It really shouldn’t be any surprise at all.
As a small child he played catch so much he wore a hole through a cinder block wall. As a four year old T-ball player he once executed an unassisted triple play.
As a twenty three year old third baseman Alex Bregman was already highly instrumental in the Astros achieving their first World Series Championship, walking off the incredible Game 5 with perhaps the most iconic hit in Astros history. And making plays like this:
At age twenty four he was an All Star, nay, All Star MVP. He finished the season with over 30 home runs, 50 doubles, 100 runs scored, and 100 RBI, all while walking more than striking out. He was fifth in MVP balloting.
But there was a hole in his game. Not a gaping hole, but a hole. Statistics told the story of a below average defensive player. Maybe fans didn’t believe it. It seemed he made spectacular plays look routine. But statistics don’t lie. The young man who learned baseball by throwing until there were holes in cinder block walls was not quite up to snuff defensively.
In 2017 Bregman made 10 errors at third base. In 2018 he seemingly got worse, making 13 errors. By May 2nd, 2018 he already had four errors. In three years prior to this year Bregman’s Ultimate Zone Rate/150 (UZR/150) was negative, meaning below average: 2016 -9.9, 2017 -8.7, 2018 -5.1. His Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) was negative each of the last two years as well.
But by May 2nd, 2019, Bregman was still errorless at third base. His Uzr/150 was 26. His DRS at 4.
Let’s compare Bregman to the league.
Among all MLB players Bregman’s UZR/150 is second. His DRS is 14th. Among third basemen his UZR/150 is first, and his DRS is second. In 2018 he ranked 11th and 10th among third basemen in those categories respectively.
In calculating Wins Above Replacement for defensive contributions Fangraphs uses a stat called DEF. This is UZR adjusted for the relative defensive importance of the position one plays. In 2018 Bregman’s DEF was -0.6, which made him a slightly below average defensive contributor. In 2019 it is 3.3, 13th in MLB and the highest of any third baseman so far this year, tied with Manny Machado. All the higher DEF ratings are held by catchers, center fielders and shortstops. Just for comparison, last year’s third base Platinum Glove winner, Matt Chapman, is tenth in the league among third basemen at 1.5.
At least so far in 2019, Alex Bregman has been an elite defensive contributor.
Why This Will Last
So here comes the mandatory small sample size disclaimer. One month of great hitting a Babe Ruth does not make. Defensive stats take even longer to normalize, so why do I think that Bregman isn’t going to regress to career norms?
- Adjustment pangs. From T-ball days Alex Bregman has always played shortstop until his career sojourn bumped into Carlos Correa. Since joining the Astros he has had to suddenly adjust to a new position with unique challenges, requiring unique skills. This adjustment is a long and gradual process. What is surprising to me about Bregs’ third base skills isn’t that they are statistically slightly below average, but that they are as good as they are. Maybe this is the year when it all comes together for Alex defensively, when he finally makes the adjustment.
- Elbow surgery. There has been an ongoing debate here at TCB about Bregman’s defensive abilities, some saying that with all the spectacular plays he seems to make, Bregman must be a great defender, screw the stats. Others say you can’t trust your eyes because you don’t see all the other third basemen. Stats don’t lie and they are neutral. Maybe this is the year when the numbers and the eye test come together, because with all the great plays, last year Bregman made 11 throwing errors, which no doubt wrecked his statistics. So far this year he has not made any errors of any kind, and it appears that by throwing pain free he is now more confident and accurate in his throws. Heart and head, gut and stats now united.
So despite the small sample size I am going to stand out on a fairly substantial limb and predict that this is the year that Alex Bregman gets recognized for his great defense too. By year’s end he will be a contender for Gold Glove. You read it here first folks.
All statistics from Fangraphs, May 3rd, 2019. This was written Saturday and of course, after I wrote it Bregman made his first error of the season. His DEF remains 3.3, UZR/150 26.0, and DRS still 4.