With two outs and a man on base in the ninth inning Sunday, Alex Bregman grimaced after connecting on a Craig Kimbrel offering. He had just missed a game-tying homer, instead hitting a fly ball that fell into Andrew Benintendi’s glove on the warning track in front of the Green Monster for the final out. Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was over. The series was tied, and Fenway Park collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Even Bregman’s outs are increasing the heart rates of the opposition this October. Bregman became one of the best players in baseball during the season, and he’s elevated his game even further this postseason. Though in a small sample of just five postseason games, the 24-year-old has a .417/.708/1.000 slash line fueled by 10 walks (against one strikeout). He’s reached base in 18 of his 24 plate appearances this October.
Bregman’s batting eye — along with opponents’ unwillingness to give him much to hit — is making some history. According to Major League Baseball research, Bregman is just the first player to draw 10 walks through five games of a postseason since Dodgers outfielder Jim Wynn did it in 1974. The only player before Bregman to draw at least three walks in back-to-back postseason games was Cubs outfielder Jimmy Sheckard — in 1910.
Bregman, a spoil of tanking for the Houston Astros as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is getting something akin to the Barry Bonds treatment. Over his past three postseason games, the LSU product has drawn eight walks, matching Bonds in 2002 for the most by any hitter over a three-game span in postseason play.
Consider the pitches Bregman has seen this postseason and the restraint he has shown:
Bregman entered play Tuesday having been thrown 103 pitches this postseason (20.6 per game). Of those pitches, only 40 have been in the strike zone. Only J.D. Martinez, Yasiel Puig, Gleyber Torres and Christian Yelich have seen a smaller share of pitches in the strike zone than Bregman has.1
Of the 63 pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone, Bregman has swung at just six, the lowest chase rate among any postseason batter to have seen 50 pitches. Consider his take on this full-count pitch Sunday night, in the charged Fenway environment against hard-throwing Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier:
Bregman’s improved discipline is not just an October development: It’s what fueled his 2018 breakout.
Only Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen chased pitches out of the strike zone less often this season than did Bregman, who swung on just 18.1 percent of those pitches. Mookie Betts and Aaron Hicks ranked fourth and fifth.
Bregman has improved his batting eye since reaching the majors in 2016. He dropped his out-of-zone swing rate by 5.8 percentage points from last season. Yasmani Grandal, Ian Happ and Gregory Polanco were the only players to make greater year-to-year improvements in laying off of balls out of the strike zone.
“He’s having quite a season because of the preparation he’s doing, the lessons he’s learning, and the application in the game has been unreal,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told the Houston Chronicle in September.
While strikeouts continue to set record levels each year in the majors — from 21.6 percent of place appearances in 2017 to 22.3 percent in 2018 — the Astros posted the game’s lowest strikeout rate last season (17.3 percent) and the game’s highest slugging mark en route to a World Series title. This season, only the Cleveland Indians (18.9 percent) struck out less often than the Astros (19.5 percent).
Bregman embodies this teamwide trend. The infielder is not just more selective in terms of swinging at pitches in the zone; he’s also finding pitches he can pull and drive for power. In 2018, he recorded just the sixth season this century of at least 30 home runs and 50 doubles with fewer strikeouts than walks.
The Astros teach that a hitter should swing at a pitch only if he can conceivably drive it for an extra-base hit. Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens told The New York Times last summer: “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.”
Bregman has always hit more balls in the air than on the ground. He ranked fifth this season in total volume of line drives and fly balls with 334. But he also increased his pull rate, perhaps encouraged by the inviting proximity of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park to the right-handed batter’s box. His quick hands and short arms allow for a short bat path. And by crowding the plate, he’s able to cover the entire zone and pull outside pitches. His 24 home runs hit to the pull side (left field for Bregman) tie for sixth in the majors. This is all before getting to other aspects of his game like his defense at third base, which has looked exemplary so far this postseason, giving the Astros two shortstop-quality defenders on the left side of the infield.
The Astros didn’t know they needed another superstar, but they have one in Bregman, who is challenging Mike Trout and Mookie Betts for status as the best player in the American League. As the Astros battle for a World Series berth, Bregman might be the best player in baseball when it matters most.
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