The Dividends of Alex Bregman’s Non-Adjustment

While trolls and naysayers on Twitter were crying bust after Houston Astros’ top prospect Alex Bregman began his major-league career by going 0-for his first 17 and 1-for his first 32, manager A.J. Hinch was moving him up to bat in the most important spot in his team’s lineup. At the time, Hinch cited his contact rate and exit velocity as indicators that Bregman’s at-bats were better than the results indicated.

Bregman’s now become a fixture in the second position of Houston’s batting order, starting there in each of the club’s last 33 games, and over the last month, he’s been among baseball’s most productive hitters. Seems like there must have been a grand adjustment, or a light bulb that went off. Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens dispelled that notion before a recent game in Cleveland, reinforcing Hinch’s suggestions that Bregman was never actually struggling at all.

“The biggest thing is, he was having good at-bats and having tough luck, too,” Hudgens said. “He was getting good at-bats. He just needed a couple hits to fall. His at-bats were good even when he was struggling.”

Split Bregman’s short career into two near-halves, and it’s evident that Hinch and Hudgens aren’t just blowing smoke — the Bregman we saw the first three weeks really isn’t all that different than the Bregman that’s tore up the league over the last month.

Two Tales of Alex Bregman
Time PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB% GB% Contact% O-Swing% Hard% BABIP
First 19 Games 85 .169 .235 .234 23.5% 8.2% 33.3% 74.7% 27.8% 31.0% .224
Last 22 Games 103 .347 .398 .695 21.4% 7.8% 24.7% 78.1% 25.5% 32.9% .394

Even when Bregman was struggling, he wasn’t striking out much more or walking much less than he has been lately. His contact, chase, and hard-hit rates have all improved incrementally, but all were right around or better than league average to begin with. It’s just that the hits weren’t falling early, and that poor fortune has more than overcorrected itself in the recent weeks. As is always the case, the real Bregman lies somewhere in the middle. His .394 batting average on balls in play over the last 22 games is just as unsustainable as the .224 figure over his first 19.

Hinch said there’s “not a lot different in the swing,” and Bregman concurred that “not much” had changed, though he did cop to a “little bit of a hand-path tweak” around the three-week mark that coincided with his recent hot stretch, a small adjustment, but one that plays to his strengths, which include a short, efficient, compact swing without many moving parts. Hudgens says the tweak was done in an effort to get Bregman “a little shorter to the ball,” something he does well naturally but had gotten away from upon his debut. The shorter path leads to an increased ability to turn on and elevate the inside pitch.


Bregman against an inside changeup in his 23rd game, after the hand-path tweak to get him shorter to the ball.


Bregman against an inside changeup in his sixth game, showing a longer path to the ball that causes the pitch to miss the barrel and get in on his hands.

The area in which the most drastic change in that table above occurs is also the area of Bregman’s game which has been most extreme so far, and that’s his tendency to put the ball in the air. If there’s been one defining characteristic of Bregman’s game, moreso than the three-week cold stretch followed by a three-weak heater, it’s been his reluctance to hit the ball on the ground, something Hudgens called “something we focus on organizationally.”

“We don’t want to get the ball on the ground,” Bregman said. “Up here, that’s an out. So we’re trying to hit the ball on the line and in the air.”

Thus far, 72% of Bregman’s batted balls have been on the line or in the air. Among 415 batters who have stepped to the plate at least 100 times this season, Bregman’s air-ball rate ranks in the 98th percentile; only six batters with at least 100 plate appearance have put the ball on the ground less often. Bregman’s drastically increased power numbers — he hit 20 homers in 368 minor-league plate appearances this year after hitting four in 311 plate appearances last year — are directly correlated to the organization’s effort to create more loft in his swing, something that was an area of focus for the 22-year-old in his first spring training this year.

“In college and high school you’re always taught to hit the ball on the ground and on a line. It’s different up here,” Bregman said. “If someone’s going to throw me in, I’m not going to try and hit a ground ball to third, you know? I’m going to try and hit it in the air. If someone’s going to throw me away, I’m not going to try and hit a ground ball to second, I’m going to drive it to right-center.”

While not an imposing physical specimen at 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, Bregman’s always been a strong kid — and putting on weight was another offseason focus — and he’s always been a gap-to-gap hitter. Those attributes, combined with Bregman’s natural direct path to the ball, led the Astros to believe he’d greatly benefit from hitting the ball in the air, and now their second-overall pick from last year’s draft has 27 homers between his time in the minors and majors as one of the most extreme air ball hitters in the league.

While not as drastic a case as his teammate Jose Altuve, Bregman’s showing that size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to hitting for power — an understanding of your approach and your swing does. Bregman understands his approach and his swing, just as he did in those first three weeks, when not much was different. When the process is sound, the non-adjustments can pay off, too.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Concerned Reader John
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Concerned Reader John

I don’t know if front offices/analytics or coaching staffs have been behind the push to reduce ground balls and increase balls in the air (likely a combination of the two), but I’ve seen the quote “Up here, that’s an out” a few times lately. Pretty cool to see the approach get to the point where the players have adopted it and have a cliche for it already. That type of buy-in takes time, especially when it pushes against conventional wisdom in baseball – that stuff dies hard.

dl80
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dl80

Great point. I wonder if some of this is also an adjustment to the shifts, which are much more effective against grounders than balls hit in the air.

bosoxforlife
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bosoxforlife

It certainly does die hard. As long as there are dinosaurs in the managers offices who continue to play by “the Book” change will be slow to come. Pitchers aren’t throwing around the knees and below for no reason. They are trying to induce ground balls yet hitters have been taught since the days of the dead ball to “get on top of the ball” which plays directly into the pitchers hand. Reasons for the sharp increase in home runs have been put forth, juiced balls, harder bats, etc. but a change in hitting philosophy merits a lot of study. Ryan Schimpf, the same Ryan Schimpf who spent 4 years in the Eastern League, is near the top of the list in True Average because he has eschewed the ground ball completely. Low average but great ISO power maybe the next big thing but it will take a lot to overcome the aforementioned dinosaurs. Are you listening Terry Collins?