble the sort reserved for Kris Bryant if the former hadn’t made his debut last July? The one isn’t a carbon copy of the other, but there certainly would have been a lot more written about Bregman this spring if he were the top prospect in baseball and set to make his debut. There certainly would have been considerable discussion about the Astros potentially keeping Bregman down for a week or two to manipulate his service time, especially in light of the team’s decision not to give Correa a substantial raise in the offseason, instead renewing his contract (as they’re permitted to do) at something close to the league minimum. It’s possible, in other words, that Bregman flew under the radar a bit earlier this season because the Astros needed him in a pennant race last season. Of course, Bregman did get off to that slow start this season — even as the Astros surged forward in the standings. On July 1, nine Astros players had recorded at least 200 plate appearances; Bregman’s 96 wRC+ was eighth of nine, besting only Carlos Beltran’s mark of 82. Since that time, however, six Astros batters have recorded at least 100 plate appearances. Alex Bregman’s 175 wRC+ ranks second on the Astros by that measure — behind only Jose Altuve’s 211, which itself is second only to Giancarlo Stanton’s 215 during that time. Bregman’s output is seventh in baseball over that time. MLB Leaders Since July 2 Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ Giancarlo Stanton 164 13.4% 23.8% .317 .421 .856 .282 215 Jose Altuve 155 5.8% 11.6% .434 .471 .669 .467 211 Mike Trout 123 20.3% 16.3% .347 .480 .602 .380 195 Bryce Harper 140 10.0% 17.9% .355 .414 .702 .367 182 Charlie Blackmon 162 9.9% 17.3% .389 .457 .708 .434 182 Odubel Herrera 144 8.3% 17.4% .374 .431 .649 .424 179 Alex Bregman 145 13.1% 9.0% .325 .421 .618 .330 175 Joey Gallo 105 15.2% 33.3% .244 .381 .686 .231 173 Chris Taylor 146 4.8% 24.7% .350 .390 .650 .436 172 Joey Votto 171 22.8% 12.3% .323 .485 .559 .330 169 Numbers as of Tuesday afternoon. As is the case with any sample of this size, some of the lines we see here are the product largely of batted-ball fortune. That’s the case certainly for Altuve, Blackmon, Herrera, and Taylor. With Stanton and Gallo, meanwhile, we find sky-high slugging percentages. As for Trout and Harper, well… they’ve mostly just been themselves. The same is true for Joey Votto. And that last name is notable because no player’s line more resembles Votto’s over the last month and half than Bregman’s. More walks than strikeouts, reasonable BABIP leading to a high average, good power: that’s the Votto profile. To look at what changed, let’s briefly consider what he was doing earlier this season. We can’t really chalk up Bregman’s first three months to bad luck. Through July 1, his xwOBA was .336, which was higher than his actual wOBA, a fact due mostly to a few extra hits not falling. A .336 wOBA would have fallen neatly in line with last season’s figure, itself precisely .336. Considering the season as a whole, what we find is a hitter who produced slightly below-average numbers last year and who’s produced slightly above-average ones this year. Over the last six weeks, though, Bregman’s been almost a different guy. His K rate has dropped in half from what it was earlier in the season and he’s walking more. Given the changes in the plate-discipline numbers, you might think that he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone. But nope: Over the last 50 or so games, a period during which Bregman has been at his best, he’s actually been swinging at more pitches outside the zone. You can see this as the lines run together for the first part of the season before diverging. The same is true — in less dramatic fashion, granted — for swings in the zone. The difference is mostly just that Bregman has been making more contact when he swings. Nor has Bregman’s improvement been a product — as it has for many other hitters — of an increase in fly balls. His average launch angle has actually decreased about five degrees, nor is he hitting the ball harder. What he is doing is pulling the ball a lot more, going from 39% for the early part of the season to 48% over the last few months. This has helped increase Bregman’s production. Alex Bregman Pulling the Ball Pull % wRC+ on Pulled Balls wRC+ on Non-Pulls Through July 1 38.9% 177 66 After July 1 47.8% 213 145 Additionally, Bregman has also seen a big increase on the balls he hasn’t pulled. Some of that is going to regress, as his xWOBA since July 2 is .360, about 80 points lower than the actual figure during that time. Of course, a .360 wOBA isn’t that far from his season-long number of .353, which currently gives him a 124 wRC+. In the last decade, the only third basemen to put up a wRC+ of at least 120 at age 23 or younger are Kris Bryant, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval. Bregman probably isn’t the guy who has hit like one of the very best hitters in the game over the last six weeks, but he probably isn’t the average hitter he appeared to be during the first three months of the season, either. Despite a slow start, Bergman looks like a decent bet to get over three wins this season despite a mediocre first three months. The Astros offense has played extremely well this season due particularly to their three stars in Altuve, Correa, and Springer. Bregman is making his way to becoming the fourth.