By: Chris Larson
A few short weeks ago, we wrote on here about how Mike Trout was hands down the favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award, but after Trout was put on the shelf after he needed surgery on his right foot causing his season to be over immediately, the gap between Alex Bregman and Mike Trout closed. Yes, Mike Trout is certainly a terrific player by all accounts and very deserving of every award he gets, but Alex Bregman helped propel the Houston Astros to another dominating American League West championship and is proving that he can handle the big stage in the playoffs as well.
Focusing on the regular season, Mike Trout finished just ahead of Alex Bregman when it came to Wins Above Replacement, but the gap was certainly close. Trout ended up with a (8.6) WAR compared to Bregman's (8.5) and Trout finished ahead of Bregman in a couple of other categories as well. For instance, Mike Trout posted a (18.3%) walk rate during the regular season compared to Alex Bregman who finished the season with a (17.2%) walk rate and Trout had the higher Isolated Power (ISO) value at (.353) over 600 plate appearances compared to Bregman (.296) over the course of 690 plate appearances. Additionally, Mike Trout had a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) value of (180), which was 12 points higher than Bregman's (168), and had a higher Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) at (.436) compared to Bregman who finished the year with a wOBA of (.418).
However, when you take into consideration the regular season accomplishments of Alex Bregman, his role on the team, and the idea of what he continues to do during the month of October, it's easy to make a valid argument for him to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. For some voters, postseason statistics don't necessarily matter, but when you are trying to identify who the best player in the American League truly is, both regular season and postseason statistics should be taken into consideration and weighed heavily. After all, the Most Valuable Player should not only be the best player in the league, but the player that helped lead their team to the postseason and made significant contributions once their team was in the postseason.
For instance, take what Alex Bregman did today for the Houston Astros and apply it to the case he made for himself during the regular season. Bregman finished today's Game One of the American League Divisional Series against the Tampa Bay Rays with a double and 2 walks over the span of 4 at bats. It might not necessarily be the most impressive stat line in today's game considering that it didn't include a home run or an RBI, but it was the part of the game that each of those plays occurred that matters the most. For instance, Bregman's double came in the bottom of the 5th moving Michael Brantley over to third base before Yuli Gurriel reached on a fielding error by Rays second baseman, Brandon Lowe, causing Alex Bregman to score. That situation alone shows the type of impact that Alex Bregman has within the Houston Astros starting lineup and it's important to note that he was the Astros number four hitter. Not only does that indicate how deep the Astros lineup is as well as how talented all of their hitters are when healthy, it puts substance behind the level of play of Alex Bregman.
While Alex Bregman has only recorded 4 at bats so far this postseason, don't be surprised if he continues to make massive contributions every game whether they come at the plate or in the field at third base. Although it didn't happen during the postseason, Bregman was named the MVP of the 2018 MLB All-Star Game because of the contributions that he made during that game. The same thing could happen this postseason depending on what he ultimately ends up doing and the type of numbers that he puts up. After all, Bregman will have to face some difficult starting pitcher in Tampa Bay Rays starting pitchers, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton coming up and a bullpen that features plenty of different looks.
Over the course of the past two postseasons, Alex Bregman has put up a cumulative batting line of: .229/.353/.469 over 116 plate appearances with a walk rate of (13.8%), an Isolated Power value of (.240). and a Weighted Runs Created Plus value of (124). If you recall, during the 2017 postseason, when the Houston Astros were later crowned World Series Champions, Bregman finished that October with (15) hits, (3) doubles, (4) home runs, (10) RBI, (5) walks, and (10) strikeouts. During that October, the Houston Astros ended up facing the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, New York Yankees in the ALCS, and squared off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. All three of those teams had very good pitching staffs so it's not out of the question that Alex Bregman could end up having a repeat of that performance this October, depending on how deep the Houston Astros end up going.
Despite that though, against Tampa Bay Ray pitching this season, Alex Bregman put up a slash line of: .276/.276/.448 over the course of 29 plate appearances with (8) hits, (2) doubles, (1) home run, (2) RBI, (0) walks, and (5) strikeouts. However, in the seven games that the Houston Astros faced the Tampa Bay Rays, Bregman had a (17.2%) strikeout percentage and an Isolated Power value of (.172). Much of the contact, (50%) to be exact, made by Bregman in that series went to centerfield with the other (29.2%) being pulled down to right field and the remaining (20.8%) going to the opposite field.
With that being said, it's going to be interesting to see how Alex Bregman performs against tomorrow's starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, the aforementioned Blake Snell. During the 2019 regular season, Snell had a pitch repertoire that consisted of a mid-90's fastball, high-80's slider, low-80's curveball, and a mid-80's changeup. (No, that wasn't the year those four pitches were born either! Rather, they are the average exit velocities on each.) That's quite an impressive stable of pitches and the most dominant one outside of the fastball was the curveball which Blake Snell threw approximately (24.5%) of the time during the regular season.
Diving in deeper on how Alex Bregman hit against pitchers with curveballs, during the 2019 regular season, (233) of the pitches that Bregman saw were curveballs. Over the span of 47 plate appearances where those curveballs were thrown, Bregman recorded (11) hits, (2) doubles, (4) home runs, (7) RBI, and (10) strikeouts with a (.306) batting average and a (.426) on-base percentage. In terms of power, the average exit velocity on each of the curveballs that Alex Bregman hit ranged between (68.6) MPH and (95.9) MPH with the average sitting at (78.9) MPH. For more on where the curveballs that Alex Bregman saw were thrown in relation to the strike zone, refer to the chart below, courtesy of FanGraphs.
As you can see from the chart, which is based on a catcher's point of view and shows the percentage of where the curveballs are thrown with Bregman in the box, a lot of pitches were thrown in the lower half of the strike zone and mainly on the right side. For example, look at the far right-hand side of the strike zone on the fourth line down. Right there, is a sweet spot for Alex Bregman, who has received (4.1%) of the total curveballs that he's seen right there. What's fascinating about this is to see how the opposing team's pitchers attack Alex Bregman with their curveballs down low. For comparison's sake, look at the chart below too, which showcases the contact percentage for Alex Bregman against curveballs throughout the strike zone.
Based on this chart, take a look at that same square located on the fourth line down, all the way on the right-hand side of the strike zone. Remember, that was the sweet spot for Bregman and of the curveballs thrown in that area, he's made contact with approximately (97%) of them. Furthermore, down in the lower part of the strike zone, where opposing team's pitchers have focused on throwing their curveball with Bregman in the box, you can see the various contact percentages. For the most part, they are all over the map, but there are some high 90's located in various areas such as the square directly beneath the sweet spot and the third square over from the left on the bottom. In regard to the (100%) values shown in the upper part of the strike zone, don't necessarily take those as seriously because most of the curveballs Alex Bregman saw during the 2019 regular season, weren't thrown in that general vicinity.
In addition, against lefties in general during the regular season, Alex Bregman put up a slash line of: .350/.443/.742 with a (.325) BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play), a (.473) Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), and a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) value of (205). Among all other hitters in baseball, with at least 100 plate appearances against lefties, Bregman's (.350) batting average puts him tenth on the list, while his (.443) on-base percentage ranks sixth, and his slugging percentage of (.742) ranks third. Again, there's more proof of why Alex Bregman deserves serious consideration for the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the type of damage that he can do in the right scenario.
Looking ahead towards Game Three, which will feature Charlie Morton on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, it's going to be a bit more of a challenge. Against right-handed pitchers during the regular season, Alex Bregman put up a slash line of: .274/.415/.529 over 496 plate appearances with a (.263) BABIP, (.397) wOBA, and a wRC+ value of (154). As you can see, the on-base percentage against right-handers is a bit less, the overall slugging percentage is down almost (200) points, and he has a lower wRC+ value overall. However, once again, it's important to note what type of pitches Charlie Morton featured in his pitch repertoire this season.
Morton finished the year throwing his fastball (49.0%) of the time which is almost a ten-point drop from how often he threw it with the Houston Astros during the 2018 regular season (58.3%). In addition, he relied on his cutter more often (10.5%) of the time compared to (6.2%) with the Astros in 2018, while throwing his curveball much more often (37.3%) compared to (29.3%) in 2018. Besides those three pitches, Morton also features a mid-80's changeup which he is throwing almost fifty-percent less this year (3.2% of the time compared to 6.2% last season). Of those pitches besides the fastball, Charlie Morton has relied on his curveball the most and that could once again be music to Alex Bregman's ears.
However, for this portion of the discussion, we will focus on the fielding dynamics that the Tampa Bay Rays might employ based on the spray chart for Alex Bregman against right-handed pitchers. For more on that, once again refer to the chart below, courtesy of FanGraphs.
As is the case with any star-caliber player of Alex Bregman's level, the baseballs he hits are all over the field, but there's some interesting trends with this part of the data. For example, take a look at the black dots which accounted for home runs and where those ended up in regard to the rest of the playing field. Many of them were on the left side of the outfield with a few on the right side which makes sense for a right-handed hitter. Furthermore, there were plenty of fly balls and line drives that ended up all over the playing field. For comparison's sake, compare the chart above to the one below, which is a spray chart showing Alex Bregman's contact against left-handed hitters.
As you can quickly see, there's far fewer of everything overall and once again most of the balls put into play are sprayed to every part of the field. However, there's only one home run on the right side of the field this time with the rest being on the left and more of the batted balls are hit to the left side of the field compared to the right side. Again, it makes sense for a right-handed hitter, but it's going to be taken into consideration by the Tampa Bay Rays when determining how they will position their position players with Alex Bregman in the box.
In the American League Wild Card Game the other night, the Tampa Bay Rays deployed a four-man outfield for left-handed hitter, Matt Olson. You almost have to wonder if the Tampa Bay Rays will decide to do the same thing during certain times of this series especially when Alex Bregman is in the box against Charlie Morton. Depending on the score of the game at the time, the dynamics of the situation at hand, and the position players on the field, it is definitely possible. After all, the Tampa Bay Rays are a very analytically-driven organization and a lot of their ideas tend to be considered "out of the box" compared to what the rest of baseball might do in a similar type of situation.
Based on the data and metrics alone, you can almost guarantee that the Tampa Bay Rays will have some sort of shift put on when Alex Bregman steps up to the plate. According to data compiled by Baseball Savant, the Tampa Bay Rays made a total of (2,250) shifts during the 2019 regular season with (29.2% or 1,092) of them coming against right-handed hitters. If you were to rank that number with the rest of baseball, it would put the Rays third behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, two other playoff teams this season. Game Three will be played at Tropicana Field so take a look at the chart below to see where most of the Tampa Bay Rays shifts have taken place against right-handed hitters at The Trop this year.
Based on the data in this chart, the Rays tend to shift quite a bit at Tropicana Field and it's going to be fascinating to see how that ends up playing out when Alex Bregman is up at the plate. Bregman, who compiled (674) plate appearances over the span of the 2019 regular season, had the shift put on him approximately (215 times or 31.9% of the time) this year. When the Houston Astros played the Tampa Bay Rays, some of Bregman's contact came against the shift regardless of the pitch being thrown or the situation at hand. While the shifting dynamic of a game might not necessarily seem important to some diehard baseball fans or a casual fan, it's significant because during pre-game meetings, team's are constantly looking at this data as they try to formulate their game plan and attack on the opposing team's pitchers.
For both the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays, two analytically driven organizations, shifting is the life blood of what they do and the way that they play the game of baseball. Depending on the pitcher on the mound, will also depend on the number of shifts that a team employs during the course of a game as well. Although, with that being said, it's fair to point out that a majority of the time, shifts come against left-handed hitters which Alex Bregman isn't and that is why he might not have nearly as many shift as other lefties around the game such as: Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers who was shifted against (80.2%) of the time during the regular season or Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves who had the shift employed against him (65.6%) of the time.
Getting back to the original point of this article, Alex Bregman is a superstar and has certainly surpassed Mike Trout as the favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. When you take everything into consideration including overall work ethic, ability to lengthen out the Houston Astros lineup with massive contributions, and his ability to make contact against left-handed pitchers and against those famous curveballs (!), a valid argument can be established for Alex Bregman to be the front runner for the award. Furthermore, not only has he led the Houston Astros to a third consecutive postseason appearance, he has already made contributions for his team and could continue making many more depending on how deep the Houston Astros play this month and how Bregman performs against Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Alex Bregman might not be the most widely recognized face from coast to coast, but he has the swagger, confidence, and playing ability to be just that and a MLB marketing darling. This postseason will be another chance for Bregman to shine and convince the rest of baseball that he exhibits all of those qualities and more.