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Bregmania has Arrived

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Will the Astros’ infield produce the AL MVP in consecutive seasons?

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Remember that time Alex Bregman started his career 0-for-17 and 1-for-32?

Alex Bregman has burst onto the national scene this season, in part due to his glorious dugout stares. His home-run celebrations are so magnificent the entire Astros squad, city of Houston, and baseball collective have taken notice.

A quick medley of Bregmania:

The stares are piercing and hilarious, entertaining and intense, and perfectly fitting for a guy filled with competitive fire. But Bregman has also garnered attention this season because of his remarkable performance. As of Saturday morning, Bregman is hitting a cool .300/.401/.560. He leads the defending World Champions in runs (97), hits (158), homers (29), RBI (96), total bases (295), walks (82), on-base percentage (.401), and Wins Above Replacement (7.4). Bregman is also second on the club in steals (10) and his Power/Speed Number (14.9), which is the harmonic mean of home runs and steals and rewards players who have a lot of both, ranks eighth in the American League. Forgive famed sabermetrician Bill James—who developed the Power/Speed metric and works as a Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox—if even he is experiencing the exhilarating effects of Bregmania.

Bregman’s performance may be a surprise to some, but his career arc has been trending upward for over a year now. Bregman really came into his own last season and he certainly entered the limelight during the Astros run to the first World Series title in franchise history. He hit two home runs off Cy Young contender Chris Sale in the ALDS, one in his first playoff at-bat and another in Game 4 that helped the Astros close out the Red Sox in four games. Bregman continued to make plays in the ALCS against the New York Yankees, though it wasn’t only with his bat. Bregman threw a dart home to nab Greg Bird and keep the Yankees scoreless en route to the Astros pennant-clinching Game 7 victory. Of course, we all know about Bregman’s World Series heroics in Game 5.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Although superstardom always seemed possible for Bregman in 2018 (he ranked 45th in projected WAR amongst all players, per FanGraphs, coming into the year), it wasn’t really until midseason that Bregmania arrived. In June, with the partial absence of Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa and a sputtering George Springer, Bregman hit 306/.372/.713 with 11 HR and 30 RBI to take home his first AL Player of the Month Award. Bregman deservedly earned his first All-Star selection this season and belted a home run in the tenth inning of the MidSummer Classic to lead the AL to victory, becoming the only Astro to win All-Star Game MVP honors in the process.

89th MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bregman also participated in the Home Run Derby in Washington D.C. and put on quite the show for being the smallest guy at the event. Then the Dugout Stares began.

89th MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Each time you think Bregman is about to peak he sends another seismic shock large enough to register on the Richter scale.

So how does Bregman fit into the discussion for AL MVP? He’s been on base more than any other player (249 times) and has the most extra-base hits in MLB (78). He’s second overall in win probability added (5.7, meaning Bregman adds nearly 6 wins to the average team), REW (5.5, which means Bregman has added 5.5 wins above average based on his performance measured by the 24 base-out situations across every play in the game), and RE24 (55.53, the number of runs Bregman has added given the bases occupied/number out situations he has encountered—0 is average for this statistic). J.D. Martinez leads in all three categories, and while he is a legitimate threat for the Triple Crown this year, he doesn’t play defense. That shouldn’t rule out Martinez for MVP consideration, but it certainly doesn’t strengthen an argument for him.

As an aside, advanced fielding metrics suggest Bregman hasn’t played great defense. Maybe that’s somewhat related to the 188 innings he’s played at shortstop this season to fill the void left by Carlos Correa’s 36-game absence, but Bregman’s aptitude, instincts, and willingness to learn/adjust at third base pass the eye test. And fielding metrics still leave a lot to be desired in the way they are used to evaluate players.

Back to the offensive side, Bregman is third in the Majors in Offensive WAR (7.3) and fourth in adjusted OPS+ (166), which accounts for a player’s ballpark effects. He’s also just so dang clutch. Hinch has repeatedly mentioned how impressed he is by Bregman’s demeanor and focus, regardless of the situation. Bregman just doesn’t ever allow the moment to overwhelm him; quite the opposite, he seems emboldened by high pressure situations. Clutch score is a metric used to indicate how well a player performs in high leverage situations, relative to his own performance. For instance, a player who hits .300 overall and .300 in high-leverage situations is not considered clutch. Bregman has a Clutch score of 0.97 (anything above 1.00 is considered great), good for 15th in MLB and higher than any other MVP contender in either league. J.D. Martinez is the next closest MVP contender with a Clutch score of 0.79 (24th in MLB).

Of course, Bregman was also a consistent supplier of offense when major cogs—Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, all guys who were involved in the MVP discussion less than a year ago—were missing, and he continues to be. After hitting three doubles Tuesday night against the Twins, Bregman added another two-bagger Wednesday to go with his team-leading 29th home run. On Thursday, on the road against the team with the best record in the Majors, Bregman clubbed his MLB-leading 48th double and scored two runs to help propel the Astros to their sixth straight win.

Bregman also has an impeccable knowledge of the strike zone, a characteristic often championed by manager A.J. Hinch and easily spotted by Astros fans. Hinch, in his classic style, cited Bregman’s contact rate as a reason to why he moved the third-baseman up in the lineup during those early struggles in 2016.

The numbers back up Hinch’s assertion; In 2018, Bregman swings and misses on only 4.2% of pitches seen (second-best in MLB), chases pitches out of the strike zone 17.3% of the time (second behind the incredibly patient Joey Votto) and makes contact on 88.6% of his swings, fifth in MLB. Even when he chases pitches outside the zone, he does a good job making contact (78.0%, fifth in MLB). Bregman is the Astros most patient hitter, and one of the most selective in the league. He only swings at 37.1% of offerings, the sixth-lowest rate in the Majors. Bregman’s looking for his pitch—he wants the at-bat to be sequenced on his terms—and when he finds it he puts it in play. He also has more walks (82) than strikeouts (71), practically unheard of these days for a hitter with power. And one of my personal favorite stats: When behind 0-2 in the count, Bregman has posted a ridiculous .916 OPS, the highest mark in MLB since 2008. Again, no matter the situation, Bregman is going to maintain the same approach.

Ultimately, a constellation of numbers points to Bregman being in the middle of serious (and justified) discussion for the AL award, the second consecutive season an Astros infielder is producing an MVP-caliber campaign. Does it seem crazy to think Bregman can win it? Maybe so, but that’s probably what he wants you to think.

No matter the outcome, Bregmania has arrived and it might just be crazy enough to produce an MVP.