Headed into the 2018 season and fresh off a World Series championship, the Astros had two legitimate MVP candidates in Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, with George Springer a step behind the two middle infielders. One season later, Alex Bregman has taken the crown of the best position player on the team. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection on Fangraphs expected a modest increase from 3.5 fWAR in 2017 to 3.8 in 2018. However, Bregman doubled that number and finished 4th in the MLB with a 7.6 fWAR. So, how did the fourth best player on the Astros become the fourth best player in the entire league?
Bregman improved his plate discipline significantly, improving his BB/K ratio from .57 to 1.13, a jump from 52nd in the league to 3rd. However, strikeouts and walks are not the only indicators of improving plate discipline, as Bregman also improved his Barrel% and Hard Hit% through better pitch selection when he did swings. Now former hitting coach Dave Hudgens was interviewed by The New York Times and explained, “I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can hit a homer. I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can do damage. If you go in with that mindset, you’re not going to miss your pitch as often.” So, with that idea from Hudgens, I wanted to see how Bregman’s approach changed from 2017 to 2018 with regard to hard hit balls.
At first glance, it seems like Bregman in 2017 was a more complete hitter than in 2018. In 8 out of the 13 portions of the strike zone as defined by Baseball Savant, Bregman actually decreased his Hard Hit% on balls in play. Bregman decided to focus on the middle and outside half of the zone at the cost of getting beat on inside pitches. One of the best things the Astros do as an organization is showcase a player’s strengths to make them more effective, and Bregman seems to be the latest example. We have seen this concept with Tyler White focusing on crushing fastballs at the expense of effectiveness hitting offspeed and breaking balls. Another example is Gerrit Cole ceasing use of his Sinker since arriving in Houston in favor of increased usage of his elite fastball. Bregman has given up mild success on the inside corner of the plate in favor of hammering the outside pitch. However, there is a caveat in these numbers. Exploring a little deeper into Bregman’s hard hit balls, Bregman focused on the outside pitch but hit more of those pitches to left field. Here is a heat map of Bregman’s Barrels and Solid Contact hits the past two seasons.
We see that Bregman pulled the ball more, despite swinging at outside pitches more. This could be a factor of many different things. It makes sense when looking to hit for more power to try and pull the ball more often. As an entire league, the average Exit Velocity for pulled balls was 89.3 MPH, compared to 88.3 MPH for straightaway and 84.5 MPH to the opposite field. Therefore, when it comes to attacking pitches looking for more power, Bregman could just be catching those outside pitches further in front of the plate looking to pull the ball, but that probably would not explain such a drastic shift in batted ball direction. When comparing video of Bregman’s swings from 2017 to 2018, a physical adjustment becomes apparent that reflects his change in approach. Take a look below at screenshots from each of the past two seasons from 2017 to 2018.
Notice Bregman in relation to home plate. In order to better reach that outside pitch, Bregman has moved significantly closer to plate. For many of his 2018 at bats, his front foot was touching the chalk of the batter’s box. This explains why he is hitting those outside pitches pull-side as well as his decreased efficacy with pitches on the inside half. This is not the most earth shattering adjustment a batter has ever made, but an extra four inches of plate coverage can significantly impact a hitter’s results. Bregman actually did not begin the season crowding the plate. Looking through video from the season, Bregman seemed to make the shift between the Astros April series with the Tigers and Angels. In his first 100 PA of the season, Bregman hit for a modest 107 wRC+ and .092 ISO. Taking a look at the following 101 PA after moving closer to the plate, those numbers improved to 142 wRC+ and a .217 ISO. Bregman became a much better hitter immediately after changing his positioning in the box.
Now, why did Bregman make this adjustment and why did it work? In 2017, Bregman saw 11% of pitches on the inside half of the plate and 20% on the outside corner, so it seems like a decision to see those outside corner pitches in his wheelhouse. While it was an effective decision that gave him more pitches to hit, this change was perhaps made possible by a highly publicized new diet and workout routine that left Bregman in better shape than ever before. This newfound strength is also apparent in a significant Max Exit Velocity increase from 105.6 MPH (9th percentile in the league) to 107.6 MPH (21st percentile). While still not an elite number, this increase in bat speed may have allowed him to fight off inside pitches despite moving closer to the plate. This approach adjustment was a combination of a strategic decision to find more more pitches to barrel as well physical changes that improved Bregman’s talent level and allowed him to be successful.
Moving forward into 2019, I would expect teams to challenge Bregman on the inside half more often. Despite an increase in Whiff% and a decrease in Exit Velocity on inside pitches this past season, teams actually pitched the third baseman less inside than they did in 2017. Perhaps pitchers did not feel comfortable throwing inside to a batter that crowded the plate so much, but it will be interesting to see if this trend continues into this upcoming season. The Astros remain the league premier player development organization, so I am sure as teams adjust to Bregman’s new approach, he will already be moving on to his next step forward.
Featured Photo: Keith Allison
All data courtesy of Baseball Savant and Fangraphs