Alex Bregman: over-achiever.
Everyday in every way Alex Bregman keeps getting better and better. Every year he keeps getting better, and every time he does he keeps exceeding expectations.
Be honest. Did you really expect Alex Bregman to ever really be the best player on the Astros when he first came up? Tell me true.
Or was he always what ESPN.com called him as late as 2018, “baseball’s best sixth-best player”? Were the marketing people at HEB just ignorant when they left Bregman out of the first season of ads, or were they accurately gauging public perception? I think marketing is down to a science, and HEB had it right. That is how fans really tended to view Alex Bregman; good player, over-achiever, but not superstar caliber like Springer, Altuve and Correa.
The experts thought so too. Without exception. A sure thing maybe, if there is one, with a high floor, but only a medium ceiling. They all praised him, expected good stuff; but superstar, one of the best there is, possible Hall of Famer? Inconceivable.
Here’s the Sporting News when Bregman got his call to the majors in 2016.
“Long-term, Bregman profiles as a guy who will hit for average with a high on-base percentage and 20-plus homers. A polished hitter who has shown the ability to make adjustments, he’s pretty close to that ceiling right now and should contribute in Houston right away.”
Twenty home runs. That’s what everyone kept saying.
Here’s MLB.com’s assessment just before Bregman’s draft
Overall 55. Somewhere between average and above average.
The most enthusiastic appraisal I found came from Fangraphs, which concluded thus:
Four fWAR, twenty homers. Let’s compare to reality. In 2018, in only his second full season at age 24, Alex had 31 home runs, 156 wRC+, and 7.6 fWAR.
This season, despite all the projection services predicting negative regression, Bregman already has 32 home runs, 159 wRC+, second in the AL, and 6.2 fWAR, also second in the AL. If it weren’t for Mike Trout, Bregman would be the front-runner for MVP. Sorry, but nobody predicted that back when Bregs broke in.
Alex Bregman: best Astro?
The truth is, by objective measures he has become the most productive position player on the Astros, leading the team in fWAR for 2018 and thus far in 2019. His total wins above replacement for both years is 13.8. The next closest position player is George Springer at 8.2.
So if Fangraphs thought they were being enthusiastic projecting Bregman at four WAR per year at his peak, he’s almost doubling that now, and he’s only 25.
Instead of being the sixth best Astro, or fourth best position player, is it possible that Bregman’s career trajectory has him ending up as the best Astro among the current Core Four?
Below is a chart that tracks the production of Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve in their first 2130 plate appearances give or take a few. A few caveats before you read. The WAR numbers are not included in the Game Log data I used to to create this chart. Bregman’s number is accurate because I used his career numbers to date as the baseline. For the others I added their WAR numbers for the whole years involved and estimated for the partial year. So for the players other than Bregman, the WAR numbers are a close approximation.
Also, since Altuve started his career a year younger than Bregman, I started his numbers in his second year. Carlos Correa started his career six months younger than Bregman, but I calculated his numbers from his first season, which might give Bregman a slight edge in comparison to Correa. Springer was older than Bregman in his first season, so that should give Springer an advantage when comparing these numbers to Bregman.
Bregman, Springer, Correa, Altuve production in first 2130 Plate Appearances
Clearly Bregman has had the best approximately first three years of these four Astros. He leads in almost every category, except having (only) seven less homers than Springer, and a lower batting average than Altuve. In his best full season, last year at age 24, his WAR of 7.6 was better than either Correa’s or Springer’s best seasons by about 2.5 wins. It equaled Altuve’s MVP season when Altuve was 27. He is on pace for similar WAR production this year. If he breaks 7 WAR this year, which he is projected to do, he will be the second Astro position player to have two consecutive 7 WAR seasons. Jeff Bagwell did so in 1996-97.
According to the book Astroball, one of the major reasons the Astros drafted Bregman was their faith in his “growth mindset.” That is an intangible to consider when attempting to evaluate Bregman’s ceiling, and so far in his career he has shown steady improvement.
These are Bregman’s wRC+ numbers by season.
Keep in mind that Bregman has been a second half player his whole career, and he just came off the best month of his career, a 224 wRC+ this August. But one evidence of his growth mindset is his overcoming the pattern of slow starts he has had in the past in March-May. This year he ht 142 and 157 wRC+ in April and May respectively.
Neither Correa nor Springer have shown this kind of steady growth, though both have had a history of having to come back from mid-season injuries. Altuve, on the other hand, had a surprising breakout at age 26, when he added power to his hit tool. Such a sudden improvement by Bregman would surprise me.
Another area of steady improvement is Bregman’s defense, which for the first time in his career has a positive rating per Fangraphs. This despite moving back and forth between shortstop and third base.
Hall of Fame Projection
Honestly, in my heart of hearts, that’s where I think he ends up. I have said so since 2017. Because of his unbelievable drive, his “growth mindset,” I don’t think he is done improving, or that he will quit early. On the other hand I know it is hazardous to make such a prediction for any player who still hasn’t completed his third full season. Some players are late bloomers, others start hot and fade fast. Longevity is a major, but unpredictable factor. And of course, there are injuries.
So, despite the above caveats, I thought it would be interesting to compare Bregman’s early launch to that of some other Hall of Famers we are familiar with using criteria similar to that above. I chose to compare Bregman to Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and presumptive Hall of Famer, Adrian Beltre. I chose more recent players because the Fangraphs Game Log function does not work for players before the late 1980’s.
Bregman’s early career trajectory compared with 4 Hall of Famers
Among these four, in Bregman’s first 2130 plate appearances, one might be surprised to find that he has the highest slugging percentage, the most home runs, the highest wRC+ and the most fWAR. He is also a year younger at the start of his career than every player here but Beltre. (I started Beltre’s stats with his age 22 season)
Of course, as already stated, each player has his own unique trajectory. Many will probably persist in saying that Bregman has already reached his ceiling, even though at the young age of 25 that would be unusual. But even if this is his peak, 35 homers, 155 wRC+, if he can plateau at anywhere near that kind of production for long enough, he should be in the running for Hall of Fame
Chipper Jones played 18 seasons and had 10, 614 plate appearances starting his career a year later than Bregman. His best two seasons were his age 27 and age 36 seasons. He ended up with a 141 wRC+ and 468 home runs.
If Bregman can get to 11,000 PAs, about 5Xs more than he has so far, at his current rate, which includes the slow rookie and sophomore seasons, he could realistically end his career with 450 home runs. Since he has started better than Jones or Bagwell, the only way you can say it is impossible is to say that what he has done so far is a fluke, or maybe to invoke that old ceiling that he keeps breaking through every year.
Those assumptions may be true, we can never know for certain how a player will perform in the future, but there is less reason to say that Bregman’s career won’t continue on a Hall of Fame trajectory than there is reason to say it will. In his early years, he has clearly shown he has the stuff of a Hall of Famer. He’s good enough. The only question, as is the case for so many young stars is, will he be good enough for long enough? Only time will tell.