Alex Bregman: Real or Fake?

After consecutive seasons of great play, Alex Bregman has entered the discussion for one of the top position players in baseball. Bregman has developed in virtually every facet of the game over the past few years. This year he took it a step further and performed at an MVP level, finishing second in all of baseball with an 8.5 fWAR. Bregman’s pure talent and performance do not come as much of a surprise. He was a top prospect at the high school and college levels and was eventually drafted second overall in the 2015 MLB draft. Though Bregman has done well the past two seasons, there are still questions of whether he is due for some regression.

Bregman’s 2019 season was nothing short of impressive. In August, Mike Trout was running away with the AL MVP award; however, after an injury to Trout and a great September, Bregman entered a race that seemed to be over. Over the last two months of the season, Bregman was the hottest player on the planet. With a 4.2 fWAR, Bregman was one of two players with an fWAR above 2.7, the other being Marcus Semien at 3.5. Furthermore, Bregman slashed .372/.486/.750 over the last two months, leading the league in each of those categories. He had the fourth-highest walk rate, third-lowest strikeout rate, and hit for an unreal 222 wRC+.

While Alex Bregman has undoubtedly performed at an elite level the past two years, there are still aspects of his game that do not reflect this. Perhaps most interesting are the Statcast analytics from Baseball Savant. wOBA, weighted on-base average, measures a players’ hitting ability by weighting each outcome depending on its run value. It is on the same scale as OBP, so .400 is elite and .320 is average. xwOBA is a metric created by Baseball Savant that formulates a hitter’s expected wOBA using exit velocity, launch angle, and in some cases sprint speed. In 2018, Bregman had a wOBA of .396, fifth in all of baseball, and an xwOBA 25 points lower at .371. In 2019, the distance between his wOBA and xwOBA was even greater at 49 points. With an xwOBA and wOBA of .374 to .423, respectively, Bregman was tied for the third-highest gap in baseball this year.

bregman1 Table 1: Bregman’s wOBA and xwOBA depending on hit type                    Table 2: Bregman’s wOBA and xwOBA depending on                                                                                                                                                                                       hit direction

Curious as to why Bregman has such a large difference between expected and actual metrics, I downloaded all of his 2019 data from Baseball Savant. Table 1 compares the difference between Bregman’s xwOBA and wOBA on different batted ball types. The difference on ground balls and line drives was fairly minor, but on fly balls, the difference was a massive 241 points. Typically, line drives are by far the most effective type of hit; however, Bregman’s wOBA on line drives and fly balls are very similar, .609 and .607 respectively.

Table 2 displays how the direction of the ball affects his xwOBA and wOBA. Bregman’s xwOBA was higher on balls hit straight and lower on balls hit to the sides of the field, which makes canonical sense. Center field is the deepest part of the field, so a ball hit 390 feet to center is an easy catch, while a ball hit that distance to left or right would be a home run. The .170 difference on pulled balls is much greater than I expected, so I looked into it even more.

bregman2Table 3: wOBA and xwOBA on pulled balls vs. hit type

Table 3 is very similar to the data in Table 1; however, it only includes data from balls that were pulled to left field. The major outlier, in this case, came from fly balls. Out of the 56 pulled fly balls, 34 were extra-base hits, including 26 home runs. Including line drives, Bregman pulled a total of 31 home runs, which was tied for the most among right-handed hitters in baseball. In 2019, right-handed hitters pulled 53% of home runs, while Bregman pulled 75% of his. Nolan Arenado was the other hitter who pulled 31 home runs and similar to Bregman, Arenado’s xwOBA and wOBA were wildly different. A few other hitters with a large difference suffered a similar fate, such as Ketel Marte and Tim Anderson. One of the biggest drawbacks of xwOBA is the lack of hit direction implemented into the formula.

Beyond xwOBA, some of Bregman’s other Statcast metrics were average. In 2019, he was in the 54th percentile for average exit velocity and 41st for hard-hit rate. Most surprisingly, out of 175 hitters with at least 300 batted balls, Bregman ranked sixth to last in home run distance. When he hits the ball, he does not hit it powerfully, like many other great hitters, Bregman instead hits the ball where he needs to. This can be attributed to his superb launch angle. At 19.6 degrees, Bregman has done a great job hitting the ball up and over the infield. The inter-quartile range of Bregman’s launch angle is between 2.5 degrees and 37.5 degrees, meaning he is giving himself a very good chance to get on base over 50% of the time. Bregman’s effectiveness of hitting the ball up in the air gives him the ability to make up for his lack of power and exit velocity.

Arguably, the most impressive part of Bregman’s game is his plate discipline. In 2019, Bregman led baseball with a 1.43 walk to strikeout ratio, having 119 walks and 83 strikeouts. Second place in this category was Carlos Santana at 1, the difference between Bregman in first and Santana second was the same as the distance between Santana and 35th place Yuli Gurriel. When it came to acquiring walks and avoiding strikeouts, no one came close to Bregman because of his patience and ability to make contact.

The combination of contact and patience made Bregman a fearsome hitter at the plate. Compared to the average, Bregman’s plate discipline metrics were exceptional. Bregman swung at only 19% of pitches outside the zone, the best rate among qualified hitters. Of those swings, Bregman made contact on 77% of them, which was in the top ten of hitters. His 4.6% swinging strike rate was the third lowest in all of baseball. Bregman was able to work the count by rarely swinging at pitches outside the zone and making contact on most of his swings. This enabled him to work walks at a higher rate than other hitters and avoid strikeouts at the same time.

Even though I was skeptical at first, after delving deeper into Bregman’s data, I believe he contains exceptional plate discipline and hitting skills. His knack for swinging at good pitches and making reliable contact is elite and could be consistent in future seasons. Similarly, his ability to hit the ball effectively, without relying on power, is impressive. There are drawbacks to this approach and Bregman could see some regression in the near future on his batted balls. Overall, I believe Alex Bregman is a fantastic player and is developing into the hitter the Astros were expecting when they drafted him in 2015.

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