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Has Alex Bregman Become the Most Valuable Astro? Astros Trending, Part I

Who will History deem was the best Astro of the championship era?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros
Bregman walks it off again on a ball hit 6 feet.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is not a Hawt Taek. It was researched and mostly written before Tuesday night’s two home run and fourth walk-off game by Alex Bregman. Most statistics are from Monday afternoon.

As of this writing who leads the Astros in the most accurate statistical category of hitting, wRC+, in 2018? Is it Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa or Alex Bregman? Since you read the title of this article you already know: it’s Bregman, 152 to Altuve’s 151. Who has the highest slugging percentage, the most home runs, the most RBI among those four? Of course, Bregs. Below is a chart which compares these players’s 2018 season’s statistics.

Core Four Hitting Statistics, 2018

Bregman 405 152 0.28 0.383 0.517 17 57 59
Altuve 408 151 0.339 0.405 0.5 9 44 61
Springer 403 112 0.246 0.332 0.422 15 43 63
Correa 315 129 0.268 0.352 0.48 13 49 46

Currently Alex Bregman is sixth in the American League in wRC+, tied with Francisco Lindor. He trails only Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, J. D. Martinez, Aaron Judge, and Jose Ramirez, just ahead of Manny Machado. He is tenth in OPS, leading the Astros, yet his BABIP is a low .290. He is eighth in on base percentage, 15th in slugging, also leading the Astros. He is fifth in base on balls with 52, just one less than his strikeouts. More testament to his mature plate discipline is his O swing %, (swinging outside the strike zone) 21.1%, 3rd lowest in MLB. Despite such discipline, his hard hit rate is 41%, 21st best in MLB and best on the Astros.

And yet, it seems most Astros fans are slow to recognize the preeminence of Alex Bregman. After all, who was MVP last year, and the MVP of the Astros for quite a few years before Bregman even arrived? Altuve of course. And who was deemed THE FUTURE, and THE SAVIOR the year before Bregman arrived. Correa of course. And the year before that it was Springer who was all that. How many MVP’s and futures and saviors can one team have? The spoils of all those accolades had already been divvied up before Bregman even arrived. He’s always been the last core four to most fans, both chronologically, but also in the estimation of how good he would eventually be compared to the other three. Do you see Bregman in the HEB ads?

What I’m about to say is this. We may have had it entirely backwards. Taking absolutely nothing away from the other players, who are and will always be considered great, heroes all of the 2017 World Champions, perhaps Alex Bregman may end up remembered as the greatest of this generation of Astros. Of course only time will tell, there are many unforeseeable circumstances, each player has his own unique growth trajectory, and there’s a certain subjectivity to such evaluations, but let me make the case for Bregman emerging as the most valuable Astro.

Of course I’m not going to try to convince readers of the Crawfish Boxes that just because Bregman has microscopically better statistics than Jose Altuve or the others in the short sample of 1st half 2018 that he will end up with a more illustrious career. You need more. Let’s take a closer look.

First, he’s arguably not just the best hitter on the Astros this season, but has been for about the last full year. The following is a chart of important hitting statistics for the Core Four going back to August 1, last year.

Astros Core Four Since August 1, 2017

Bregman 642 145 0.292 0.374 0.517 25 95 92
Altuve 616 144 0.324 0.392 0.486 18 64 99
Springer 611 108 0.241 0.333 0.417 22 62 93
Correa 421 129 0.276 0.354 0.484 17 66 64

Again, Bregman just barely edges Altuve in the overall wRC+ category, getting fewer hits and a lower batting average, and a slightly lower on base percentage, but slugging at a higher rate and getting the most home runs of all four and the most RBI by a large margin. Of course Correa has been injured for much of this time period, not just reducing his chances for home runs and RBI, but hurting his averages because of having to readjust after a prolonged absence last season.

Of course it is unfair to compare Bregman when he is 23-24 to Altuve and Springer in their 27-28 year old seasons. On the other hand Correa is actually 6 months younger than Bregman despite arriving on the Astros before Bregman. It is also unfair to compare Bregman’s early career, including his rookie season, to the more mature performances of Altuve and Springer, and to a lesser extent, Correa, as he is trying to adjust for the first time to the big leagues. Let’s try to normalize for these differences.

First, let’s compare Bregman’s first year, 11 months and 2 weeks of his career (that’s how long he has been playing) to the equivalent time of the other players’ early careers.

Core Four First 1 year, 11 months, 2 Weeks Statistics

Bregman 1247 131 0.279 0.356 0.489 44 162 178
Altuve 1252 91 0.284 0.324 0.377 12 77 143
Springer 801 131 0.256 0.353 0.461 36 92 104
Correa 1272 127 0.276 0.355 0.472 48 188 156

Ok, Bregman is merely equal to Springer in wRC+ in his early career, although let’s remember Springer was two year’s older and more seasoned in AAA by the time he arrived.

It looks like Bregman has the slight edge on Correa overall head to head over their first just under two years of playing, similar numbers throughout, with Correa having a slight edge in home runs, Bregman having a slight edge in overall slugging.

Altuve of course was a very young rookie and pushed prematurely into the big leagues because his team was so bad a 5’6” AA player was the only guy they had to play second. He has outperformed all expectations since then. This chart is unfair to Altuve.

So let’s try another approach. Let’s compare the other four players’ performances to Bregman’s when they were all the same age as Bregman since Bregman started playing with the Astros. Springer will not be on this chart since he got his start at an older age than Bregman. This chart will correlate Bregman, Altuve and Correa from the time they were about 22 years old and 4 months, when Bregman started, until 24 and 3 months, Bregman’s current age.

Bregman, Altuve, and Correa Stats at the Same Ages in their Careers

Bregman 1247 131 0.279 0.356 0.489 44 162 178
Altuve 1188 104 0.304 0.338 0.396 10 87 125
Correa 1141 135 0.291 0.373 0.492 44 180 158

Here Correa gets the slight edge over Bregman, although they are still very close. This time period corresponds to Correa’s torrid stretch before his injury last year, although Bregman is having his own hot spell before this year’s All Star game, while Correa sits out injured again.

Altuve at this time has not yet hit his growth spurt. He is good enough at this point in his career to get his first contract from Jeff Luhnow, but no one at this point in his career could have predicted he would blossom into an MVP and baseball’s most beloved player.

Which leads me to an important qualification and cautionary note. As already mentioned every player has his own trajectory. Some players start out great and flame out at an early age. Some are late bloomers who don’t even get going until they are in their late 20’s. And players often have an uneven trajectory. No one can predict with certainty how or when a player will progress.

That said what I want to do next is compare the progress each of these players has made, year to year, not just in performance, but in basic skills, contact, plate discipline etc. We will chart their progress through their 22, 23, and 24 year old seasons, except Springer, who starts at 24. With all the qualifications already mentioned, I want to chart a trajectory, and I believe that trajectory shows that Bregman has the steepest curve of progression of the four.

Note: on these charts HR/AB should read AB/HR.

Bregman’s Progress Through First Three Years

Bregman year wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
Bregman year wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
2016 (22) 113 0.791 25 6.9 24 32 30.9 74.9 0.317
2017 (23) 122 0.827 29 8.8 15.5 33 26.3 85.6 0.311
2018 (24) 151 0.898 21 12.7 13 40.4 18.1 87.6 0.289

The Following is Altuve’s Progress through his Age 22 through 26 seasons. I extended the look on Altuve because he was a “late bloomer.”

Altuve Progress From 2012 through 2016

Altuve year wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
Altuve year wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
2012 102 0.74 82 6.3 11.7 22.5 29.5 90.6 0.321
2013 84 0.678 125 4.8 12.6 26 35.5 87.2 0.316
2014 137 0.83 94 5.1 7.5 23.8 36.2 90.9 0.36
2015 124 0.812 43 4.8 9.7 25.9 38.2 89.4 0.329
2016 151 0.928 27 8.4 9.8 33.8 35.1 86 0.347

The next chart is George Springer. We will follow his progress from 2014 to his break out in 2017.

George Springer Progress 2014 to 2017

year Springer wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
year Springer wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
2014 (24) 129 0.804 14 11.3 33 39.3 23.9 60.8 0.294
2015 (25) 133 0.826 24 11.1 24 33.8 21.9 69.4 0.342
2016 (26) 125 0.815 22 11.8 23 33.6 26.8 73.8 0.317
2017 (27) 140 0.889 16 10.2 17.6 36.7 23.9 78.7 0.297

And finally this is Carlos Correa for his whole career.

Carlos Correa Progress 2015-2018

year Correa wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
year Correa wRC+ OPS HR/AB BB% K% hard hit% O-swing% contact % BABIP
2015 (20) 136 0.857 18 9.3 18.1 32.9 32.7 81.2 0.296
2016 (21) 123 0.811 29 11.4 21.1 37.2 33.4 76.8 0.328
2017 (22) 152 0.941 18 11 19.1 39.5 26.7 80.3 0.352
2018 (23) 129 0.832 21 11.7 24.4 31.2 29 77 0.317

In three years only Bregman has shown so much steady, uninterrupted and significant improvement as a hitter in almost every category, both performance and skill related. His wRC+ has gone from 113 in 2016 to 151 this year at the time of this writing. His base on balls percentage has nearly doubled, growing every year until reaching almost 13% this year. His strikeout rate is almost half what it started at, down nearly as low as the walk rate at 13 percent. While dropping his outside the zone swing rate almost in half to a ridiculously low 18%, his contact rate is fourth in the AL at 87.4% and his swinging strike rate is 3rd at 4.8%. So while becoming one of the most disciplined and elite contact hitters in baseball, he has also become a top power hitter, with his home run rate (before last night) having dropped from his rookie year to 21 AB/HR this year, although the number spiked a bit last year.

This is not normal. Usually hitters sacrifice discipline for power. Bregman has improved both simultaneously. Bregman’s combination of plate discipline and power are surpassed only by Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts in the American League, the only other legitimate powers hitters in the American league who strike out a lower rate than Bregman and walk as much.

Why am I dwelling on this? Because a batter who only swings at strikes and generally puts them in play, and can drive the ball when he does it, is a stable, consistent batter. His success is sustainable. His success this year is not luck or a hot streak. If anything his BABIP indicates bad luck. So does his xWOBA, 14th in MLB, tops on the Astros and .024 above WOBA at .410. He is a fundamentally sound hitter. And he is still improving.

Compare this to George Springer. Until last year George Springer’s year to year overall hitting statistics were mainly stagnant, showing little improvement. Springer’s best year as a home run hitter was his first, with 14 at bats per home run. It was also his worst year at striking out, which he did 33% of at bats. Springer was basically the same age as Bregman is this year. Springer has improved his strike out rate and contact rate every year, but his at bats per home run rate spiked as well. He sacrificed power for discipline. Last year, in his 27 year old season, he finally managed to combine a reduced strike out rate and an increased contact rate with increased power. Still his home run rate of 16 ABs/home run, though better than Bregman’s currently, was still matched by a strike out rate also considerably higher than Bregman’s at 17.6% and a lower walk rate.

Perhaps the easiest of these players to compare with Bregman is Correa, since Correa is only six months younger than Bregman, although Correa has more big league experience and almost 50% more plate appearances. Their career averages are remarkably close, Bregman slashing at .280/.357/.493; Correa .285/.363/.495. Each have a career wRC+ of 134.

Again, Bregman shows a much stronger growth trajectory. Correa has been up and down in the parts of four seasons he has played, dropping in production after a strong rookie year, rebounding last year with the strongest output of his career before his injury, and falling back down again in the first half of this year below his rookie output.

Now in his fourth year there has been little change in his peripherals throughout his career. He still walks, strikes out, makes contact, swings outside the zone and gets hard contact at basically the same rates he did as a rookie. In all these categories he started out as good or better than Bregman but is now worse.

Not that Correa should, or is trying to copy Bregman. Correa’s body, and his swing are more geared for power production. But so far this year Bregman is getting both more on base, and more power production. Their slash lines thus far in 2018 (today’s figures) Correa: .268/.352/.480. Bregman .282/.384/.531. Again, this represents very steady even, consistent progress and growth since his emergence in 2016. At age 24 I can see no reason for this growth to stop.

Comparing Bregman, or anyone else for that matter, to Altuve is almost impossible. Altuve swings at an obscenely high number of balls outside the zone, and makes contact with them at an unbelievable rate. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t try this at home. He probably learned this skill by playing stick ball in Venezuela swinging at beer caps. Really.

It seems his growth spurt towards MVP status occurred because he began swinging harder. His contact rates went down and his swinging strike rates went up, as his home run totals, slugging percentage, and hard hit rates went up as well. In other words, he made the normal compromise, harder contact for less discipline, the compromise Bregman has been able to avoid.

In the last three years Altuve’s wRC+ has been 151, 160, 151 this year. Let’s assume that at age 28 these numbers are at or near Altuve’s ceiling. Can Bregman be that good?

At age 24 he’s already at 152 so far this year. (155 as of today). At age 24 Altuve had the best season of his career up to that point reaching 137. And I repeat, everything about Bregman’s approach, his discipline and contact skills, screams legitimate and sustainable.

Not to mention a few other things about him. A sweet, clean, efficient, level stroke that should be videotaped and sent into outer space so that aliens can know how to properly swing a bat. And a drive and work ethic that is equally other-worldly. (Not to say that the other three are not madly driven individuals as well.)

This year Altuve and Bregman are tied for bWAR at 4.6 and fWAR at 4.1. Bregman is still considered a defensive liability, although we have seen some great plays and a strong arm. But remember, he played shortstop his whole life until he showed up on the same diamond with Carlos Correa. He is still improving.

So who will be the greatest? All previous caveats apply. There is no knowing the future. But here is my assessment.

I think George Springer and Jose Altuve are known quantities by now, having reached their prime years. Altuve will make the Hall of Fame. His is a very high standard. He is an on base machine who has been able to add decent power to his batting mix.

George Springer is a great all around player. He is a World Series MVP and like Altuve will always be loved in a special way by Astros fans. His problem has been and remains consistency.

Carlos Correa, like Bregman, is still a work in progress, still only 23. They will play together with Altuve for years to come, barring injury. Are we looking at the greatest second base, shortstop, third base combination to ever play together?

My sense is that Correa has more power potential, and that Bregman will come close to Altuve’s on base skills, and approach Correa’s power numbers.

I think, all things considered, Bregman will be remembered as the greatest all around hitter out of these four great hitters and develop as a very good fielder as well.

That I may live to see Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman inducted into the Hall of Fame as Astros. Fully realizing that I am talking about a 23 and 24 year old, it is entirely possible.