After slow start, Bregman's talent shining through
Astros rookie has .328/.378/.629 line over past 30 days
By August Fagerstrom
Special to MLB.com |
While trolls and naysayers on Twitter were crying bust after Alex Bregman, the Astros' top prospect, began his Major League career by going 0-for-17 and 1-for-32, manager A.J. Hinch was moving him up to bat in the most important spot in his team's lineup: second. At the time, Hinch cited his contact rate and exit velocity as indicators that Bregman's at-bats were better than the results indicated.
Bregman has now become a fixture in the second position of Houston's batting order, starting there in each of the club's past 33 games. And over the past month, he's been among baseball's most productive hitters. While it may seem like there must have been a grand adjustment or a light bulb that went off, Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens dispelled that notion before a recent game in Cleveland, reinforcing Hinch's suggestion that Bregman was never actually struggling at all.
"The biggest thing is, he was having good at-bats and having tough luck, too," Hudgens said. "He was getting good at-bats. He just needed a couple hits to fall. His at-bats were good even when he was struggling."
Split Bregman's short career into two near-halves, and it's evident that Hinch and Hudgens aren't just blowing smoke -- the Bregman we saw his first three weeks really isn't all that different than the Bregman who has torn up the league over the past month.
Even when Bregman was struggling, he wasn't striking out much more or walking much less than he has been lately. His contact, chase and hard-hit rates have all improved incrementally, but all were right around or better than league average to begin with. It's just that the hits weren't falling early, and that poor fortune has more than overcorrected itself in the recent weeks. As is always the case, the real Bregman lies somewhere in the middle. His .394 Batting Average on Balls In Play over the past 22 games is just as unsustainable as the .224 figure over his first 19. (The Major League average is currently .300.)
Hinch said there's "not a lot different in the swing," and Bregman concurred that "not much" had changed, though he did cop to a "little bit of a hand-path tweak" around the three-week mark that coincided with his recent hot stretch, a small adjustment, but one that plays to his strengths, which include a short, efficient, compact swing without many moving parts. Hudgens says the tweak was done in an effort to get Bregman "a little shorter to the ball," something he does well naturally but had gotten away from upon his debut. The shorter path leads to an increased ability to turn on and elevate the inside pitch.
The area in which the most drastic change in that table above occurs is also the area of Bregman's game which has been most extreme so far, and that's his tendency to put the ball in the air. If there's been one defining characteristic of Bregman's game, more than the three-week cold stretch followed by a three-weak heater, it's been his reluctance to hit the ball on the ground, something Hudgens called "something we focus on organizationally."
"We don't want to get the ball on the ground," Bregman said. "Up here, that's an out. So we're trying to hit the ball on the line and in the air."
Thus far, 72 percent of Bregman's batted balls have been on the line or in the air. Among 415 batters who have stepped to the plate at least 100 times this season, Bregman's air-ball rate ranks in the 98th percentile; only six batters with at least 100 plate appearance have put the ball on the ground less often. Bregman's drastically increased power numbers -- he hit 20 homers in 368 Minor League plate appearances this year after hitting four in 311 plate appearances last year -- are directly correlated to the organization's effort to create more loft in his swing, something that was an area of focus for the 22-year-old in his first Spring Training this year.
"In college and high school, you're always taught to hit the ball on the ground and on a line. It's different up here," Bregman said. "If someone's going to throw me in, I'm not gong to try and hit a ground ball to third, you know? I'm going to try and hit it in the air. If someone's going to throw me away, I'm not going to try and hit a ground ball to second, I'm going to drive it to right-center."
While not an imposing physical specimen, the 6-foot-0, 180-pound Bregman's always been a strong kid, and he's always been a gap-to-gap hitter. Those attributes, combined with Bregman's natural direct path to the ball, led the Astros to believe he'd greatly benefit from hitting the ball in the air, and now their second overall pick from the 2015 Draft has 27 homers between his time in the Minors and Majors as one of the most extreme fly-ball hitters in the league.
While not as drastic a case as his teammate Jose Altuve, Bregman's showing that size doesn't necessarily matter when it comes to hitting for power -- an understanding of your approach and your swing does. Bregman understands his approach and his swing, just as he did in those first three weeks, when not much was different. When the process is sound, the non-adjustments can pay off, too.
A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.